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Has there ever been a great football movie?

By Mike Downey
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
In the new movie "Draft Day," Kevin Costner stars as an NFL general manager with a lot on his mind. Click through to see some other football-related movies through the years. In the new movie "Draft Day," Kevin Costner stars as an NFL general manager with a lot on his mind. Click through to see some other football-related movies through the years.
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Football, Hollywood-style
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new football movie, "Draft Day," is opening, starring Kevin Costner
  • Mike Downey: Has there ever been a great football movie?
  • Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, most of them forgettable
  • He says there are a few standouts, including "Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29"

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune columnist who writes frequently for CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- I count 105 football movies on Wikipedia's "list of sports films."

There is a 1998 one called "The Garbage Picking Field Goal Kicking Philadelphia Phenomenon," a title I know nothing about, except that it obviously had no use for commas or hyphens.

There is a silent one, 1925's "The Freshman," about a milquetoast whose teammates use him in practice as a tackling dummy.

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

There is a 1976 one called "Gus," about a mule who kicks field goals.

(Not a true story, I believe.)

The 105th (chronologically) on this list is "Draft Day," a tale of a fictional NFL executive -- he is played by Kevin Costner, king of sports cinema -- that opens Friday at a theater near you. From the trailer I have seen, it looks pretty good.

Movie Pass: Draft Day
'Rudy' talks football, movie's impact

Raising the question:

Has there ever been a GREAT football movie?

I mean truly great, not just good. A masterpiece. A film you seriously could rank among your 100 best of all time.

All right, all right, all right, as Matthew McConaughey would say, let's take a look at some of those 105 movies on this here list.

("American football" is the category, which is just to let our CNN friends in Asia, Europe and South America know that you can go look for YOUR favorite football films under the category "soccer.")

OK, for openers, what does and doesn't qualify as a football film?

For example, "Silver Linings Playbook" (2012) is not, even though its title sure does sound like one. Football gets talked about a lot, but a football movie, it is not.

"M*A*S*H" (1970) also is not, even though it ends with a football game. The movie itself had nothing to do with football.

"Horse Feathers" (1932) ends with a game. It makes the list, if only because Professor Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) wants to know: "Have we got a college? Have we got a football team? Well, we can't afford both. Tomorrow we start tearing down the college!"

There are two versions of "The Longest Yard" (1974 and 2005), two of "Brian's Song" (1971 and 2001), two about legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant (1984 and 2002), one of which has Bear played by the somewhat less legendary Gary Busey.

There are "true" stories about Knute Rockne, Tom Harmon, Frankie Albert, Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, Rocky Bleier, Ernie Davis, Ernie Nevers and more, some of which contain scenes that are actually factual.

In "Invincible" (2006), a bartender (played by Mark Wahlberg) named Vince (as in invincible) gets to play for the Philadelphia Eagles. It really happened. In "Paper Lion" (1968), the writer George Plimpton (played by Alan Alda) gets to play for the Detroit Lions. It sort of happened. It was actually in a team scrimmage, not in an NFL exhibition game, as in the film.

There is 1993's "Rudy," about a small dude (played by Sean Astin) who gets to play with a Notre Dame team made up mainly of big dudes. There is 1981's "Grambling's White Tiger," in which a white dude (played by master thespian Bruce Jenner) gets to play with a college team made up mainly of black dudes.

A couple star Dennis Quaid. A couple star the Rock. I like both these actors, although both would have been badly miscast playing Rudy.

A couple star Burt Reynolds, who actually played a little football in school.

Sandra Bullock, who probably did not play a lot of football in school, won an Oscar for 2009's "The Blind Side," in which she demonstrates to future NFL star Michael Oher how to throw a block. Nice scene. Totally made up. Oher later wondered "why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football."

Because that's show biz!

Costner's new one, "Draft Day," concerns the NFL's Cleveland Browns, with their general manager maneuvering to acquire the No. 1 pick of the college player draft. The Browns need any help they can get, never having won a Super Bowl.

I appreciate that in Costner's career he has played cowboys, lawyers, naval officers, Robin Hood, Eliot Ness and guys obsessed with JFK. I am nevertheless always pleased to find him in a sport-related role. I'd watch him do anything, except maybe fight Rocky or play soccer.

Has there ever been a football film classic, you ask?

Hmmm, probably not the one with a team coached by John Wayne, nor the one with a team coached by Goldie Hawn. Oh, and probably not "Against All Odds" (1984), a remake of the film-noir mystery "Out of the Past," for which instead of a private detective, the main character was changed by some Hollywood genius to -- duh -- a pro football team's injured wide receiver!

Ah, but a few keepers do exist. A half-dozen, in no particular order:

-- "All the Right Moves" (1983) was a drama about a high school kid, good, not great, played by a young Tom Cruise, who basically finds out that if your coach feels like it, he sure can mess up the rest of your life.

-- "North Dallas Forty" (1979) was a realistic look, with plenty of farce thrown in, at the behind-the-scenes activities of a pro football team, including a martinet of a coach and a number of players who indulge in very unsportsmanlike conduct.

-- "Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29" (2008) is a documentary, often as witty as the headline that inspired it. It looks back on a November 23, 1968, football game unforgettable to everybody involved in it, including a Harvard lineman you might have seen in another movie or two, Tommy Lee Jones.

-- "Brian's Song" (1971), the original, not that lame reboot of 30 years later, deals with teamwork, friendship, rivalry, race relations, terminal illness, you name it. Acted impeccably by Billy Dee Williams and James Caan, this was a fine bromance.

-- "Jerry Maguire" (1996) has had its cute lines regurgitated for so long -- "show me the money," "you had me at hello" -- that its memorable premise is oft forgotten, that being the value of loyalty, to a partner, to a principle, to an employer, to a client. For a romantic comedy, it's actually a pretty fair drama.

-- "Friday Night Lights" (2004) took a book that offended some of the good folks of Odessa, Texas, exposing the lows as well as the highs of high school ball. In time, many came to accept what a significant story this is, in literature and film, the latter with a letter-perfect script and A-plus cast.

Others out there in movie land might prefer the life lessons of 2000's "Remember the Titans." Or even a fossilized relic like 1940's "Knute Rockne, All American," in which a dying 25-year-old George Gipp (played by Ronald Reagan) tells his old coach Knute to "go out there with all they've got and win just one for the Gipper," which they do.

Me, I'd remake that one.

Costner could do a great Knute.

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