A second chance. Regret. Redemption.
These themes are often present in sports movies. Similar to the ideal of an underdog story, the notion of an athlete overcoming the past and triumphing in the end is a story that touches many filmgoers. In most cases, the stories play out over a short period of time: Think about Rocky Balboa’s rematches against Apollo Creed or Clubber Lang. Sometimes they play out over years, such as Roy Hobbs returning to baseball with the New York Knights. These are more superhuman stories, told on the biggest stages in sport. But a more human, more relatable story is told in the 1986 comedy “The Best of Times.” A story about high school, failure, and a chance to right a past that gnaws at you as you age.
The movie opens upon Jack Dundee, a banker played aptly by the late Robin Williams. In his office, Dundee is playing out a film reel from his final high school football game: the big rivalry game between Taft and Bakersfield. For years, the Bakersfield Tigers have been the dominant team in this rivalry, but finally the Taft Rockets have a team that can give the big boys a run. Led by their star quarterback, Reno Hightower (Kurt Russell), the Rockets believe that their 1972 team can finally pull out the win. The teams are knotted at zero for the game’s final play, and the Rockets have the football and a chance for the victory. Hightower lofts a long throw to Dundee who is wide open at the goal line, but the receiver fails to secure the perfectly-thrown pass, and the game ends in a scoreless tie.
Thirteen years later Dundee and Hightower are struggling in many ways. Hightower has opened a garage and specializes in custom paint jobs for vans, often trying to duplicate famous works by Michelangelo or van Gogh for his customers. Dundee is married to the daughter of Bakersfield’s biggest booster, who is also the president of the bank where he works. His father-in-law reminds him daily of his drop in the big game. Both men are struggling to keep their marriage on solid ground, and at some level both wonder what could have been if Dundee had only secured that final pass.
But the pain that Dundee feels is one that many former athletes feel, regardless of the level of competition. There is always that one play that got away, that one mistake that you made that years later haunts you. The “what if” of a singular moment in time, that if things had turned out differently, may have changed your life. Maybe just for a brief period, or maybe just changed your life entirely. Dundee is living that on a daily basis, and that pain and anguish is something with which many can identify.
So Dundee concocts a scheme, a rematch between the teams, 13 years later. After some convincing he is able to get both teams to agree, and the game will be replayed.
Predictably, the game gets off to a slow start for the Rockets. The Tigers are a well-oiled machine, jumping out to an early lead with a 26-0 advantage after two quarters. But at halftime, Hightower discovers that one of the incidents that got him on board with the game – a paint attack on former Taft cheerleaders including his estranged wife by the Bakersfield mascot – was executed by Dundee himself in an attempt to gain support for the contest. Enraged, Hightower snaps Dundee’s glasses in half, lets his teammate know he’s benched for the second half, and changes his cleats into his famous “white shoes:”
White shoes which, apparently, were magical. Because in the second half the Rockets cut into the lead and the game is on.
Dundee returns to the sideline, struggling to see a few feet in front of him and resigned to the fact that he won’t get a second chance. But with the game entering the final minutes, Hightower lets Dundee know on the sideline that if the Rockets get the ball for one last drive, Dundee is taking the field. When Taft takes over possession Dundee trots out to the huddle, unable to see without his glasses and facing press coverage from Bakersfield’s “Dr. Death,” Dundee spends every play of the drive on his back, driven into the turf by Dr. Death. Finally, with seconds left, the Rockets have time for one more play with the ball near midfield, trailing by five.
Hightower calls timeout to set up the play, and Dundee pulls him aside. He pleads with his quarterback that, despite all evidence to the contrary, he can get open. Hightower tells him that he was planning to throw to him, just to see him fail again, but that he wants to win and that he’s going to call someone else’s number. But Dundee makes his pitch, and it seems that his quarterback agrees. It’s time for the playcall:
Hightower, who has been dealing with pressure all night, calls a max protection play here, with the running back chipping the defensive end and flaring into the flat, and only two receivers running deep. Dundee runs a vertical route while his counterpart runs a deep corner – not a lot of progressions to this structure. But in reality, everyone wants to see this ball thrown to Dundee – including his father-in-law, who asks for it to be thrown his way from the Bakersfield sideline.
Presnap, Dundee sets this up as best as he can, knowing that all game long Dr. Death has been planting him on his back with the jam at the line of scrimmage. Before the play the defensive back predicts “death, humiliation and pain” for Dundee, to which the receiver replies “just come and get me.” When the ball is snapped, Death lunges at Dundee, who (recalling a spin move he displayed for a prostitute at the start of the film) avoids the jam by spiraling away and getting into his pattern. Death and the Bakersfield sideline look on in horror:
But Hightower still needs to get the pass off, and that is not a certainty. He is able to evade multiple defenders in the backfield (perhaps the chip from the RB was not as effective as it could have been) but with time running out, he’s able to spot Dundee running free and before he’s sacked, he uncorks a throw in the direction of redemption.
Dundee, wide open but without his glasses, has that second chance athletes often long for:
Look, it’s a silly movie with a silly concept behind it, but the emotions throughout it strike home for many athletes, myself included. There are still times, over 20 years later, when I think about plays from my final high school season and wonder how I could have altered the course of those games. What athlete wouldn’t want a shot at redemption, even decades later, when loss has been gnawing at them all those years? Regret is perhaps the most human emotion. The pain from an old wound, and the wonder of what could have been. For one night, Jack Dundee overcame that, and gave everyone who ever longed in the same way, hope that they could too.
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