The sport of football has created many legends. From loss to triumph and despair to redemption, the sport can touch on many facets of real life. But in sports cinema, which football films, based on true stories, are the best?
In this case, truth is better than fiction, and real-life drama plays out on the field and in the person lives of the players of the game.
The list below will give you the greatest gridiron movies that were based on real, actual stories.
We got the quote, “There’s no crying in baseball!”, from the 1992 film A League of Their Own, but for a game that’s often viewed as a vicious, hard-hitting battle between warriors, a few tears in football are also pretty damn scarce. But in this 1971 made-for-TV movie, the true story of Hall of Fame Chicago Bear Gale Sayers and his teammate Brian Piccolo will surely get the waterworks flowing by the end credits. The audience sees firsthand how an unlikely friendship flourishes through racial strife and the unexpected acceptance of mortality. Billy Dee Williams (Sayers) and James Caan (Piccolo) provide more than enough emotion and humanity in their respective roles to make this film an easy pick not just for this list, but for any “guy-cry” compilation.
Remember The Titans
This 2000 classic, one of the best overall sports films of the modern era, stars the iconic Denzel Washington as head coach Herman Boone, who leads the T.C. Williams High School Titans through a stark environment of racial tensions in the school’s town. Boone unabashedly fosters a culture of tolerance and inclusivity among the initially divided roster of white and black players. As the story progresses, they learn to band together and play as one “family.”
Another pick that will surely pull at your heartstrings is the 1993 classic Rudy. This movie tells the inspiring story of Rudy Ruettiger, an unlikely member of the most storied college football team in the land, Notre Dame. Sean Astin portrays the title character as he overcomes the mounting disappointments associated with being an undoubtedly undersized athlete, just trying to live out his dream of playing for the Fighting Irish.
A few years after the NFL made headlines off the field during their 2011 concussion scandal, the 2015 film Concussion was released in response to the heightened awareness around a now well-known disease. Will Smith starred as embattled Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who was the most notable name to have diagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former professional athletes. The film received mixed reviews but above all brought attention to football’s long-term damage that a wide range of society could see apart from just a report on the evening news.
The Blind Side
This movie told the touching story of former NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher (played by Quinton Aaron) and his rise out of poverty to football greatness thanks to the charity of a local family. This story was originally written in the form of a book but a few years later, the 2009 film adaptation starred Sandra Bullock as the family matriarch Leigh Anne Tuohy, in her best performance ever, an effort that earned her an Academy Award.
This 2021 biopic is about football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner’s unlikely but inspiring rise from being a grocery store stock boy, all the way to becoming a Super Bowl champion with the St. Louis Rams and one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of the modern era. Portraying Warner is Zachari Levi, who makes an honorable transition from being the whimsical superhero in Shazam to a heartwarming hero that achieves his life-long dream of playing football thanks largely to spirituality and family.
Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as James Robert Kennedy in another heartwarming entry on this list. Based on a 1996 Sports Illustrated article titled “Someone to Lean On”, the 2003 movie centers around “Radio,” his given nickname, as he and a local high school football coach (played by Ed Harris) teach the neighbors in their town the importance of tolerance and acceptance. While the real “Radio” was shown to have spent time with the school’s basketball team, he made more of an impact on his community during the football season, as depicted in both the movie and in real life.
We Are Marshall
This 2006 film touches on resiliency in the face of tragedy. Matthew McConaughey stars as Jack Lengyel, the man who was willed into taking over head coaching duties for the Marshall University football team after the program lost its original team and coaching staff in a plane crash. After its release, the movie received mostly positive reviews and became one of McConaughey’s more well-known performances over the last couple of decades.
The Express: The Ernie Davis Story
This pick is about Syracuse University football legend Ernie Davis’ historic journey to become the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious award. Actor Rob Brown beautifully portrayed Davis’ struggle through the civil rights era and how that played out in college athletics. However, the legend of fellow Syracuse athlete and Hall of Fame football player Jim Brown had caused this story to go relatively unknown in modern sports history. Unfortunately, the story wasn’t received very well as shown through a lackluster box office turnout after the film’s release in 2008.
The last pick here chronicles the real-life story of Philadelphian Vince Papale, a common citizen who gets a chance to try out for his hometown Eagles. Mark Wahlberg stars as the centerpiece of this inspiring 2006 drama that definitely tugs at even the manliest of men’s heartstrings. Invincible does a great job in showing the audience that you can achieve anything your heart desires. Specifically, Wahlberg also puts in a positive performance that does take a few moments to believe once you get past the fact that in real life, Wahlberg’s a passionate New England Patriots fan.
Whether you end up laughing, crying, or inspired enough to throw on pads and a helmet to take on a bunch of linebackers, these football films are certain winners, guaranteed to entertain.