Karyn Gerhard is a senior editor at Alpha Books and an information addict looking for an adventure. This blog documents her explorations into of all those dusty corners of human culture that no one has bothered to clean in years.
I’ll admit it, I’m not a huge football fan—baseball is much more my game. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t love a good football flick! In honor of the big game this weekend, here are my picks for some must-see football-themed movies.
This is, hands down, my favorite football film, and one of my favorite films from the 70s. Burt Reynolds plays Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, a disgraced ex-NFL quarterback who’s been thrown into prison for stealing (and drowning) his girlfriend’s car. The warden (Eddie Albert), a sadistic, football-obsessed jerk, manages a semi-pro team of prison guards, and he wants Crewe to coach the team. Crewe initially says no, but is pressured into agreeing to put together a team of inmates to play against the guards in a tune-up game. Crewe gets the strangest bunch of guys you’ll ever see and with the help of Caretaker (James Hampton) he whips them into shape. Of course, Crewe’s “Mean Machine” team starts out pummeling the guards in the game, and the warden goes berserk, threatening to lock him up for life if Crewe doesn’t throw the game. You’ll have to see the movie to find out if he does it or not.
This is Burt at his comedic best (not to mention, his most handsome), and the football game, which takes up 47 minutes of the movie, is both hilarious and exciting. What makes the movie even better is that he’s surrounded by actual football players of the day—Ray Nitschke (Green Bay), Mike Henry (Steelers), Joe Knapp (Vikings), Ernie Wheelwright (NY Giants), and Ray Ogden (Bears). But my favorite part has to be the three cheerleading inmates decked out as the Supremes. This is an absolute must-see.
The Marx Brothers, in a football movie? Yes indeed, and it is hilarious. Groucho is Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, president of Huxley College, whose football team is up against its rival, Darwin College. His son, played by Zeppo, convinces him to hire a bunch of pros footballers to make sure they win the game. Chico, a guy who delivers ice and bootleg gin, and Harpo, a part-time dogcatcher, mistakenly get recruited to the team as well, and of course create major chaos on the campus. The football game, in which Groucho, Harpo, and Chico end up taking the field, is full of priceless Marx Brothers shenanigans; it’s one of the classic comedic moments—and football moments—in movie history.
As much as I love seeing the brothers racing down the football field in a horse-drawn garbage wagon, riding it like some kind of demented chariot, my favorite part of the movie is the password scene between Groucho and Chico. It slays me every time.
From comedies we go to a really fantastic biopic of Jim Thorpe, a legendary athlete and the first president of the NFL. True, this is a biography that starts with Thorpe’s childhood and the second half of the film deals with his life unraveling from his being stripped of his Olympic medals, but Thorpe became a star because of football. This is really a portrait of what takes place in the life of an athlete off the field, but the football scenes—as well as the archival clips from the actual 1912 Olympic games—are fantastic.
What is even better than fantastic is Burt Lancaster, who plays Thorpe. Lancaster has always been one of my favorite actors, and in this movie he gets to show off not only his acting chops but his athletic ability. So much of the movie is Thorpe dealing with a broken heart—for his career, for his love, for his life—and Lancaster absolutely nails you to the wall with his performance.
Another comedy, this time by the brilliant silent comedian, Harold Lloyd. Lloyd is Harold “Speedy” Lamb, a naïve nerd who goes off to college in the desperate search to become popular. Of course everyone sees him as a laughable sap, especially with his strange little jig he does when he introduces himself. Things fall apart—literally—at the Fall Frolic and he sees what everyone thinks of him. Humiliated and despondent he decides to become a football hero to show them all up and to win the heart of the girl he loves. Needless to say, I’m not going to give away the ending and tell you if he gets in the game and wins the girl!
The Freshman is Lloyd’s comedic tour de force, and his most successful film of the 1920s. If you’ve never seen a Harold Lloyd movie, you really owe it to yourself to check out this one; his mixture of comedy and melancholy is perfect, and the stunts he pulls are eye-wobbling. From a slapdash job by a tailor leading to Lloyd losing his clothes, to Lloyd being used as a tackle dummy—not to mention his (SPOILER ALERT!) stunts on the field—this is a perfect silent comedy.
How could I not add this tear-jerker? I first saw this made-for-tv movie when I was a kid, and I've never forgotten it. It’s the true story of Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams); initially competitors, the get paired as roommates and become best friends. Things take a devastating turn, though, when Piccolo is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Sayers stays by his side throughout it all and even tries to get him back on the team. Their bond gets even stronger, but Piccolo gets weaker until his curtain finally comes down.
To say Brian’s Song is emotionally charged would be like saying the Titanic had a fender-bender, but somehow it manages to keep the sap in check. It’s macho, it’s weepy, it has two great performances by Caan and Williams (Williams’ speech at the awards will knock you off your feet), and it’s just a damn good movie.
Ok, so technically this isn’t a sports film, but the football scene is hysterical. Hawkeye and Trapper bet a visiting General that their M*A*S*H unit can beat his in a game of football; but little does the General know that they have a ringer up their sleeve. The game is an absolute melee, with underhanded tactics running rampant and plays that can barely be called semilegal; the best is the witless Hot Lips O'Houlihan screaming, “Oh my God, THEY’VE SHOT HIM!” when the ref shoots the gun to end the half.
Now, what would a day of football be without munchies? This dip is absolutely addictive, and also makes the best nachos on the planet. So throw some dip in the slow cooker, and whether you watch the game or check out one of these movies, have a great Super Bowl weekend!
Variation: For a zestier dip, use chorizo or linguica sausage instead of ground beef. Or use ground turkey to cut back on saturated fat.
From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Slow Cooker Cooking, Second Edition by Ellen Brown