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‘12 Mighty Orphans’ is the mother of all underdog football films

UPDATED: Thu., June 17, 2021

By Michael O’Sullivan Washington Post

In the history of underdog sports stories, I think I may have found the urtext: a dramatic true tale of unlikely triumph over adversity and the odds – by a team of plucky orphans, no less – so primal and insistently button-pushing that it seems to have inspired all other similarly themed athletic fictions that came after it.

I speak of the Mighty Mites of Texas, the high school football team of a Fort Worth orphanage, who in the first half of the past century went from Nowheresville to the Texas state championship under the inspirational leadership of coach Rusty Russell.

Russell, a coaching legend credited with developing the spread offense, was a World War I veteran who, blinded by mustard gas, is said to have vowed to devote his life to helping others if he regained his sight. Have I mentioned that he was also an orphan himself?

Well, he is in “12 Mighty Orphans,” the corny crowd-pleaser loosely based on sportswriter Jim Dent’s nonfiction book of the same name. It’s the kind of film that is rife with lines about making a “real difference” and a “purpose greater than football” – all delivered with a straight face.

Luke Wilson plays the heroic coach, and Wayne Knight is his campus antagonist, a cartoonishly sadistic villain in the role of the Masonic Home for Orphans’ print shop manager who sees every minute the team practices or plays as lost income for the school, from which he has been embezzling money.

Lane Garrison is Rusty’s on-field nemesis: the coach of a rival team so unethical that he instructs one of his student athletes – all bigger and beefier than Rusty’s brood – to take out the team of orphans’ star player – which he does by breaking his leg in gruesome close-up. Martin Sheen plays the orphanage’s kindly physician, dispensing common sense with a dollop of cheese.

The story proceeds in expected melodramatic fashion. There is a hotheaded player (Jake Austin Walker) who must learn self-control and whose playing eligibility is called into question when he is accused of being too old. And there is the de rigueur march to the Big Game, where lessons will be learned about Heart, Courage and the true meaning of Victory.

Is “12 Mighty Orphans” the movie we need right now? For some who are looking for a story about overcoming obstacles with grit and determination, it may be. Football – a game of gaining ground that is sometimes fought by the inch, not the yard, and where meaning can be found even in defeat – seems to lend itself to metaphorical treatment better than most sports.

If you’re looking for that kind of moral-rich message delivered with equal amounts of sincerity and syrup, congratulations: You may have found the mythical source from which all other malarkey springs.

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