Sports stories are so attractive because, like sports themselves, there’s an identifiable goal. Reaching a goal means winning, a quantifiable return on all the sweat and pain it takes to achieve it. Whether a diamond, oval, or, as in football, a meticulously laid-out and unforgiving grid, the game and the goal give shape to the formless, confusing mess that life often is. But, in Last Chance U, the new, six-episode documentary series from Netflix, the concept of goals is evocatively blurred by its focus on a unique environment where the usual drama is heightened even further. The young men playing junior college football for the series’ East Mississippi Community College Lions are extremely talented and in various kinds of big trouble, their pasts and their possible futures balanced so precariously as to make their daily struggles more than usually fraught and compelling.
It’s a testament to how well the fictional TV series Friday Night Lights captured the scholastic football experience that viewers will see parallels everywhere in Last Chance U. Even though the team is called the Lions, they have a lot more in common with the West Dillon Panthers than the sad-sack East Dillon Lions of later FNL seasons. A powerhouse in junior college football, these Lions, winners of 24 consecutive games and four-time national champions, are, like the Panthers, expected to stomp all over their opponents by sheer dint of overwhelming talent. Indeed, its junior college division instituted a mercy rule (informally called the “Buddy Rule,” after Lions coach Buddy Stephens) which lets the clock run in the second half if, as is usually the case, the Lions are running roughshod over their hapless rivals.
Just how EMCC—a tiny school located in rural Scooba, Mississippi (population 700 or so)—became the feared king of this junior college circuit forms the series’ narrative spine. Stephens transformed the school’s moribund football program by recruiting high school and first-year college players whose educational weaknesses and/or misdeeds made them desperate to try to win their way into—or back into—Division I college football. At one point, Stephens takes a call from Chad Kelly (nephew of NFL great Jim Kelly), his former quarterback. As a helpful journalist explains in voice-over, Kelly had washed out of Clemson for “conduct detrimental to the team” (among other things, he got in a fight with some bouncers, and threatened to return and kill them with an assault rifle) before leading EMCC to a national championship. He’s now the starting QB at Ole Miss.
“If they don’t grow up fast, they’re gonna get punched in the mouth,” explains Stephens, and Last Chance U makes that fact wrenchingly clear as, in its first two episodes, it introduces this year’s Lions. Quarterback prospect John Franklin III (nicknamed “Showtime” all through high school) is the can’t-miss prospect on the verge of missing because he can’t get the playing time he needs at Florida State. Explosive running back D.J. Law knows the key to playing in the NFL—and caring for his young son—is passing some junior college classes. The same goes for burly, ebullient lineman Ronald Ollie, the team “character” whose impoverished upbringing was so awful that Stephens tells reporters after a game, “If everybody knew his story, they’d be fighting for Ollie.”
And while it’s easy to root for these young men, Last Chance U is hardly sentimental about why they’re in such a precarious position. Already versed in platitudes by a lifetime of sports success, Law talks feelingly about being the first one of his family to go to college and how much is riding on him, yet he almost immediately starts blowing off classes. The charismatic Franklin, too, knows what’s expected of him, but he’s stubbornly unwilling to hide the mercenary nature of his presence at EMCC. “At the end of the day, yeah, it’s all about the team,” he tells the cameras, “but you gotta worry about yourself, too. I came here for one reason only.” Throughout these episodes, the Lions players are continually caught showing how between-worlds they are. One minute they are brash and overconfident in their talents, and the next sees the fear of one final failure turn them heartbreakingly young and vulnerable when faced with an unexpected setback.
Last Chance U is also about the uneasy, sometimes queasy, symbiotic relationship between these talented, endangered young men and the people whose continued success depends on getting them through school, no matter what. Buddy Stephens, first presented via hard-eyed close-up, with requisite “tough guy” musical theme is, in these first two episodes, not so much contradictory as cagey. His blusteringly profane leadership is less Eric Taylor than Buddy Garrity, his obvious affection for his players not preventing Stephens from stereotypical gym-teacher bullying (“Don’t be a pussy!” he berates one upset player), or from winking at the players’ “boys will be boys” misdeeds. (Speaking of the $300 fine they’ll get for having girls in their rooms, he jokingly advises them to chip in for a motel room for eight hours.) Like everyone on his staff, he knows that steering these volatile, often damaged young men where he wants them to go requires a formula of tough love and kid gloves that’s almost impossible to calibrate. He also seems more of a successful recruiter than coach—these first episodes see him and his staff making a lot of sloppy decisions, suggesting that “top of the minor leagues” might be where he belongs.
Stephens’ supposed opposite is Brittany Wagner, whose tenure at EMCC sees her shepherding class after class of Lions players through what’s clearly the school’s academic path of least resistance. Addressing the assembled Lions, she lectures about “your ‘A’ classes” as key to keeping their GPAs high enough to stay on the team, the knowing stress on the term underlining her self-described title as the school’s “eligibility specialist.” Wagner’s relationship with the players is especially poignant, as her sincere hopes for these young men (who all clearly appreciate her affection, if not her academic efforts) must ever be couched in terms indicating they all know the game, so to speak.
Even so, Wagner spends most of her screen time here literally following players around and begging them to do the bare minimum necessary. (She’s constantly pleading that they at least bring a pencil and notebook to class.) In a telling scene in the second episode, Wagner’s meeting with a hungry college recruiter sees her skillfully spinning one player’s habitual disinterest in schooling in such a way that both parties know they’ve done their due diligence without ever having to say what they both know. Wagner repeats the almost identical mantra “This is where I’ve been able to impact the most people,” in each of the first two episodes, and she obviously has so much invested in each of her charges’ success that it makes her unspoken acceptance of compromise that much more affecting.
There’s a lot of coding going on elsewhere in Last Chance U as well. John and teammate Wyatt Roberts’ rivalry over who will be named starting quarterback sees the Lions’ coaches describing them according to the subliminally racial terms endemic to sports. Wyatt, the local (white) recruit, according to an assistant coach, is “hardworking,” “dedicated,” and “has done everything we asked him to do.” While touted (and black) John is a “tremendous athlete” who “has every tool in the world.” (They’re further defined—and commodified—when described as “a Corvette versus a truck.”) In addition, tailgating Lions fans are shown to be largely self-segregated, with one white fan admonishing, “We loved them before they started winning.” Stephens himself, preparing John to use his athleticism in a coming game, urges him, “Will you please run tonight like you stole some shit?”
Promotional materials describe the Lions’ season as a trying one, where the team’s methods are “called deeply into question.” And the very first episode opens with footage of the Lions and another team engaged in a brutal on-field brawl, with voice-over by a furious Stephens exclaiming, “I swear to God I won’t coach a team like this. Because all I saw was thug bullshit.” As we get to know the players, coach, and the system to which they all belong at EMCC, Last Chance U makes the ominous specter of that coming altercation seem disturbing, heartbreaking, and somehow inevitable.