Undefeated, a documentary nominated for a 2012 Academy Award, is a testament to the underdog — both the players featured in the documentary and the filmmakers themselves.
The film chronicles the lives of the Manassas Tigers of North Memphis in Tennessee, a football team who, in the school’s 110-year history, had never won a playoff game.
The creators of the Oscar-nominated film, T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay, also overcame the odds in making the movie. They filmed the entire documentary themselves, using only two cameras and collecting over 500 hours of footage.
Undefeated follows the lives of three of the Manassas Tigers and their coach, Bill Courtney, in their 2009 season. They go from being one of the biggest losers in the state to winners, both on and off the field.
“A fellow named Jim Tipton, who works with me, volunteered over there seven years ago,” Courtney said. “He came back and he said ‘Bill, they’ve got 17 guys on the football team who haven’t won a game in ages. They need a coach.’ I went over there for spring practice and that turned into six years.”
North Memphis was once a booming area, but when the factory that provided most of the local jobs shut down, the town began to shut down as well.
“From our understanding, when the Firestone plant was up and running it was a strong, thriving, blue-collar community and the moment the Firestone plant closed, it’s almost like that community got frozen in time,” Martin said. “Over the course of the last 30-40 years, the community itself has kind of deteriorated.”
“The bottom line is there is a real lack of consistency,” Courtney said of the players’ rough upbringing. “And when you wake up every day and you see everybody around you in communities struggle…the playing field’s not level where these kids grow up.”
Courtney, a lumber salesman turned volunteer football coach, worked with his fellow coaches to turn things around.
“Something as trivial as the game is not gonna build character,” Courtney said. “You gotta have more depth to build your character…. Football reveals it. It doesn’t build it.”
Not only did the team go on to win a playoff game. With the help of Courtney and his fellow coaches, the players overcame the harsh realities of North Memphis and grew as young men.
“The only thing you do have control over is what’s inside you, is your soul,” Courtney said in a pep talk to his team in the documentary. “The only thing nobody can steal from you is your character. So you build that, and then the game and life is what reveals what you’ve built.”