Gridiron Greats: 10 Tomatometer-Approved Football Classics

Just in time for Super Sunday, we present a parcel of pigskin flicks as rough and tumble as the Giants-Pats matchup promises to be.

by | January 31, 2008 | Comments

Gridiron Greats

How better to spend the days leading up to the Super Bowl than letting out
your favorite pair of old sweatpants, heating up a tray of nachos, cracking a
beer (or six), and experiencing all the glorious highs and lows of America’s
favorite sport? We’ve got some of the usual suspects (expect a double dose of
Burt Reynolds), a few surprises (once upon a time, the phrase "Nick Nolte goes
long" had an entirely different meaning), and maybe even a few movies you’ve
never seen. So sit back, relax, and enjoy our
Tomatometer-sorted stroll down the cinematic gridiron!


The Longest Yard

(1974, 79 percent)

Yes, it served as the inspiration for 2005’s
Adam Sandler-led remake — not
to mention countless other inferior knockoffs — but don’t hold that against
1974’s The Longest Yard. A stirring sports flick as well as a stinging
rebuke of the Nixon administration (what, you don’t believe us? Just take a look
at Eddie Albert as Warden Hazen), director
Robert Aldrich‘s original Yard
uses a number of actual, honest-to-gosh professional football players (including
Joe Kapp, Pervis Atkins, and  Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke) to keep the action
appropriately hard-hitting, and gives us
Burt Reynolds
(who we’ll see again later on the countdown) at the peak of his
mustachioed mid-1970s power. Ferociously violent? You bet — but so is football,
and as much room as the movie leaves for old-fashioned brawn, it boasts a
surprisingly witty script by
Albert S. Ruddy and
Tracy Keenan Wynn.


(1993, 79 percent)

It reads more like science fiction than the setup for a based-on-true-events
football classic, but here goes: Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger was the son of a
millworker and the third of 14 children who, at 5’6" and 165 pounds, turned a
walk-on tryout for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish into the greatest two-down
career in the history of football. Long before he was Samwise Gangee,
Sean Astin
was Rudy (or "Ru-dee! Ru-dee!"), and even if you’ve never seen the movie,
chances are you recognize the iconic shot of him being carried off the field on
his teammates’ shoulders (another scene based on actual events, by the way).
Like its diminutive subject, Rudy didn’t put up intimidating numbers at
the box office, but thanks to cable and the video market, it’s gone on to build
a sizeable cult audience over the years.


7 (tie).

(1979, 80 percent)

Only in the ’70s could you see a movie like Semi-Tough: Part bawdy
football flick, part love triangle, and part satiric sendup of the various New
Age self-help fads sweeping the nation, the movie should be far too jumbled to
even be watchable, let alone the recipient of enough positive reviews to wind up
on this list. But thanks to deft performances from Burt Reynolds,
Kris Kristofferson,
Jill Clayburgh, and
particularly Bert Convy in a thinly disguised jab at EST guru Werner Erhard, Semi-Tough
succeeds as an amiable (albeit rambling, and exceedingly light) example of the
sort of late ’70s romantic comedy they don’t make anymore — with a dash of
gridiron action thrown in.


Knute Rockne: All American
(1940,  80 percent)

You probably can’t watch it now without laughing a little, but that’s mainly
because all of Knute Rockne‘s working parts were shamelessly pilfered and
used to build all subsequent sports films. The high stakes? The oft-quoted
inspirational line? The sweeping, dramatic final act? You’ve got
‘s script and
Lloyd Bacon‘s direction to thank for those. It’s just the
story of a Notre Dame football coach, for God’s sake, but you can’t help feeling
like you’re watching Jonas Salk develop the polio vaccine. Corny, but oh so
effective — just look at Ronald Reagan, who used that whole "win just one for
the Gipper" thing into a cornerstone of his march to the White House. You don’t
wind up enshrined in the National Film Registry for nothing.

Friday Night Lights

(2004, 82 percent)

Before it was a critically beloved (and sadly ratings-starved) NBC television
series, Friday Night Lights was a well-reviewed
Peter Berg film — and
before that, it was a bestselling book by H.G. Bissinger, the author who
originally followed the Permian High School Panthers of Odessa, Texas, way back
in 1988, on their quest for a state championship. Hollywood took some liberties
with the Panthers’ story, naturally, but that’s to be expected — and at its
heart, the story is still just as effective at distilling the importance of high
school sports in small towns, as well as the poignant dreams of the kids who
play the games, and the parents, friends, and neighbors who live through them.
Perhaps it glosses over some of the finer points of Bissinger’s book, but it
still packs some meaning — and some wonderfully exciting fake football.

