Thomas Carter began his career as an actor, playing high school basketball player James Hayward in Ken Howard’s series “The White Shadow” for two years (1978-80) as well as taking parts in other TV programs. But he turned early to producing and directing, his best-known film probably being “Coach Carter” (2005), in which Samuel L. Jackson played the California businessman turned high school basketball disciplinarian. Now he’s returned with another inspirational, fact-based sports story—except that this time around, the sport is football. “When the Game Stands Tall” is centered on the team of De La Salle High School in Concord, California high school, a squad with a long streak of victories and championships that must deal with a string of sudden, unanticipated setbacks, including not only the loss of its first game in twelve years but their coach’s debilitating heart attack and the shooting death of one of their former players just before his planned departure for college.
“I started my career on a show that was centered around basketball,” Carter said in a recent Dallas interview. “And then I directed ‘Coach Carter,’ which was again about a basketball team but a very different story. Basketball is my favorite sport, but football is unique. I have two brothers who are football players, and they say those are the closest bonds you have. Football players think there is something unique about going through that crucible together.
“The script was offered to me,” Carter continued. “I read an early draft of it and signed on right away, because I was really moved by the story. I didn’t know the story of De La Salle, even though I lived in California. I was struck by the number of games they won, a record of 151 straight wins, but the script wasn’t really about that. We chose to tell the story differently. It started toward the end of the streak, when the team faces adversity and how they came through that. The story here…is not necessarily about winning and losing. It’s about something greater.”
The key to the script’s emphasis was the team’s long-time coach Bob Ladouceur (played by Jim Caviezel), who inculcated in his players a devotion to the team as a whole rather than their own self-glorification, and a desire to give their best effort at all times. “What sets the De La Salle program apart is that they build football players who they insist are accountable, and give their best effort every time they are out there,” Carter said. “They think of something beyond themselves. They think of the team and the guy next to them.
“Those principles…are married to good coaching. Generally, the De La Salle team is not the biggest or the most athletic team on the field.” (The school’s total enrollment is only around 1,000 students.) “But they execute on a higher level than everyone else. So they win. So many teams have one [of the principles], but not the other. Many don’t have the team play—what Bob calls the ‘perfect effort.’ What makes this program special is that they take these principles onto the field, but also off the field. You take them into relationships with your friends and with your family. What’s important to Bob is that [a player] leave[s] this program…[as] a responsible young adult.”
One aspect of the Ladouceur philosophy involves the team members preparing “commitment cards” that they read to their teammates before games. “Bob wants them to share,” Carter emphasized. “It might be emotional. It might just be something personal. What he’s looking to do is create a bond among the players. He’s trying to get the guys to trust [one another] and be worthy of trust.” One sign of their common bond is that the players hold hands as they come out onto the field, and a few other California teams, Carter noted, have copied that.
Why, Carter was asked, don’t other teams try to duplicate Ladouceur’s methods more completely? “Bob and Terry [Eidson, his assistant coach played by Michael Chiklis] are unafraid to share what they do as coaches. They coach, but they leave a lot up to the team. But most coaches aren’t going to invest the time or effort. And they might not have Coach Lad’s eye. But I think many coaches will take their teams to see this movie, and to see the principles shown here.”
Preparing to shoot “When the Game Stands Tall” saw Carter interacting with the real De La Salle team on a fairly close basis. “I went up there to watch them play,” he recalled. “I went to team meetings. I was at the two state championships that they played. I was in the locker room at half-time. I had a real sense of what it was like to play for the team.”
But the shoot in Louisiana brought particular challenges. “It was sweltering in New Orleans,” Carter said. He also noted that the game sequences, which take up a good deal of screen time, required melding the young actors who play members of the team with more seasoned football players serving as their stand-ins when the action got rough. “The real football players did a great job,” he said, “but the actors had to take some hits. It ended up being pretty seamless.”
De La Salle is, of course, a Catholic boys’ school, but though Carter feels that his film will certainly appeal to faith communities, he notes that it doesn’t treat the religious element heavy-handedly. “The film has faith-based elements,” he said. “It’s a Catholic high school, and Bob teaches a religion class,” as he’s shown doing at one point. Carter also regretted the loss of a plot strand about one of the Christian Brothers who run the school to the cutting-room floor.
“But they don’t coach from a religious standpoint,” Carter added. “The emphasis is on human values that we can all agree on.”