Travis Freeman caught everything.
You could see it even in Pee Wee football. “Go long,” Jerry Baker would tell him, and he did—as long and far as Jerry could throw. The ball would rainbow into Travis’ arms and never touch ground ’til spiked in the end zone.
Week after week and year after year, Jerry would toss that ball and Travis would catch it—until both wound up as part of the local high school team, the beloved Redhounds of Corbin, Ky. Travis, a gifted leader, caught most of the accolades. Jerry, an indifferent student at best, just threw himself into trouble. Oh, and Travis caught the girl, too—a pretty cheerleader perpetually flanked by her giggling friends.
But then Travis caught something else: bacterial meningitis. It began as a simple headache and then, the next morning, his eyes were almost swollen shut. At the hospital, he was treated with a battery of antibiotics and, finally, whisked into surgery. But it was too late: The infection had obliterated his eyesight. Travis was blind.
“You’re gonna be fine, all right?” Jerry tells him. “You’re Travis Freeman!” But the guy who caught everything missed that message at first. He’d gone dark in every way he could. He’d lost the life he knew and the game he loved. His cheerleader girlfriend didn’t even visit.
Slowly, Travis comes to grip with his new reality, fumbling forward step by step. He goes back to school and then starts showing up at football practice again, maybe just to hear Coach Farris yell. Shouting, Travis explains to friend Ashley, is just Coach’s way of expressing affection.
“Sounds like he really likes the whole team,” Ashley says.
But when Farris visits Travis later, he’s not shouting: He quietly makes a suggestion.
“I think you should play,” he tells Travis.
“Play?” Travis asks. “Play what?”
“Football,” Farris tells him.
It’s a ludicrous suggestion. Borderline insane. No matter that Farris wants Travis to be a center, where all he’ll have to do is block. Travis still needs to see who he’s blocking.
But as Travis contemplates this preposterous proposal, he catches something again: hope.
Before he goes blind, Travis was the Mary Poppins of the Kentucky gridiron: practically perfect in every way. He aced his classes, worked hard in practice and was a dutiful son. He was both the Redhounds’ best player and its inspirational leader—so good at seemingly everything that it sometimes made Jerry a little jealous.
After the infection, Travis goes even further than that, showing the courage and resiliency that true leadership must include. After some resistance, he accepts tutelage from mobility coach Patty, who teaches him how to adjust to his new condition. He leans on his friends more. He works hard to become as able-bodied as he can. And when Farris asks him to rejoin the football team, Travis accepts—quite literally willing himself to succeed through hard work and unflagging optimism.
But troublemaker Jerry’s role in Travis’ comeback may be just as inspirational (if also more flawed). Instead of shirking responsibility like he normally does, Jerry accepts some for once. When Travis first goes blind, it’s Jerry who first makes the guy laugh again. When Travis goes back to school, it’s Jerry who walks him to class (and keeps people from staring too much). When Travis gets back on the field, it’s Jerry who helps him get through the practices and takes him out for special sessions to get him back up to speed. For years, Travis has been picking up Jerry’s slack. Now Jerry has a chance to pay him back.
Of course it’s not always easy being sidekick to Corbin’s Golden Boy. Jerry gets jealous and even angry, as many of us would. But a good friendship can overcome those sorts of bumps. And these guys are really and truly friends when friendship matters most.
Travis gets help and a lot of tough love from others along the way. His parents are always encouraging (if somewhat passive). Ashley gets the guy out of a funk when Travis is feeling particularly mopey. Coach Farris shows his support both on and off the field, and Patty kicks Travis in the rear (metaphorically speaking) to get him living again.
Travis is a Christian. We see him kiss his cross necklace before games and wear it into the hospital. When his blindness sorely tests his faith, we see him tear the cross off his neck and fling it across the room. His mother retrieves it and, when he enters the locker room for his first post-sight game, he finds it hanging in his locker. He puts it on and kisses it, just like old times.
During a game, Travis remembers part of Psalm 27:1: “Whom shall I fear?” (The whole verse hints at where Travis’ strength comes from: “The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?”)
