Sports Nut

ESPN Sacks Bear Bryant

A night of made-for-TV college football.

ESPN plans to show a college football doubleheader Saturday night, even though the regular season ended last week. First up is the sports version of the Oscars, the Heisman Trophy presentation. Taking an hour to open a single envelope makes even the Academy Awards marathon seem sprightly. This year’s contest is wide open, but as ever there is little reason to tune in until about 8:45 p.m. ET, right before the announcement is made. Just in case you forgot how turgid these ceremonies are prior to the big moment, ESPN Classic is helpfully re-airing shows from previous years. As always, the Heisman will go to a quarterback or running back, ignoring deserving lugs like Miami center Brett Romberg.

Still from The Junction Boys
Junction Boys: A load of Hollywood hooey

Moments after the suspense ends comes ESPN’s second foray into TV movie-making: The Junction Boys, based on a true episode in the legend of Paul “Bear” Bryant, played here by Tom Berenger. The coach took his first team of Texas A&M Aggies, the 1954 version, to a drought-hit backwater called Junction, Texas, and proceeded to run and beat them until only 38 of 111 gridders hobbled back to College Station. The team was forever treasured by Bryant as an exemplar of his blood-and-guts approach to football. That a tribute to this low-water mark in the treatment of student-athletes follows a glitzy award ceremony deserves some sort of programming Heisman Trophy.

That a movie glorifying such old-school methods would appear on ESPN is ironic to say the least. No outlet has done more to boost the individual over the team as much as Bristol U.’s boys, with their emphasis on the showboating aspects of sports. The only way one of the real-life Junction Boyscould have appeared on ESPN would be by complaining about the punishment meted out by Bryant. Bear’s various assaults and batteries make ESPN’s previous film subject, Bobby Knight, seem like a pansy in comparison. Knight only grabbed a kid by the neck—Bryant smashes one player’s nose with a head-butt and runs another into a near-fatal heatstroke.

The film was shot in low-cost Australia, which allows most of the production budget to go toward ESPN’s standard carpet-bomb marketing. Amusingly, the entire cast, except Berenger, is Australian, from the players to the country doctor to Bryant’s Hee-Hawish, whiskey-guzzling consigliere. The players handle the prairie accents a lot better than they do the football, which may explain why so little on-field action is seen. And despite the presence of a “football coordinator” and an NFL Films cinematographer in the crew, the action is the usual clichéd stuff, with every hit sending guys flying through the air and everyone breaking tackles by throwing the defender out of the way. Apparently, the cast was too busy discussing the big Wallabies-All Blacksrugby match to learn the subtleties of gridiron.

Junction forfeits any claim to legitimacy by changing the names of all the players, denying minor football royalty like Gene Stallings and Jack Pardee, both of whom were on the 1954 team, their deserving place in the spotlight. Instead, faceless characters are given paper-thin subplots straight off the Hollywood assembly line: this one with daddy issues, that one with mama issues, this one with marriage issues. At least the latter allows Bryant to shout, “All the football’s running out the end of your prick!” A gem Burgess Meredith’s Mick would have been proud to utter.

Still from The Junction Boys
Croiky! These Aussies are clueless about gridiron

Berenger has the physical presence and the stiff-backed righteousness to realistically portray the Bear. His role in Junction, however, is really a direct descendant of Berenger’s Oscar-nominated turn as the psychopathic Sgt. Barnes in Platoon. Every time another player collapsed, I thought Berenger-as-Bryant would turn to an assistant and growl, “Grease this whole fucking village!” And when the town doctor admonishes the coach on how close to death he is driving the players, I was praying for the retort, “Death? What do y’all know about death?”

The main problem lies in the script, which is all setup and no payoff. The boys are taken to the camp, endure punishing two-a-days for a week or so (actually 10 days, although the movie never makes clear just how long they are there), and leave, presumably to win every regular-season game from there on out. But there are no scenes showing the Aggies outworking their “soft” opponents from U of Texas or TCU—in fact, there are no game scenes at all. The story abruptly leaps from the team bussing away from Junction to the 25th anniversary reunion of the survivors, with only a brief dialogue in voice-over registering what happened to Aggie football post-camp.

Perhaps this is because the facts don’t exactly mesh with the movie’s theme: that a championship team was built at Junction. A&M’s 1954 squad was gritty, all right, but it was worn down by the exhausting camp and outmanned by its Southwest Conference opponents, going 1-9. The ensuing seasons showed vast improvement, less because of Junction than an influx of new, talented blood, led by John David Crow, who would win the 1957 Heisman (in an untelevised ceremony). These new players were lured to College Station the real old-fashioned way, by buying them off (the film alludes to this by having Bryant give his secret to recruiting: “cash”). Enough chicanery went on to earn A&M probation for the 1955-56 seasons, so even though the Aggies won the SWC title in ‘56, they were prohibited from playing in the Cotton Bowl. The Bear then pulled a Dennis Franchione in reverse and bolted for the Alabama job, and legendary status.

ESPN’s initial foray into moviemaking, A Season on the Brink, featured a disastrous casting choice in Brian Dennehy as Bobby Knight and a field-house-full of curse words. It also had the author of the book on which the movie was based, John Feinstein, complaining to the press about the film being unfaithful to his precious prose.

ESPN short-circuited this possibility with Junction by pre-emptively hiring Jim Dent, the author of the book, to write for its Web site (although that could just be part of ESPN’s policy of bringing every living, breathing sportswriter in America into the corporate fold). If the movies don’t improve in quality, don’t be surprised if you see Roger Ebert or Anthony Lane’s byline with an ESPN logo next to it in the near future.

(Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a producer for ESPN, but I never made a TV movie there.)