WASHINGTON — Normally, film reviews are Jason Fraley’s territory here at WTOP. But for the release of “When the Game Stands Tall,” a movie based on California’s De La Salle High School and its unprecedented 151-game winning streak, I offered to help. Not because I’m the digital sports editor and this is a sports movie, but because I am a Spartan, having graduated from De La Salle in 2001.
The storyline doesn’t include any major plot twists, but I’ll warn you advance that there are what some might consider “spoilers” in this article. If you want to see the film first with no additional information, I suggest you do so, then come back to learn more about the true story behind the characters on the big screen.
The very existence of the movie itself presents something of a Catch-22, a point coach Bob Ladouceur is very aware of.
“It kind of goes a little bit against what we preached throughout the years,” he said Thursday morning in a conversation with Fraley and me. “We never wanted to put ourselves out front. We wanted to be very humble about what we did and how we did it.”
What they did was nothing short of incredible. Between 1991 and 2003, the Spartans reeled off 151 consecutive wins, one of the greatest win streak at any level, in any sport, of all time. While I was in school, the football team was 52-0. In my freshman year, they broke the old national record of 72 straight wins, then motored onward.
But the culture extended far beyond football. The North Coast Section (NCS) includes 150 Northern California schools along the water, from the South Bay Area up the coastline. In my time there, De La Salle won at least one NCS championship in baseball, basketball, cross country, soccer, track and field, volleyball and water polo in addition to football. The commitment to excellence on the field — and in the classroom — was pervasive.
While Ladouceur is shown in the classroom, the film never explains the fact that he was actually hired at the school as a religion teacher, with football as an aside.
“The football coach part of it was really an afterthought,” says Ladouceur of his interview process in 1978. “I didn’t get asked many questions about it.”
That point, I think, is missed when the college coaching offers come pouring in. Ladouceur would have been just another football coach had he taken a college offer, and that’s not who he is, fundamentally. He’s a teacher who also happens to coach football.
Portrayed by Jim Caviezel, Ladouceur is the focal point of the film. It’s not so much that he’s quietly intense, as Caviezel portrays him, as that he’s calm and composed, his even-keeled delivery a steadying force in an emotional game. Make sure to stick around for the credits to see actual footage of Ladouceur addressing his players and see for yourself (and listen to our full interview, embedded in this story).
Of course, not everything in the film happened exactly as it is portrayed. The turning point of the film is after the streak has been broken, with the team sitting 0-2 and flying to Southern California to take on Long Beach Poly, the top- rated program in the country.
“They take some license in the movie; the chronology of the movie is a little out of place,” said Ladouceur. “But it was a dramatic moment in our coaching careers, so they wanted to leave that in there.”
In reality, the highly-billed Long Beach Poly matchup took place three years earlier, during The Streak. De La Salle began scheduling games against top-notch Southern California competition as early as 1998, playing a four-year home-and-home series against Santa Ana’s powerhouse Mater Dei during quarterback Matt Leinart’s time at the school. Both games in Orange County were decided by a single score, while both in Oakland, played at the Coliseum, were blowouts. The Spartans won all four, of course.
In ’01, the Spartans took on both teams, first handling Mater Dei, 34-6, at home. Then they traveled down for the game represented in the film. Because this was 2001, not 2004, the game was defined by the transcendent performance of Maurice Jones-Drew (then just Maurice Drew, who makes a cameo appearance in the film), who scored all four Spartan touchdowns, icing the game early in the fourth quarter. There was a goal-line stand, but De La Salle won by two touchdowns, 29- 15. It was their 117th straight win.
The choice to move the Poly game the way the writers did was obviously intended to create a more dramatic storyline. But to me, it cheapens the streak somewhat to not recognize that De La Salle took on any team that would play them in the years I was in school and after, prior to the events of 2004.
Much like “Moneyball,” the film focuses on a winning streak. But also much like “Moneyball,” the story is really about everything but the streak itself — how the team prepared itself to get there, what happened before and after.
The Spartans actually began the 2004 season 1-3-1 before finding themselves and winning seven of their last eight (they tied Clayton Valley) including their final six games to win another NCS title. The Spartans thrashed Amador Valley, 41-0, in the championship game to establish themselves as an elite power once more.
So what was the real turning point?
“I think what really turned them around in a lot of ways was a loss, our third loss of the season,” Ladouceur said. “We were playing Mission Viejo on our own field. They had a lot of Division I talent on that team, and I didn’t have any Division I talent on our team.”
Some of that talent included quarterback Mark Sanchez. After a hard-fought game, the teams were tied 14-14 heading into Mission Viejo’s final drive. De La Salle would lose, 17-14, on a late field goal in the final minute, but their effort had returned to the level that the team expected of itself.
“Even though it was a loss, it was a real victory for us,” said Ladouceur.
While a tough loss doesn’t make as easily digestible a story as a dramatic victory — and may not produce the same feel-good moment — it arguably shows much more about what the program is really about.
“I wouldn’t have traded that season for anything,” Ladouceur said. “It put a lot of things in perspective as to what’s important in peoples’ lives. ”
Ladouceur retired before last season, with a career record of 399-25-3. His .934 winning percentage is almost unthinkable, and he’s the winningest coach in California high school history. But the fact that he was content to retire with 399 wins, just one win shy of 400, epitomizes both Ladouceur’s ideals and the film itself.
It’s not about the individual games, but the way you play them.