The Streak lasted for more than a decade, from 1992 until 2003.
Under the steady, disciplined and principled leadership of coach Bob Ladouceur, the football team at De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., won 151 consecutive games. It was the longest winning streak by any sports team at any level in American history.
But no matter how disciplined and talented, no team wins forever. And when the Streak came crashing to an end during the first game of De La Salle’s 2004 season, Coach Lad (as his players call him) was right there to reinforce a timeless lesson: It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.
When the Game Stands Tall (based on the book by Neil Hayes) chronicles the De La Salle Spartans’ real-life journey from the heights of triumph to the depths of defeat. But it doesn’t stop there, as it expounds on the life lessons a caring coach taught a group of gritty gridiron kids along the way.
As the film opens, the Spartans are on the brink of their 12th championship. After winning it handily, key players and best friends Cam Colvin and T.K. Kelly encourage the juniors on the team to step up into leadership even as the departing seniors entertain offers from Division 1 college teams. Cam himself, though, is barely hanging on, having recently lost his father, facing the possibility of losing his mother too, and wondering how he’s going to care for his little brother, Jamal. T.K. and Coach Lad push him to persevere, and Cam does exactly that. Further, with both Cam and T.K., we see how football (and the friendships and discipline required to play it well) is key to helping them escape troubled inner-city backgrounds.
The juniors who receive the mantle—and the responsibility—of the Streak face a variety of obstacles. Hotshot wide receiver and cornerback (some team members play offense and defense) Tayshon Lanear is more focused on personal glory than team unity, and he has a lot to learn about keeping his ego in check. Star running back Chris Ryan is on the verge of setting the state touchdown record, but he has to cope with an abusive father spurring him on as the man lives vicariously through his son. Danny Ladouceur struggles with being the coach’s son. Danny’s a talented receiver who keeps dropping easy passes. But he also struggles with wanting more of his dad’s attention off the field.
It’s when Coach Lad has a heart attack and nearly dies that he realizes he has indeed sacrificed his family for football. And when his doctor forbids him to coach as he recovers, he recommits to being a good father … right before his son’s senior season. For Danny, it’s not enough. All these years when I needed a father, I only had a coach, he says. “Now I need a coach, and all I’ve got is a lame dad.” Together, though, father and son strive to work through this difficult role-shifting dynamic. To a lesser extent, we see Bob and his wife, Bev, work through the reality that 25 years of coaching has taken a toll on their marriage.
Before the Spartans’ 12th championship, a reporter asks Coach Lad how he feels about his team’s winning record. His two-sentence response encapsulates his entire ethos: “Winning a lot of football games is doable. Teaching kids there’s more to life? That’s hard.”
For Bob Ladouceur, who is a Christian, coaching and teaching at this all-boys Catholic academy in Northern California, football is a means to an end: preparing young men to be dependable, reliable contributors to their friends, family and community once their football days are over. With the help of assistant coach Terry Eidson, Coach Lad reinforces a list of virtues at every practice, in every game: commitment, compassion, brotherhood, grace and faith. “We’re not asking you to be perfect on every play,” he tells his team as they evaluate how well they’ve accomplished their weekly performance goals. “We’re asking you to give a perfect effort from snap to whistle.” For this coach, then, the goal is always giving your best, on the field, of course, but especially in life. As for brotherhood, Coach Lad says it’s “based in love—and love means you can count on me in good times and bad.”
After the team’s first big misstep in 152 games, Both Coach Lad and Coach Eidson try to put the heartbreaking loss in perspective. “Don’t let a game define who you are,” Eidson tells the boys. “Let the way you live do that.” Coach Lad challenges the entitlement mindset in his players, telling them that they want “a ring and a throne” without earning the victories that bequeath those honors.
After two consecutive losses, the team begins steamrolling opponents again, prompting fans to resurrect talk of a new streak. Coach Lad resists, even as some of his players succumb to the idea. In the end, there’s still more for them to learn about teamwork and what matters most. By the closing credits, the Spartans see that hard work, teamwork and sacrifice really do matter more than winning championships, with one player in particular making a sacrificial gesture during a key game that demonstrates he’s learned Coach Lad’s lessons.
