Undefeated, the heart-warming story of an inner-city high school, a group of kids who bettered themselves through football, and the volunteers who made it all possible, won the Oscar for best documentary at the 2012 Academy Awards. Now, one year later, the film is finally coming to Blu-ray and DVD so everyone can see the story of Coach Bill Courtney’s final season at Manassas high school and the success that team and its players experienced.
I recently had a chance to talk to Coach Courtney in anticipation of the film’s Blu-ray release. He talked about his current relationship with the players from the team, how the film developed from a small documentary about one player, and his advice to others volunteering with underprivileged kids.
Check it the interview below.
We Got This Covered: You’re no longer coaching at Manassas. Do you miss being there?
Bill Courtney: Yeah I miss it every day. I miss the opportunity to serve. I miss the relationships. I miss a lot about it. My business is less than a mile from Manassas so every day when I turn out of my lumberyard to go home I look through the trees and I see the football field and the back of the school, so I have a daily reminder of my time there and I think that makes me miss it even more.
We Got This Covered: Speaking of the relationships, how much have you been able to stay in contact with the players from that team.
Bill Courtney: I’m in contact daily. You have to remember, you can’t make a 17 hour movie, and there were 18 seniors on that football team that all started with me as eighth graders, and there’s a story under every helmet. The problem is the movie can only explore as many stories as you can shove into a 2 hour film. So in addition to the three guys you know about, there’s another 15 guys that I keep in close contact with. I saw one of them two nights ago, and over Christmas break I got together with all of them. I speak to them all the time on phone or text or voicemail. I keep very close contact with all of them.
We Got This Covered: How’d you start volunteering at Manassas?
Bill Courtney: I was a high school teacher and football coach for a living. When I graduated from Ole Miss (The University of Mississippi) I was working on my doctorate. I taught school and coached football for a living. I never got my doctorate, was a dissertation away from it, but I got married and started having children, and just didn’t have any money because with a wife and four kids what I was able to make as a teacher and a coach unfortunately just couldn’t sustain us. I got out of coaching as a profession but continued to coach as a volunteer.
I started my business in 2001 and had to get out of coaching completely as a volunteer. I just didn’t have time. It was everything I could to keep the business going. About 2 years into it a guy who works for me named Jim Tipton volunteered to do some work at Manassas and said, ‘Bill are you ready to get back into coaching?’ And I said ‘Why?’ He said, ‘They only have 17 kids over here and their record the previous 10 years was 5-95,’ which is about as bad as you can get. He said, “but they really do have some pretty good looking kids over there.”
So I went over to help him with spring practice and I fell in love with these kids’ perseverance and where they were from, and despite all the things that they had going against how hard they were willing to try. That ended up turning into seven years.
We Got This Covered: Did you have any hesitations at first when the filmmakers contacted you about doing the documentary?
Bill Courtney: It kind of developed really. Originally they saw a story online from the Commercial Appeal, the local Memphis newspaper, about O.C. (Brown). They really came just to do a small, short documentary on O.C. and the trials and tribulations of him trying to get tutored and qualify and me taking him back and forth to school and him living with Mike Ray, the line coach. When they got here they discovered the bigger story of all the volunteers and all the kids and the history of the program. They decided they weren’t going to just do a small documentary on O.C., they were going to do a feature length documentary. It kind of evolved rather than them calling and saying, ‘Hey we want make a movie.’
Then when they showed back up it was just these two guys who never produced or directed anything other than a documentary on the world series of beer pong. There’s no white trucks, there’s no sound, there’s nothing. It’s two guys with two camcorders on a shoestring budget. So the truth is no there wasn’t any trepidation about it. The only reason I said we could do it was because I thought it would be a nice historical record of our last year together. There was no reason to think that you’d see this thing outside of maybe channel 356 at 3:00 in the morning on a Wednesday when they have absolutely nothing else to put on TV. There was no reason to think this thing would grow any legs or be much of anything.
Looking back on it, had I known it would go to this level we might’ve had more reservations about it. It was just two guys with two camcorders and a small budget so I really didn’t think that much of it.
We Got This Covered: How has the success of the film affected not only the team, but the school and the area as well?
Bill Courtney: The school has an enormous amount of pride that their story was told, and that’s a good thing because the kids in that school and the people from that community need to have things to be proud of, so in that respect it’s a real positive.
The conversation I’ve had with the players though has been this: You’re 18 years old, you’ve got your whole life in front of you. What needs to define you, what needs to define your success as a human being is you going off to college, getting a degree, and having a family. Not having a shack buddy but having a real wife and having children and raising them and teaching them the ways you’ve been taught. That needs to define you. It would be an absolute travesty if the best moment in your life was a movie when you were 18 years old. There are so many things that you have to achieve in your life that are far greater than this, so enjoy it and relish it and be proud of it, but by all means don’t let some stupid movie define your life because your life has far greater importance than this.
We celebrated it and had fun with it. It’s a positive thing for the school and the community, but we need to be real about it and not let it define us because there’s greater things to our life than this.
We Got This Covered: You spoke about the players going off to college, how many from that team were about to go to college?
Bill Courtney: All of them. Let me set this up right for you so you really get the impact of this. The three communities that the kids come from that go to school at Manassas are New Chicago, Smokey City, and Greenlaw. I could give you all kinds of statistics about it, but the main statistic with regard to your question is an 18-year-old male from those neighborhoods is three times more likely to be incarcerated than he is to go to college. Our last two years we graduated 36 seniors and 35 went to college.
We Got This Covered: People are doing similar work in cities all over the place, but most will never get recognized by the media at all. What would you say to someone doing similar volunteer work who is getting discouraged with the difficulties of trying to help the kids?
Bill Courtney: There is no finish line.
When I was at Ole Miss a professor I had talked about the Ben Franklin Close, which is how you close yourself on a decision. You draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. In one column you put “plus” and in the other column you put
“minus”. When you’re thinking about the decision that you’re about to make, or whatever you’re involved in, you list all the positives under the plus column and all the negatives under the minus column. If the positives outweigh the minuses then you do it. If the minuses outweigh the positives then you don’t. You close yourself on every decision based on that.
While Ben Franklin was obviously a very bright man, that does not work in this world. You have to understand that there are always going to be more negatives than positives, and there’s going to be setback, there’s going to be heartbreaks. There’s four kids that I coached in six years that are dead. All shot. There’s all kinds of losses and misery and heartache that comes along with working in the most disenfranchised poverty-stricken areas in our communities. But it’s the neediest area in our society so if the negatives discourage you from getting involved in the first place in the area you have the biggest chance to make the greatest impact then you’re missing the greatest opportunities.
What I would say is: Don’t let the negatives discourage you. You have to go in understanding there’s going to be a lot of negatives. What you’ve got to understand is those positives that do happen might not have happened without your involvement. Even if there’s four positives for 20 negatives, that’s still four positives that wouldn’t have happened without you. So don’t get discouraged by the negatives. Just keep pluggin’ and understand that there is no finish line. There’s no stopping point. You just keep on churnin’ and celebrate the good things that do happen.
That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Bill for talking with us, be sure to check out Undefeated, on Blu-ray and DVD February 19.