In a dream sequence, Travis and his parents are in a church. We hear traditional Christian music and see congregants sit and listen—many of them bored children. A pastor preaches about how we should deal with life’s adversity.
When Ashley comes by to cheer a reclusive Travis up, she encourages him to change his smelly shirt. He asks her to help him, and when the shirt’s off, it’s clear that she’s admiring the guy’s chiseled physique. With a fresh shirt finally on the young man, the two sit near each other awkwardly, as if contemplating a kiss. (They’re interrupted.) Ashley plays the role of quarterback during a training session, putting her hands under Travis’ rear—startling him. Later, the two slow dance as they just as slowly become an item. We see Ashley passionately kiss him as his teammates hoot and offer suggestive comments. (We hear, “Get some.”) When Ashley completes the kiss, Travis pauses for a beat. “Jerry?” he says, joking.
Much earlier, Travis also kisses his previous girlfriend, and her friends ogle his rear as he walks away. Girls and women sometimes wear cleavage-revealing tops.
Hard hits and smashing tackles are, of course, the rule on the football field. One tackle breaks a guy’s leg. When Travis is asked to be center, a teammate tries to make him look bad, stepping away from Travis’ block and sending the blind player crashing into the dirt. Jerry responds to the insult by threatening to take the guy’s head off.
We hear “d–n” at least four times and “h—” twice. Also, “jeez.”
Jerry drinks quite a lot. We see him blotto at a high school party where most attendees have red cups in their hands. (It’s notable that Travis is sipping bottled water.) Jerry also takes a swig of moonshine from a Mason jar. When he goes out to help Travis get back into the swing of things on the field, he brings a six-pack along. “No beer tonight,” Ashley tells Jerry. “This is about him.” Jerry sighs, “It’s always about him,” but he puts the beer away. When Travis and Jerry have a near break in their friendship, Travis finds Jerry sitting, shirtless, in the back of his truck, popping open beer bottles.
We sometimes see smoking in the stands.
Jerry tells Travis that Mr. Duncan, the athletic director, has had it out for him since fifth grade, when he thought Jerry was cheating. When Travis reminds Jerry that he was cheating—copying Travis’ homework—Jerry says, “That’s friends. That don’t count.” Jerry lets Travis (after he’s blind) drive his truck in a not-completely-empty parking lot. Jerry jokes that Travis shouldn’t “fart” if the QB is standing behind him.
23 Blast is based on a true story. The real Travis Freeman went on to become a pastor (appearing in the movie as the preacher in the dream sequence). While the movie’s Travis struggles with his faith after becoming blind, the real Travis says he faced no such crisis. “My parents have always said that when I heard I wouldn’t see again, that I looked at them and said, ‘I believe I will see again, but if I don’t, I can’t wait to see what God’s going to do with this,'” Freeman told The Christian Post.
I don’t know that most of us would be able to relinquish our sighted hopes and dreams so quickly. No matter how many times we may hear, or even say ourselves, that “the rain falls on the just and the unjust,” we often believe, deep down in our souls, that God somehow owes good Christians a good life.
And that may be why the movie’s makers tinkered a bit with the story in this area. Because the fictionalized Travis Freeman might feel more real to us than the real one. We understand his anger and grief. We sympathize when he locks himself in his bedroom. When he feels like life is unfair. When he wonders whether it will ever be meaningful for him again.
Coach Farris admits to his team that he doesn’t know why good people go through the trials they do. It’s a question that hangs over the movie, unexplained. And it hangs over life, unexplained. It is, of course, unexplainable.
But Freeman, in the guise of the church pastor, personally addresses Travis—exhorting him to not ask why as much as what next. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, instead of dreaming about what could’ve been, the preacher says, “Ask yourself, Who are you?”
Pushed around at the line of scrimmage by a bit of drinking and profanity, 23 Blast shows us that Travis finally wakes up and catches the vision Jerry tried to throw him earlier. “I’m Travis Freeman!” he shouts to his parents. “I’m going to play football!”
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.