On the football fields of Mississippi, Isaiah Wright wore a jersey with the number 17. Now, he has a new number and uniform in a jail cell in Tennessee. Wright and his brother are charged in connection with the stabbing death of an 18-year-old who recently graduated high school and became a father.
The 20-year-old Wright was one of the star players during the two seasons of Netflix’s documentary series Last Chance U. During the series we see the troubled but charming student struggle with his past and his future. He’s a child of the foster care system whose talent on the football field earned him a scholarship at Auburn University. Instead of going to the university, though, he follows his brother’s path to rural Mississippi where he plays—and gets injured—on a junior college team. At the school he gains a fiancée and loses a baby to miscarriage.
Through all his hardships, we get the sense football will be Wright’s saving grace. And yet it isn’t, leaving sports fans wondering what went wrong. Last Chance U provides us with an uncomfortable answer.
Fantasy of Friday Night Lights
To really understand the hit documentary it helps to compare it to the under-appreciated fictional series Friday Night Lights, the best show ever made about marriage, community, or football.
The late Peter Lawler shared my conviction that Friday Night Lights is the “best TV show ever.” We also share a deep admiration for one of the main characters, coach Eric Taylor. In an interview Lawler says,
[There is on Friday Night Lights] an honorable and hugely rational football coach—Eric Taylor—who cultivates and defends maybe the most genuine form of meritocracy (aside from military service) remaining in our country—high-school football. There honor and violence—disciplined by rules and not ending in death (although life-altering injuries)—produce a community of warriors that transcends the social boundaries of race and class. And that classy band of brothers is protected by their coach from the manipulative vulgarity of the trashy white oligarchy who run the town. The talents of Eric Taylor are those of a true aristocrat of talent and virtue that exists across time and space, and he does as well in leading men in inner-city Philadelphia as he does in Dylan, Texas. His “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” is, if you think about it, perfectly Stoic.
In another article Lawler adds that, “the show is, most of all, about the aristocracy of talent and virtue, about people who have been given extraordinary gifts and can do great good wherever they happen to be.”
I expected Last Chance U to be a real-life version of Friday Night Lights. I thought it would be a show about how young men, natural aristocrats of talent and virtue who had made a mistake and fallen down the meritocratic ladder, were able to succeed after being given a “last chance.”
I was completely wrong. Friday Night Lights provides us with a harsh but comforting fantasy; Last Chance U reveals the unsullied, dispiriting reality.
Tale of Two Coaches
Last Chance U is about the football team at East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) and their repetitive quest to win the National Junior College Athletic Association championship. The force behind the East Mississippi team is Buddy Stephens, a coach who has maximized his success by adopting an ingenious recruiting strategy: acquire the talented rejects from the upper tier of collegiate football.
A football player with extreme talent may end up in Scooba, Mississippi, if he lost his Division I scholarship because he failed a drug test, can’t meet the minimum grade requirements, got caught burglarizing a home, or punched a woman. At EMCC student athletes are removed from the distractions of university life (the nearest Walmart is 45 minutes away) and given specialized attention and tutoring. Additionally, being at a school that competes against teams with less natural ability enables them to improve their stats and add to their highlight reel, allowing them to get back in the good graces of teams like Michigan and Florida State.
But while Scooba, Mississippi, is a lot like the fictional Dillon, Texas, Coach Stephens is the antithesis of Coach Taylor. Friday Night Lights offered the archetypal football coach, passionate but stoic, brutally tough but tenderhearted, and above all, a father figure who models virtue. In contrast to this fantasy, Coach Stephens is foul-mouthed, hot-tempered, and so obsessed with winning he fails to appreciate or respect his players.
Buddy appears—at least for a moment—to recognize his failing. In the opening of season 2, he reflects on seeing himself in the documentary’s previous season. “You know, I sat back and I watched it, and I go, ‘I just don’t like that guy. That guy’s not a good guy. He’s not a good coach.”
Buddy makes an attempt to change, mostly by reducing his use of vulgar language (almost every other scene in Last Chance U contains profanity). His spiritual adviser adds, “Buddy met with his pastor and after that, got all his things worked out with the Lord.” The coach seems to understand that those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity (Prov. 21:23). Yet in every episode, he’s seen screaming and cussing and denigrating his players. His efforts at a self-imposed legalism fail to change his heart or his behavior.
Self-Sabotage in Scooba
Even if EMCC had Coach Taylor, though, it likely wouldn’t transform the team into “community of warriors” or “classy band of brothers.” As the series progresses, it becomes apparent most of the players are in Scooba not because of a one-time failing but because they’ve developed ingrained habits of self-sabotage. How responsible they are for their situation is debatable. But on the whole, it’s clear football hasn’t helped them to become virtuous or honorable men.
The person most aggrieved by the players is Brittany Wagner, the true hero (and tragic figure) of Last Chance U. Wagner’s an academic advisor, helping the players remain eligible so they can play football. More than that, she serves as a cross between a life coach and surrogate mom. We see her greet former players like a mother who hasn’t seen her son for a year. She’s an unusual mixture of tough love and tender affection. She’s constantly texting the players to show up for class, begging them not to destroy their football career—and their sole hope for success—because of a moment of anger or spite or just plain apathy.
Wagner appears to be the only one on the football staff who views the players through a lens of grace rather than merit. She truly loves and cares for all of them as people, not just as future football stars. She seems to believe she can make these young men into better people through individual attention and persistent encouragement—so it’s absolutely heartbreaking to watch her fail.
Perhaps it’s unfair to judge all sports programs by the standards of Coach Stephens or his EMCC team. But I suspect we’re finding that football loses much of its valued and imputed meaning in a post-Christian culture.
No Salvation in Stoicism
Sportswriter John Tunis said in 1928 that football is “at present a religion—sometimes it seems to be almost our national religion.” And like a religion, football is seen as a path toward transcendence and the formation of individual virtue. In their enlightening article “God and the Gridiron Game,” Paul Putz and Hunter Hampton say, “Although there were always competing meanings associated with the sport, one in particular came to dominate: Football was a maker of men.”
Especially in the era after World War II, football began to be viewed as a crucible in which manly virtues were formed. The sport was not only considered a maker of men, but a maker of a specific type of man—one who combined elements of pagan Stoicism with muscular Christianity. A few years of being roughed up between the end zones and a boy was expected to be transformed into Atticus Finch. At least that was the ideal.
We can see now, though, how much football relied on a robust version of cultural Christianity. The trappings of this era remain on display in Last Chance U. There’s the coach, Marcus Woods, who tries to interest the students in Bible devotions, and before games the players mechanically chant the Lord’s Prayer at Buddy’s prompting. But the theology of the show is a tempered prosperity gospel that can be summarized as “Be good and you’ll be blessed.” Turn to God and you may become just enough of a better person, many of the players seem to believe, that you’ll win the junior college championship or get a scholarship to Ole Miss. For most of the players at EMCC, finding Jesus seems to be a way to gain a competitive advantage.
For the young men abandoned in East Mississippi, there seems to be no place for the unmerited and transforming grace of Christ. After all, there isn’t even room for the secular grace of Ms. Wagner. By the end of the second season, she’s left East Mississippi, in pain and in tears, discouraged by the students and despised by the head coach. She’s discovered the hard-earned truth that sports alone make men neither noble nor good. And we re-learn the lesson that whether at Baylor, Notre Dame, or East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Mississippi, you can’t find salvation on a football field.