Co-authored by Rich Middlemas
"North Memphis looks like New Orleans after the flood; we just never had a flood." That's how the neighborhood where Manassas High School is located was described to us by a teacher and, unfortunately, it's a chillingly accurate description. The closing of the Firestone plant in the 1970's started an economic downturn that the community has yet to recover from. An all too familiar story for many communities around this country.
It was against this backdrop we found the story of the Manassas Tigers; a high school football program which, like North Memphis, had similarly fallen on hard times. With timeworn equipment, seventeen players, and a patch of dirt masquerading as a practice field, the team was on life support. In fact, the only way the school could afford to keep the football program alive was to farm out games to more powerful county schools that would pay the Tigers to be their "homecoming queen" on Friday night.
This all changed in 2003 when Bill Courtney, a former coach turned lumberman, began volunteering his time coaching at the school. Over the course of five years Bill and other volunteers were able to turn around the fortunes of the team. It is this transformation and the effect it has on several of the players that is the focus of our film Undefeated, which is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.
Football was never meant to be the sole focus of this film. We saw it as an opportunity to tell an intimate coming of age story through the lives of three players and their inspirational coach. To do this, we moved from Los Angeles to Memphis for nine months and embedded ourselves with the team. We wanted to be present for every moment of failure, perseverance and triumph. For us it was about capturing a moment in time. We saw this as a chance to celebrate the potential in a community that is far too often demonized by sensational media coverage of its crime and violence. We focused on telling a human interest story without ever dismissing the socio-economic challenges that have come to define the North Memphis area. The deteriorating backdrop of this undeserved community is a constant reminder of the obstacles these kids face everyday.
How we solve the problems that communities like North Memphis face was never a question we sought to answer. In all honesty, we probably aren't even smart enough to begin to find the solution. Instead, our hope in making Undefeated was that the personal stories of three high school football players and their volunteer coach, would at least start a conversation that may lead to answers.