Welfare mothers make better lovers. Or so says Neil Young. This was the only phrase I could think of as I watched the faith-based sports gem American Underdog with my 7 year old son Cole in a local movie theater. My son may never know what it will be like to be on welfare, to use food stamps or to play in the National Football League. Heck, the only thing he may end up retaining from this cinematic experience is that Arena League Football was once a thing and they had bizarre goal posts held together by netting.
“But what’s wrong with those goal posts?”, my son bellowed out loud in the darkened theater as I desperately tried to explain the history of Arena League Football to him in whispered, hushed tones. Would he remember this experience? I know I’ll certainly remember the fact that we watched the Disney football movie Invincible about 14 times in the past 2 years and that my son only refers to it as “Papale” (the character Mark Wahlberg plays was named Vincent Papale). This obsession led to my wife asking if I shouldn’t take him to this uplifting Kurt Warner biopic. I will also never forget his mind being blown by the fact that legendary coach Dick Vermeil (played gloriously by Greg Kinnear and Dennis Quaid respectively) mentored both Vincent Papale and Kurt Warner through storybook rides to a specific kind of greatness.
It’s possible American Underdog is the cheesiest film made in the past decade. Every sports cliché in the book is flung at the screen and it is as unintentionally hilarious as it is oddly compelling. The fact that I lived through the Kurt Warner saga and remember it vividly makes it even more surreal (I was an infant when Vince Papale came on the scene for the Philadelphia Eagles – so it’s not quite the same). Honestly, I would be ok if once a year there was a Dick Vermeil movie where he plucks a “super sleeper” from obscurity and rah rahs their dumb ass to success in a Gatorade bath of endearing sentimentality. Basically a Hallmark Channel for dudes. Here’s Dick Vermeil coaching a homeless man from a homeless shelter into becoming a Starbucks barista. Here’s Dick Vermeil coaching a guy to a win in the Nathan’s 4th of July hot dog eating competition. Here’s Dick Vermeil coaching a sinful future priest to stay in seminary school and eventually become Pope. Here’s Dick Vermeil coaching a wheelchair race in a nursing home. I think I would watch any of that at this point in my life.
Don’t get me wrong. I KNOW these movies are corny as hell, but my son absolutely adores this stuff. He adores it in the way I adored the movie Hoosiers when my 5th grade basketball coach took the entire team to see it in 1986. Were we inspired? Hell yeah we were! There is a scene in this movie where Animal Mother from Full Metal Jacket (cinema’s Adam Baldwin! I can’t believe he’s still alive) yells “I taught him that!!” at the screen when Warner is starting his first game for the Rams. It is trash cinema at its finest and I would have run through a brick wall for that mustachioed curmudgeon had I seen this as a boy.
There’s always a tempered darkness to these underdog stories. A father who’s a drunk or missing in action, a death in the family, or some kind of calamity in which our hero must rise above like some everyman caped crusader. In this case it’s the guy from Shazaam showing some actual acting chops in scenes where he interacts with a blind disabled child, runs 3 miles in the frozen tundra to buy $4.86 worth of gas, has to pay for something with food stamps and ask for a supermarket job application. For most people this would be completely over the top, but I related to this in a way I never thought possible because I’ve been there and I hope my son never has to be. Unfortunately at the same time I wish I could download my experiences into him and my daughter so they know what it’s like to not get everything they want.
Early on in American Underdog there is a scene in which Shazaam Kurt Warner fixes a blind kid’s radio then they lay on the bathroom floor while the kid sings “You and me go fishin’ in the dark. Lyin’ on our backs and countin’ the stars, where the cool grass grows” and I looked at my son and almost started bawling. I couldn’t help but think of the parade of guy friends my mom met as a divorcee on welfare and just how extremely rare it is to thrust a random dude into a circumstance like Warner’s and have it all work. It just rarely works out like that. I remember how annoying we all thought Brenda Warner and her kids were in 1999. Particularly Brenda, who it seemed they took a shot of every 5 minutes in every game Warner played in. It was just so freaking annoying and corny. Of course I was an angry 24 year old drunk in 1999 and now I am a sober 46 year old who has 2 children of his own. Plus, I may have been a tiny bit bitter that the Rams were stealing the 1998 Vikings schtick of bombing the ball all over the field and then actually didn’t blow it by missing a field goal at the end of the season.
