Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Bleachers' Brew #194 Forth and Inches

Forth and Inches

by rick olivares

One Mississippi

When I first read an excerpt from Michael Lewis’ book, The Blind Side, in the pages of the New York Times in 2006, I knew right away that it had movie adaptation written all over it.

The Ballad of Big Mike,” as it was titled in the New York Times, was not a story of redemption, realization, or triumph over almost impossible odds. And it was most certainly more than a simple plot of a person coming out of nowhere to become a success story. I’d say it’s pretty much like H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights where there are no heroes and villains; only people who just go about their lives trying to make the best out of a bad situation. There was uncanny depth to the story; heart if you will. Essentially, it’s a long and tedious process in the shaping of a person from a tabula rasa into someone who is now a professional athlete. Only the shaping works both ways.

Michael Oher wasn’t the only one whose life was changed. It was also his surrogate family of Sean and Leigh Anne Touhy as well as his teachers and tutors Jennifer Graves and Sue Mitchell among others. And perhaps, as Lewis postulated, Oher was the latest version of the Bears’ Orlando Pace to play Left Tackle, a position so critical in protecting the blind side of the quarterback ever since the New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor took out the Washington Redskins’ Joe Theismann in November 1985.

The Left Tackle, argues Lewis, is the second most important player on the team, and whose role is to primarily protect the Quarterback from blitzing linebackers. And 2005, the Left Tackle has become the second highest paid player on the team. Right behind the QB. That’s how important he’s become.

Two Mississippi.

A long time ago, my parents sat me in their room to watch Brian’s Song on television. All my pop told me was that it was a true story about two members of the Chicago Bears. What he neglected to say was that it was a tearjerker that had me crying buckets after. Brian’s Song starred James Caan who played Brian Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams who played Gale Sayers, both of whom were running backs for the Bears. Piccolo was white while Sayers was black and this was at a time when there when racial tensions were still headline news and Vietnam was the quagmire that would precede Afghanistan and Iraq. Piccolo succumbed to cancer at an early age but it is his friendship with Sayers not only helped tear down barriers but also forced a downpour from many a tear duct.

Into my adult life, I noticed how many of my favorite sports films – Jerry Maguire, Friday Night Lights, and Remember the Titans, We Are Marshall, Rudy, Radio, Any Given Sunday, and Gridiron Gang -- featured stories revolving around the game of American Football.

Sure there were cool films about other sports and who didn’t want to be like Robby Benson in One On One or even fly like Julius Erving in Pisces? I thought that Paul Newman was the epitome of cool when I saw Slapshot and that the Hanson Brothers’ penchant for mayhem was the precursor for the anti-hero. There was Escape to Victory that featured Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, and the great Pele that depicted the power of football to affect the world.

Except that those three aforementioned non-American football films were works of fiction. And save for Jerry Maguire and Any Given Sunday, all are real life stories.

So what is it about the game that makes for such interesting storytelling and is the subject of many a Hollywood film?

The game is about turf and marching down another’s territory while pushing him back to score as many points as one can in order to be victorious. It is a very masculine metaphor for war and conquering another. In fact, the coaches are like generals with the players as the grunts who do the fighting. And when you think of the brutes lined up in front of a player trying to pummel him or shove his nose to the dirt, it’s a stark reminder of huge obstacles that are oft in the way of one’s goal.

The game is the most blue collar of sports and probably more than any other is the ultimate in team sport competition. A great quarterback can only achieve his feats if he has a good offensive line and terrific receivers or running backs. At any given time, everyone is functioning and the play’s success hinges on everyone doing their job. Someone misses a tackle and the QB could be sacked. And under pressure, his pass could lead to an incompletion or interception.

But the more compelling argument are the characters who deal with racism, hardship, poverty, the pressure of continuing a legacy, are handicapped, or are plain joes like you and me except that they play football for a living.

As it was so eloquently put in the film “Any Given Sunday,” the game much like life, is a contact sport and a game of inches.

American Football is a spectacle (the Super Bowl is broadcast to over 150 countries) and many of its nuances and aspects have found their way into modern lingo, idiomatic expressions, and pop culture – touchdowns, cheerleaders, quarterbacks, fumbles, stalling for time, going all the way, punt, field goals, zebras, game plan, and flag on the play among others.

And NFL Films forever changed the way documentaries and sports telecasts are done with their flair for drama and portraying matches as a matter of life, death, and honor.

Three Mississippi.

My Top 10 American Football Films:

1. Remember the Titans

2. The Blind Side

3. We Are Marshall

4. Jerry Maguire

5. Friday Night Lights

6. Rudy

7. Radio

8. Any Given Sunday

9. Brian’s Song

10. Gridiron Gang

North Dallas Forty is my Honorable Mention here.

Four Mississippi.

As I saw the film version of The Blind Side, I came away thinking that it was a great adaptation that was faithful to Lewis’ work yet tweaked a bit here and there. I’ve never been a huge fan of Sandra Bullock but she was every bit deserving of her Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Touhy. Like Jerry Maguire, the film, as directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie starring Dennis Quaid), disarms you of any preconceived notions about sports films and their formulas. It doesn’t weigh you down too much nor does it appear overly sappy because of its excellent mix of self-effacing humor and tension over obstacles in everyone’s way.

Bullock isn’t the only one who delivers a masterful performance. Quinton Aaron, in his first ever lead role, captures Oher perfectly and is a sympathetic character. And Tim McGraw as Sean Touhy, Leigh Anne’s husband and Kathy Bates as tutor Sue Mitchell both give excellent supporting performances.

A movie can be said to be truly good if it lives up to the book if it is not better. And a movie can only feature so much in the space of a 90 minutes so obviously the director and the script writers have to trim it down and tweak certain scenes because movies are altogether a different milieu.

The Blind Side accomplishes all that and more. And I’d say that the movie is a touchdown.

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