"Last Chance U is a new six-hour docu-series from Netflix about junior college football in small rural Mississippi" is a factually correct thing to say. Last Chance U is composed of approximately six hour-long segments, it did come out last Friday and is on Netflix, and it does faithfully capture the 2015 season of the Lions of East Mississippi Community College, a small junior college in a small Mississippi town called Scooba (population 716).
Yes, Last Chance U is a documentary about football, but not really: It squeezes all of its meat from looking sidelong at its subject and contains enough splinters of human compassion, uneasy truth, and the small personal tragedy of attrition to mar the normally smooth surface of these portrayals. In doing so, the series represents a significant step forward for subject matter that has been presented mostly in either a saccharine or hyper-masculinized form, seen in the short-lived drama Playmakers, large portions of the yearly installments of Hard Knocks, and now in HBO's Entourage-like Ballers, a Dwayne Johnson–led fantasia of professional football in Miami.
One splinter: About halfway through the first episode EMCC head coach Buddy Stephens, a large and blustery Falstaff of a man, is sitting in his office and discussing the season opener with the camera. This is an important game because it would represent another win in some kind of historic streak—EMCC hasn't lost in two years, and it's important to know that it's a dominant JUCO program that has won national championships in 2011, '12, and '14. So Buddy is talking to the camera about the pressure and he says, "We focus one game at a time. Don't worry about what's significant about the game. None of that. You know, 'cause it doesn't really matter. 'Cause if you fall short, guess what? Nobody cares." And although this comes from a man who spends the next four months giving a whale of a fuck about what is significant and insignificant about the game, it is a remarkably strange and precisely aware sentiment: Very, very, very few people care who wins a football game between East Mississippi Community College and Southwest Community College on a Thursday night in August.
Another splinter: Quarterback John Franklin III, a Florida State transfer who is now at Auburn, in conversation with Brittany Wagner, the altruistic athletic instructional advisor. "You got her number on Tuesday, she came to your game on Thursday, and she gets caught in your room on Friday?" she asks sternly. "Like, come on. And now you're done with her?" "I'm a college student. I'm a male football college athlete. I'm so sorry that I'm living the life right now," he replies, incredulous. "Didn't you go to college once?" Another: An EMCC manager gets punched before a game by a player from the opposing team and needs five stitches and spends the game holding a bag of ice to his purpling cheek to stop the swelling.
A central moment is a fight that breaks out between EMCC and Mississippi Delta CC before halftime of the last game. In the heat, it's hard to know exactly what happens, but a shove between the Lions running back DJ Law and a Delta defender results in a massive bench-clearing brawl. Coach Buddy scrambles frantically around, shouting expletives and urging his players to stay on the side. After the fight finally de-escalates Buddy viciously chastises his team. "I won't do it. I won't coach you if that's what you got. Because all I saw was thug bullshit. We talked about having more pride, but you didn't want to. You wanna be damn street thugs."
This reaction doesn't go over well, and as the chaos of the night recedes Buddy's position is conflicted, and he is embattled and vulnerable. It's clear that his anger stemmed more from the fight's effect on his bid for another national championship, and it's also clear that many of the players and coaches disagree vehemently with Buddy's stance. "I can't play for no soft-ass coach like that." "That's the white man, bro. Coach Stephens don't give a fuck about us." "I think he lost a lot of respect." "Coach Stephens come in my face with that dumb shit, I'mma punch his ass." "I would rather recruit guys that's gonna stick up for themselves and their brothers in a time of need than guys who are gonna sit back and just let things happen."
Amid this cacophony of voices, Buddy emerges as a strangely compelling figure, sweaty, ruffled, humbled, and defiant. He apologizes. He pushes. He boasts. He reads from Ecclesiastes to the camera. Later, addressing his team after their last practice, "You will have your chance for vindication. But you have to understand: Life ain't fair all the time, all right? Fair is where you kiss a pig and give it a blue ribbon."
The space between delusion and clarity is a strong zone of interest, and the characters that dot the landscape of Last Chance U are all compassionately provided with enough density to roam around that space freely and thoughtfully. No one is any one thing, and no one is just the petulant coach or the stupid running back or the naïve academic advisor or the lazy defensive lineman or the womanizing quarterback or street thug or backwoods redneck. It's a simple thing, letting people be people, but sport—and especially football—is not often properly equipped to capture the more intricate narrative splits that separate the good stuff from the other stuff.
Football + Pathos – Football = Pathos. Meaning: The most interesting stuff about football and the people who play it, or coach it, watch it or care about it really has nothing to do at all with football.
Cody Wiewandt is a writer living in New York.