Jerry Maguire

 (1996, 83 percent)

It’s remembered today more for its catchphrases ("Show me the money," "You
had me at hello," "Help me help you") than its actual content, but taken on its
own merits, Jerry Maguire has a lot to offer — including
Tom Cruise at
his most likable,
Renee Zellweger at her most winsome, and
Cuba Gooding Jr. with
nary an exploding ice cream truck, team of sled dogs, or day camp in sight.
Director Cameron Crowe‘s script about a sports agent’s discovery of his own soul
is certainly manipulative, and arguably takes too long in getting to its overly
tidy final act — but the sum is so much more than its parts that you can still
see why Jerry Maguire was nominated for five Academy Awards.

3 (tie).
Go Tigers!

(2001, 85 percent)

What, you’ve never heard of Go Tigers!? Your loss, bub — but here’s
your chance to repent of your foolish ways by getting yourself acquainted with
Kenneth A. Carlson‘s 2001 documentary about the Massillon Tigers, an Ohio high
school football team that has drawn more than 15,000 fans to each of its home
games for over a hundred years. Of course, this kind of fandom only creates more
pressure for the teenagers on the squad —  not to mention the school they’re
playing for — and Carlson’s lens catches Massillon at a particularly difficult
time, during a season whose outcome seems certain to have a profound effect, one
way or another, on the future of the school, the team, and the town itself.


North Dallas Forty
(1979, 85 percent)

The idea of Nick Nolte as an NFL wide receiver might sound perfectly
ludicrous to you now, but hey, he was younger then — and this was the same
sports-film era that gave us
Sylvester Stallone and
Michael Caine as soccer
players, so you’ve got to take it all in context. Dramatic licenses aside, North
Dallas Forty
— based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Peter Gent, who
played wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, and presumably remembered enough of
his experiences to know what he was talking about — is an effective look at the
seamy underbelly of pre-free agency professional football. Nolte’s struggle
against his aging body — and his team’s crooked management — is played partly
for laughs, but there’s a sizeable element of truth underlining the whole thing,
too. Just watch a few editions of SportsCenter, and you’ll learn more about
life after pro football than you care to.



Heaven Can Wait
(1978, 86 percent)

Not to be confused with 1943’s Heaven Can Wait, this light
comedy is actually a remake of 1941’s
Here Comes Mr. Jordan
appropriating the earlier film’s boxer-taken-before-his-time premise as the
basis for the story of L.A. Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton, mistakenly shuffled
off this mortal coil by an overeager angel. The solution? Drop Pendleton into
the body of an aging billionaire who has just been poisoned by his wife and
personal assistant. Determined to win back his starting job with the Rams,
Pendleton uses his new host’s money to purchase the team and…well, it all sounds
pretty ludicrous already, but thanks to a great script by Beatty and
Elaine May
— and a typically stout co-directorial effort from
Buck Henry — you’ll probably
be too busy smiling to care.

(1925, 100 percent)

See? You don’t need soaring orchestras to make a terrific football film. You
don’t need crane shots, or 400-pound linemen, or inspirational dialogue. Heck,
you don’t need any dialogue whatsoever — you just need
Harold Lloyd, in one of
his best (and best-loved) performances. As Harold "Speedy" Lamb, the overeager
nerd whose efforts to fit in on campus are roundly mocked behind his back, Lloyd
helped kick off the "college movie" craze of the 1920s — but, as The
‘s enduring popularity attests, the film has timeless appeal. And
lest you think it’s just a silly silent comedy with nothing relevant to offer
modern football film fans, just check out that climactic big game sequence
(filmed at the Rose Bowl). How’s that for influential?

Post-Game Report

All right, first things first:
there are probably a handful of football films you’re expecting to see here —
the Titans
, Invincible,
The Comebacks
(just kidding on that
last one) — and judging from previous lists, their absence will probably cause
you to loudly question our sanity, upbringing, and taste in movies. What can we
say? It’s all about the Tomatometer, and the Tomatometer doesn’t lie.

Brian’s Song
 appears absolutely nowhere on this list. Yes, yes, we know — it’s
like the most perfect football movie ever, and the first time you ever saw your
dad cry was when the two of you watched it together, it’s got a 91 percent
Tomatometer (which would make it number two), and we’re a bunch of idiots. We
get it. But the thing is, Brian’s Song was a TV movie, and therefore
ineligible for inclusion here. We can’t break the rules, even for Brian Piccolo.

Ah, what the hell, here’s Brian’s trailer to send you off: