Best College Football Films and the Actors Who Made History
We all have our favorite movies but when it comes to college football classics there are a few titles that rise to the top. The best flicks are rooted in a fundamentally sound, if not brilliant, script but all of that will be lost if the actors involved couldn’t deliver.
We thought it would be the ideal time to discuss the best movies of this genre and the actors who made them so, now that the curtain is closing on summer with autumn ready to take center stage. And while we, and all of the other punters out there, explore the college football picks we will also reveal our favorite cinematic masterpieces with schoolboy football as one of the critical elements of the movie.
This college football biopic launched Sean Astin into the rarified air of Hollywood’s A-List actors. Conversely, a case could also be made that Astin propelled Rudy into the pantheon of all-time cinematic gold. Either way, this is a movie not to be missed whether you are a college football fan, and more specifically a Fighting Irish devotee, or not.
The film is based on the life of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettigera, a kid growing up in a small town where the local steel mill was the primary employer. He and his family idolized Notre Dame football and it became Rudy’s ambition to not only attend the prestigious university but wear the uniform and play football for the Fighting Irish. Unfortunately, his academic performance was unexceptional, and his athletic abilities were middling at best. But, as Rudy demonstrated, tenacity and determination can overcome even the most daunting challenges.
There are too many soul-touching scenes to recount here but the glorious ending to this movie is only one of them. The movie is based on a true story and Astin transformed himself into the titular character. His casting was a masterstroke and his performance elevated the entire cast and crew. If you haven’t seen this one, don’t wait to watch it. It’s that good.
We Are Marshall (2006)
This is another college football film based on a heartbreaking, but an unfortunately true, story. It depicts the aftermath of the 1970 plane crash that killed 75 people, including 37 members of the football team, five coaches, three members of the training staff, 25 boosters, and the five-person flight crew.
It’s easy to dismiss this as a dreary film, but give it time and you’ll witness Matthew McConaughey deliver a brilliant portrayal as new head coach Jack Lengyel, who is brought in to calm the waters and restore the program. Although McConaughey had already made his bones in the acting world, this was a tour-de-force performance and one that elegantly depicted a heartwarming tale of the human spirit’s triumph over a life-altering event.
The Program (1993)
James Caan needs no introduction to those who have followed his career from his lead role as former Chicago Bears player, Brian Piccolo in the docu-drama Brian’s Song, and a year later to the trigger-happy Sonny Corleone in The Godfather, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Caan has many professional accolades under his belt and by the time he made The Program, he was already a bona fide Hollywood star.
Nevertheless, his depiction of fictional coach Sam Winters and his equally fictional team, the Eastern State University Timberwolves, laid bare the underbelly of big-time college football and all the dirty little secrets that have become exposed since this film was made. Steroids, NCAA drug tests, payola, and plenty of pretty women make this movie entertaining but Caan’s performance as the head shot-caller injected into this maelstrom gives the movie the depth and nuance it needed to put it over the edge as one of the best in this category.
Knute Rockne: All American (1940)
Anyone reading this was likely not around when this film was made but the co-star would eventually become the 40th President of the United States. That’s right, none other than Ronald Reagan starred as George Gipp, a supremely talented half-back, who was stricken with a fatal disease and on his death bed told the legendary Notre Dame coach, Knute Rockne (played by Pat O’Brien), to tell the boys, when the chips are down, to “win one for the Gipper.”
Movieguide.com gave this legendary film a hearty thumbs-up and stated, “…Pat O’Brien’s gives a wonderful performance in the title role. He does a great impersonation of Rockne’s pep talks and way of speaking, without sounding too artificial. Also, Ronald Reagan shines in the movie as George Gipp, one of his most famous and most iconic roles. Kudos should also go to Donald Crisp as the priest who leads Notre Dame, and to Gale Page, who delivers a very appealing performance as Rockne’s supportive wife, Bonnie.”