Sometimes I want people to feel the feeling you get when you walk up to the cashier at a grocery store and ask if they take food stamps. It’s not good believe me (especially having to do it, or watch your mother do it as a kid). Even if you are an absolute asshole intent on stealing the government’s money there is at least a tiny shred of uncompromising embarrassment to that transaction. Sometimes I want people to feel what it feels like to pay for your lunch in High School with “free hot lunch” tickets because your family is too poor to pay for them. I specifically want my kids to know this feeling, but I don’t know how to do it. One time I had to ask for an application for employment at Fleet Farm when I was 18 and then I got turned down for the job and had to go back to working for my dad’s landscaping company. This was a driving factor in me getting the hell out of Winona, MN. Nobody would hire me! Not even McDonald’s. I would then repeatedly get fired by my dad for swearing at him in front of his employees on purpose so I could go home…only to return disheveled and shamed when I was turned down for a job at Kwik Trip. Will my kids ever be in this situation? I sincerely doubt it.
We live in a time where people are too put out to get a shot or wear a mask. Where the gap between rich and poor is as wide as Joe Biden’s veneer-filled grin and as deep as Donald Trump’s debt statements… yet all this could be solved not by “uniting the country” but by dividing it. That’s right, let’s divide all men into two groups. One half has to wait in a line 12 deep at Hy-Vee and be forced to ask the 17 year old cashier for a job application. The other group has to go through the Burger King drive-thru on a 10-speed bike during the noon rush and ask for one. Everyone needs to feel that refreshing sting at least once in their life whether they be 18 or 58.
I read a review of American Underdog where the person went to the bathroom after Kurt and Brenda broke up, only to return to see them back together. This person then asked how they got back together and the other person replied “her parents died in a Tornado lol”. Yes that is unintentionally funny to the extreme, the kind of stuff as a 24 year old I would have laughed harder at than when John Travolta asks “Do you…WANT LUNCH?” in another faith-based film called Battlefield Earth. Looking back now though, I think about the unexpected gut punch that comes when your Grandparents who acted as parents and partially raised you meet their end. I personally went into a drinking spiral after my Grandpa Joe died and didn’t realize why until I had my first kid. That old dude yelled at me more than Evil Mike Martz does at Kurt in practice, but he was the one who consistently drove me to those practices. I guess in the end that counts for something.
I hope my son takes something out of this moment and these high fivin’ football shows, but who knows if he will. When I was in 8th grade my dad took me to the film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I was supposed to travel to Arcadia, Wisconsin with the basketball team. We never traveled anywhere at that point and going to Arcadia, Wisconsin from Winona, MN was akin to taking a space rocket to the moon to me. Yet I still went with my father because he never took me to movies and I rarely saw him because he worked 7 days a week. The only thing I remember from that night was when Steve Martin had a cork on his fork to prevent him from poking his eye out. I think that pretty much sums up my childhood in a nice neat bow. I need to do better. Kurt Warner, Gene Hackman’s coach from Hoosiers, Vincent Papale, and Animal Mother would want it that way. Headed out to do pushups in the driveway. Be right back.
“Freddy, as a younger man, I was a sculptor, a painter, and a musician. There was just one problem: I wasn’t very good. As a matter of fact, I was dreadful. I finally came to the frustrating conclusion that I had taste and style, but not talent. I knew my limitations. We all have our limitations, Freddy. Fortunately, I discovered that taste and style were commodities that people desired. Freddy, what I am saying is: know your limitations. You are a moron.” – Michael Caine, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels