America isn’t short on films that portray gridiron football. Not only is the sport one of the nation’s beloved pastimes, but it’s also closely tied to culture.
In places like the Deep South and the Midwest, football is celebrated because it teaches discipline and perseverance. Some even view it as an investment. For those talented enough to attract a scholarship, a collegiate football career is worth thousands in tuition and results in higher education opportunities.
However, most American films that dip into the world of football tend to focus on massive underdog stories. While everyone, from fans to punters to analysts, loves an underdog, these stories are far and few between in the real world of the NFL and the NCAAF.
For those looking to take a more focused dive into the world of American football, narrative movies like The Longest Yard or The Blind Side won’t do the rough and tumble world of shoulder pads and playbooks justice.
While fun and heartwarming, any true gridiron fan knows these aren’t the qualities that make a star athlete. Keep reading to take a deeper look into the world of the NFL and NCAAF through the lens of three unique documentaries that show what it takes to make it in the world of football.
America’s Game: Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2012)
This documentary was produced under ESPN’s popular America’s Game series. This series focuses on famous Super Bowl stories from some of the most beloved franchises across the nation.
In this iteration of America’s Game, Warren Sapp and John Lynch give exclusive details on the Buccaneers 2002 Super Bowl victory. Current NFL betting odds on Oddschecker favor the Saints to win their kickoff match against the Buccaneers, but the 2002 Tampa Bay squad is known for a shocking and momentous season that ended with a Super Bowl title.
What made the team great was defense, but what makes this America’s Game doc special for a non-sports lover is the key insights. On the outside, the NFL seems like a corporation crossed with a battle royale. On the inside, there’s heart, depth, and an unbelievable amount of strategy at play.
America’s Game: Tampa Bay Buccaneers does an astute job of weaving together the inner cogs of the NFL, the ultimate force of passion that drives a team to win, and the individual players and staff that have the vision and discipline to make sure that dream is carried through.
The U (2009)
This documentary was created by a Miami-based media studio known as Rakontur. The project gained steam after it was premiered on ESPN in late 2009. The U covers the story of the University of Miami football program in the 1980s.
The documentary provides an engaging summary of the Miami Hurricane’s NCAAF strategy when it came to recruiting players to join the squad. This nitty-gritty look showcases head coach Howard Schnellenberger’s game plan to revitalize the lagging Hurricanes squad by bringing on talent from all of Miami’s neighborhoods.
The U has a sociological bend that allows fans and non-sports lovers to understand how a game can unite groups and give them an edge. While there’s a strong emphasis on race in this documentary, it’s also about the shifting dynamics throughout Miami as a whole.
Like other great football documentaries, The U bridges personal growth, community growth, bravery, and the sport of football in an inspiring and stark tale.
The Best That Never Was (2010)
Largely considered one of the best sports documentaries since 2000, The Best That Never Was focuses on the life and missteps of infamous football player Marcus Dupree.
In 1981, the young running back was the center of a multi-university race to sign the budding star to their football program. What follows is a heart-wrenching look at the trials and tribulations of one of the NCAAF’s most talented recruits in history.
What makes The Best That Never Was a truly unforgettable tale is the subject himself. Documentaries like The U and America’s Game highlight the inner dynamics of the football world and its potential to transform the outer world through a collective goal.
However, The Best That Never Was focuses solely on one man’s rollercoaster ride in that world. Injuries, riches, broken records, transfers, a comeback, and a stint with pro wrestling showcase how challenging it can be to navigate the glamorous yet cutthroat world of sports celebrity.
While those interested in football are likely already aware of this documentary, others who are new to the sport will appreciate the human vulnerability apparent in Marcus Dupree. Much like The U, there is a strong element of social change and racial dynamics present in this work, which succinctly shows the cultural ties and significance the sport has in America.
New Directions: The Last Dance (2020)
Netflix recently released The Last Dance, which was subsequently showed as a miniseries on ESPN Films, who helped fund and produce the project. The documentary covers the rise of the Chicago Bulls NBA franchise during the 1980s.
However, in addition to the Bulls squad and the franchise as a whole, the documentary takes an intimate look at the life and career of both Michael Jordan and Scotty Pippen. The documentary uses never-before-seen footage to depict what was really happening during the momentous years of Bulls basketball.
Since its release, The Last Dance has smashed ESPN ratings. It’s currently the most-watched telecast among adults between the ages of 18 and 34. While some speculate that The Last Dance was released at a lucky time when fans had no other sports content to watch, the documentary has also received critical acclaim.
Many football fans would love to see an iteration of the Netflix-ESPN partnership take on a story like The Last Dance. While there’s the recently-released documentary Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, there’s not nearly enough football involved to qualify it as a sports documentary.
NFL fans would prefer to see another dynasty deconstructed just like Jordan and Pippen’s was. So far, nominations include the 1964 Baltimore Colts, the 1978 Dallas Cowboys, the 1997 San Francisco 49ers, or the 2010 Pittsburgh Steelers.