August 23, 2007 -- “The Heart of the Game” is a nice little documentary that proves that nice guys, and nice girls, don't always finish last. In a time when sports of all kinds have more than their fair share of scandals, it is nice to see a film that portrays sports in a mostly positive light. This film also shows some serious problems in sports, however, so it is not entirely a Polyanna story.
The film follows an unorthodox coach, Bill Resler, and his Seattle high school team, the Roosevelt Rough Riders, through several tumultuous seasons during which some of his players suffer serious personal problems. One such problem is a player who becomes involved with a high-profile private sports advisor who sexually abuses her. He is later found guilty and sentenced to prison. The other problem is one of the team's star players becomes pregnant, costing the team a possible state championship and threatening another championship run the following season when the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) rules that the player, Darnellia Russell, is ineligible to play. Russell appeals the decision and loses, then files a lawsuit, aided by a law firm that takes the case on a pro bono basis. She wins the suit, but the WIAA keeps appealing the case, which threatens to nullify the Rough Riders entire season. The team votes unanimously to keep Darnellia on the team, regardless of the consequences.
The team's coach, Bill Resler, is a college instructor who is wildly eccentric. He teaches no set plays and has his team press full court for the whole game, every game. He also gives the team some autonomy to make its own decisions and handle its own problems. It is a very successful strategy. He keeps a file of strengths and weaknesses for every player and works individually with them to bring them up to their potential during the course of the season.
Resler also teaches them to play like animals, choosing a different theme each season. One season, he teaches them to play like a pack of wolves, another season, it is a swarm of pirrhanas. It is odd, to say the least, to see a group of girls yelling, “bite their necks” and “kill!” It reminded me of the death chant in “Lord of the Flies.” Resler actually told his girls to use a wolf-like stare to intimidate opponents. He kept yelling “look them in the eyes!” He seems more than a little crazed at times, but there is no denying the competitive fire he imparts to his teams. In addition to his intensity, Resler also uses humor very effectively and is very compassionate. He also knows how to use psychological gamesmanship to his advantage. He also trusts his players to do the right thing, even inexperienced players. He puts players into a state championship game who are very inexperienced because he had promised to do just that.
At one point, Resler talks about his belief in the qualities of his star player, Darnellia Russell. He says he is confident that she is not only a genius athletically, but academically as well, even though her grades are poor. He says if she ever starts to believe in herself academically, her potential is unlimited. A couple of seasons later, Darnellia does, indeed, raise her grades and eventually graduates with honors. It is amazing that no university coach in the entire country was smart enough to offer her a scholarship. Before she had a child, she was swamped with college scholarship offers. After giving birth, nothing. This girl has got game. You'd think that some coach somewhere would have a brain. That's just a symptom of what's wrong with our education system in this country. Anyway, this is a good little documentary about teamwork and heart. It rates a B.
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