When a Spartan is murdered, the team is forced to come together to evaluate what matters most in life. Coach Lad says at one point, “Family isn’t just blood relatives, it’s anyone who loves you unconditionally.” To further give them perspective, the coach organizes a trip to the local Veterans Administration hospital, where they meet and talk to wounded soldiers going through rehab after losing limbs. It’s a sobering, inspiring moment for the team. When Tayshon tells one amputee he’s lucky he got out, the soldier replies that he would go back into combat for his fellow soldiers in a second and says that on the battlefield, brotherhood and solidarity with fellow soldiers is all that matters.
A devout Catholic, Bob Ladouceur leads his team in the Lord’s Prayer before games. Several scenes incorporate specific passages of Scripture. “James 4:10” is seen on someone’s gravestone. And we hear Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you. With the measure you use, it will be measured against you.” When Bob asks his guys (in class) what the verse means, one says that it means you reap what you sow.
Tayshon, however, doesn’t buy it, saying that his aunt was a good Christian woman who still struggled mightily. In contrast, Cam says he’s keeping the faith despite his father’s death and mother’s health problems. In private, though, we see Cam questioning his faith and struggling to hold on as his difficulties mount, especially when his close friend is murdered.
At the funeral for that player, Coach Lad says, “People always ask me what it’s like to never lose. Today I am lost.” He goes on to say, “Lord, I am struggling. I want to understand why.” He says it’s not his place to question God’s benevolent judgment, then concludes, “For reasons we are not privy to, God wanted [him] home.”
Coach Lad confronts Chris Ryan’s narcissistic father, who wants his son to get the touchdown record at all costs. The coach tells the father about a paper Chris wrote on Matthew 23:12, which reads, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Mr. Ryan can’t comprehend why anyone would willingly humble themselves, but it’s clear later that Chris has taken that message to heart.
Chris kisses his girlfriend. Tayshon suggestively says to a teammate, Beaser, about the guy’s girlfriend, “Tell me that you’re jumping all over that!” to which Beaser replies, “No. We’re waiting.” He goes on to say that they both took a purity pledge. Tayshon mocks his friend’s abstinence, joking, “What’s the name of the cult you’re in?” Beaser earnestly tells him he goes to a Baptist church.
Bob and his wife affectionately kiss and are shown in bed together (with Bev wearing a conservative nightgown).
Almost shockingly loud, wince-inducing, crunching hits on the gridiron fill the movie and bruise up the players. An on-field fight escalates briefly before being broken up by referees. Two teammates get into a scuffle.
The murdered Spartan is shot in his car as he waits to give a friend a ride. We hear four gunshots and see his body on the ground.
Chris’ father repeatedly grabs him and manhandles him, even punching him in the stomach once. At the VA hospital, we see scores of soldiers who had lost limbs and been deformed by the war wounds they’d suffered.
Three or four exclamations of “oh my god” and at least one “jeez.” “What the …” trails off and isn’t finished, as does “You can kiss my …” Several players jokingly refer to others as “hos.”
We see (from the outside) a wild party where young people are clearly drinking (though none of the main characters actively participate). On the phone, a player asks somebody at the party, “You high, dawg?”
Coach Lad is shown smoking; immediately after lighting up, however, he has a heart attack, with the filmmakers obviously suggesting that his bad habit has contributed to that medical emergency. (Several of the coach’s students are shocked to find out he’s had a hidden smoking habit.)
While the guys are at the VA hospital, the movie makes a bit of a joke out of a player spilling a bag of urine on himself.
I’m going to cut to the touchdown pass here: If you’re looking for an entertaining, inspiring and engaging sports movie, When the Game Stands Tall certainly competes in that category.
And it’s even a notch above many other sports movies in the way that it’s not just about teamwork and sacrifice on the way to victory. It’s not just about overcoming big obstacles on the field. Those Rocky-esque elements are in there, of course. But, more significantly, we also witness a coach’s deep conviction that the football field is the perfect training ground for shaping young men of character, conviction and faith who will then be better prepared to make a deep, positive impact on others wherever they go—on or off the field. It’s Bob Ladouceur’s determination to nurture character that makes his teams so good, more than his considerable skill as a football coach.
From the first snap, then, When the Game Stands Tall offers a powerful reminder of what the best kind of coach looks like in action. He’s not perfect, of course. But we see Coach Lad nevertheless striving to give the very thing he charges his team to give: a perfect effort. And you might say the same for this film. It’s not perfect. But the effort it gives is gridiron worthy.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.