Up to 89 days of living vicariously through sports on film...
In a normal year, the North Shore would be in the thick of the spring high school state tournament about now. After that, the annual "Willies", which fete the best postseason performers by sport and school, have appeared in these pages for the last 10 years or so.
As if anyone need reminding, these are not normal times. The "Willies" must go on, however, and this time we're going to bestow these great honors on some personal favorites from the sports genre on screens both silver and small.
Best non-traditional sports movie: Outside the big four of major sports, which movie stands above the rest? Everything that comes to mind here revolves around a combat sport: The entire Rocky series, "Karate Kid" and "The Wrestler" are some of the first to come to mind.
There's golf with "Happy Gilmore" and "Caddyshack" among the all-time comedic gems — although in many ways Adam Sandler's Gilmore is playing a combat sport, too. I'm sure there's some auto racing and bowling movies I'm forgetting about.
Either way I'm putting "Rocky III" down as the runaway winner. Boxing is almost mainstream and you've got Apollo Creed's "face turn" as well as the best and most charismatic villain of the series in Mr. T's Clubber Lang. You've got arguably the best sports movie song ever ('Eye of the Tiger' by Survivor) and a Hulk Hogan appearance as Thunderlips.
I can't skip by "Rocky III" if its on cable. The slow motion punch between Rocky and Creed in the empty gym is the chef's kiss of sports movie endings.
Best sports comedy: It's "Major League" with a bullet. One of the best things about "Major League" is that its equally hilarious uncensored and with the curse words dubbed out on cable. I'd put Lou Brown up there with any fictional coach/manager in the history of sports fiction; if you haven't stood at a fence watching a game and quoted him at some point during the action, we probably can't be friends.
How many people know the distance between bases solely because of Willie Mays Hayes saying he's headed about 90 feet? Before Dennis Haysbert was the President of the United States, he — as Pedro Cerrano — thought his bat was afraid of a curveball for the overachieving Indians. Whether Charlie Sheen's 'Wild Thing', Rick Vaughn, makes your nose stink or your heart sing, there's no denying "Major League" is the best.
Best track movie: "Prefontaine", which is a controversial pick among the fans of Cous Bay, Oregon. When I was a high school trackster, there was a Hatfields vs. McCoys ongoing argument about "Prefontaine" starring Jared Leto vs. "Without Limits" starring Billy Crudup as far as which film about the late distance running legend Steve Prefontaine was best.
At the risk of alienating half the track community, I'm declaring as a "Prefontaine" guy. The mockumentary style is more to my liking. Richly drawn support characters like shot put and discus legend Mac Wilkins and a great turn by R. Lee Emery as Nike founding father Bill Bowerman set it apart.
Best pregame speech: Sorry, coach Taylor of the TV show "Friday Night Lights", but my eyes are clear on this one — and it's not you. Al Pacino's "Inches" speech from "Any Given Sunday" is a very close runner-up. If a high school football player says he's never listened to that speech before a big game, odds are he's lying.
The runaway winner here, though, is Kurt Russel's opus as Herb Brooks in "Miracle." I don't know exactly how much of that speech is Hollywood fabrication and how much is close to what Brooks actually said in the USA locker room in 1980, but the words in the movie are perfect. They're a metaphor for life — and for any game in any sport. Great moments are born from great opportunity? If we played 10 times they might win nine, but not tonight? In that scene I ask 'What's with all the dust in here?'
Plus, it spawned that kid yelling "Screw 'em" at Fenway Park.
Coach you'd most want to play for: Sorry again, coach Taylor, you've been usurped once more. It's Hayden Fox from the sometimes forgotten classic sitcom "Coach." Craig T. Nelson's football coach is the perfect mix of caring and gruff — plus you get to also play for Jerry Van Dyke's Luther and the incomparable Bill Fagerbakke's Dauber. It's three for the price of one.
Best line: There are a lot of nominees here. "You're killing me, Smalls" from 'The Sandlot' is near the top of the list. On a personal level, though, it's got to be Gordon Bombay telling his peewee hockey team, the first time he meets them, "Here's the long and the short of it: I hate hockey and I don't like kids."
I use this gem from "The Mighty Ducks" anytime there are questions about my high school hockey coverage. I also love to trot it out to explain the sadness and angry once all the boys and girls teams on the North Shore are out of the playoffs each March.
Best acting job: Again, no shortage of phenomenal choices here, but I zero in on Tom Hanks in "A League of Their Own." It's a great movie, top to bottom. I'm no accredited film director or anything, but when you take a really likable fellow such as Hanks and he convincingly plays a falling-down-drunk Jimmy Dugan, I think that's pretty solid acting. The delivery of "There's no crying in baseball" is as culturally significant as any line in any sports movie, ever.
Best sports episode of a non-sports TV show: "Take me out of the holosuite" in 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine' It's on Netflix. If you have 45 minutes to kill just watch it, even if you're not a Trekkie. It's a really good sports yarn. The super serious Vulcans dominate baseball, but don't understand that they've sucked out all the time. An absolute classic.
Honorable mention: "Game Day" from season one of "The Wire." Incredible and compelling stuff about pick-up basketball.
Best play call: You've got the "Flying V" from the Mighty Ducks series and the Annexation of Puerto Rico from "Little Giants", but I think the No. 1 call is the conviction with which Denzel Washington's Herman Boone calls out "Fake 23 blast with a backside George reverse" on the final play of the season for the T.C. Williams Titans.
Speaking of which...
Best overall sports movie: It's "Remember the Titans" and it's not close.
There's a reason why every time I randomly Tweet "left side", a bunch of people immediately reply "strong side" — and that's not even in the top 10 lines in the movie.
The story of coaches Boone and Yoast bringing together an integrated team at an integrated school is topical and timeless. The bond between big Julius Campbell and Gerry Bertier is the best example of teammates in any sports film.
The football training camp stuff is very realistic. It's so raw and just about every line is quotable. "You're killing me, Petey" has probably surpassed the previously mentioned Smalls among "You're killing me" declarations.
It's a must-watch every August and at least once a month through the entire football season.