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Notre Dame has been the backdrop of a few famous football movies on our list. (Photo by Marcus Snowden/Icon Sportswire)
December 10th, 2020
American cinema has long turned to football as a source of storytelling inspiration. From hair-raising halftime speeches, to hard-core training montages, and thrilling game sequences, football is often the perfect backdrop for stories of triumph, and sometimes failure.
While the sport can teach us so much, so can the movies that depict its compelling nature. Sometimes it’s a lesson on persistence or teamwork, while other times it’s a reminder to dig deep and believe in yourself.
From Rudy to The Waterboy, you can find a diverse collection of films that have tackled the subject of football. And while some storylines are created a bit equal and easily forgotten, others have transcended time to become beloved pieces of Hollywood film history.
Here we look back on some of the best to hit the big screen, as we rank the top 20 football movies of all time.
What 90s kid doesn’t remember Little Giants?
The classic family film tells the story of Becky “Icebox” O’Shea, who is talented enough to play football but shunned by her uncle’s pee wee team, the Cowboys, because she is a girl. Determined to compete, Becky and her dad (played by Rick Moranis) form their own squad, made up of Becky and her misfit friends.
Despite their underdog status, the Giants come together to defy the odds and begin to believe in themselves, with a little help from John Madden and Emmitt Smith, who make cameos in the film.
Not enough people consider this a football movie, but the entire plot revolves around a detective tasked with finding the abducted mascot of the Miami Dolphins.
While most critics panned the film, it also sent Jim Carrey to stardom. The screwball comedy features legendary Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, who has been held hostage by former teammate Ray Finkle.
The fictional kicker is bitter he missed a crucial field goal in the Super Bowl, because Marino held the ball with the laces in. To this day, Ace Ventura serves as a warning to holders everywhere.
This movie is a gritty representation of professional football, loosely based on the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1970s.
Nick Nolte stars as Phil Elliott, an aging, worn-down wide receiver, who has become dissatisfied with the game because of his coaches’ and management’s treatment of players.
Unlike other movies on our list, North Dallas Forty focuses on the darker side of football.
And now for the lighter, feel-good side of the NFL. Sort of.
Fantasy flick Heaven Can Wait features Warren Beatty as Joe Pendleton, a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams, who dies in a bike accident.
When his guardian angel realizes he plucked Pendleton from earth too early, the QB is granted a second chance, but must inhabit a new person’s body — that of a recently murdered millionaire.
This body-snatching football farce received nine Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, and inspired the Chris Rock adaptation, Down to Earth.
The first of two Notre Dame-centric movies on our list, Knute Rockne, All-American may be a bit old and outdated, but its famous halftime speech will live on forever.
Based on a true story, the biopic outlines the life of Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, who revolutionized the forward pass and turned the Fighting Irish into a powerhouse.
The film includes future president Ronald Reagan as halfback George Gipp.
Adam Sandler remade this famous football movie in 2005, but let’s not kid ourselves — the original is better.
The Longest Yard is a funny and semi-inspiring tale of inmates who form a football team, nicknamed the Mean Machine, to take on a group of callous prison guards.
Some of the scenes don't age particularly well, but overall, the flick is a fun look at football, with underlying political commentary.
Well-known Texas Longhorns fan Matthew McConaughey assumes the role of Marshall coach Jack Lengyel, who helped rebuild the Thundering Herd football program, following the tragic plane crash that killed 75 people, including 37 players and head coach Rick Tolley, in 1970.
Complemented by real-life game footage from the 1970 season, We Are Marshall is a moving portrayal of healing and resilience that doesn't end quite the same as a lot of other football movies.
Another motion picture about Texas football, Varsity Blues illustrates the highs and lows of high school sports, as Jonathan "Mox" Moxon replaces star quarterback Lance Harbor on the varsity squad.
The academically gifted signal-caller faces enormous pressure from his hard-nosed, foul-mouthed head coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight), as well as his football-obsessed father, who hopes Mox will follow in his footsteps rather than forge his own path.
This cult classic is basically a toned-down All the Right Moves, and a more obscene version of Friday Night Lights.
A bit cliché, but likeable, The Replacements is a sports comedy about the Washington Sentinels (there's a name idea, Football Team).
With four games remaining in the season, the Sentinels go on strike, which leaves the owner to scramble to find replacement players good enough to position Washington for a playoff run. Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) coaches the new crew, led by quarterback Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves), a former All-American at Ohio State.
This ode to second chances is based partially on the 1987 NFL strike and Washington's NFL team that went on to claim the Super Bowl, after its replacement squad won three games during the strike.
People talk about Raging Bull and Hoop Dreams and Rocky... they're great and all but have you seen THE REPLACEMENTS? Shane Falco is the GOAT and Keanu Reeves' hair should have nabbed an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor pic.twitter.com/Zfrrv7X6RT— Sean Finnegan (@Finne35mm) October 7, 2019
People talk about Raging Bull and Hoop Dreams and Rocky... they're great and all but have you seen THE REPLACEMENTS? Shane Falco is the GOAT and Keanu Reeves' hair should have nabbed an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor pic.twitter.com/Zfrrv7X6RT
Bull Durham and Tin Cup are far better Kevin Costner sports movies, but Draft Day deserves a bit more respect.
The fictional yarn about a Cleveland Browns' general manager gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse into an NFL front office.
Not quite a top football movie, but a decent film nonetheless, Draft Day provides a different take on the typical sports cinematic venture. Costner's character must decide what to do with the No. 1 overall selection in the NFL Draft — something the Browns haven't handled too well in the past.
The Express is a hidden gem, as not many people saw the film when it opened in theaters in 2008.
Based on the life of the first African American Heisman Trophy winner, this movie explores race and discrimination in sports, and one man's attempt to overcome it.
With the help of Syracuse coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), running back Ernie Davis becomes hugely successful as a college player, and even goes on to hear his name called first in the 1962 NFL Draft.
Tragedy strikes Davis afterward, which leaves this film on a melancholy note.
Every wannabe football star reconsidered their life path after watching Mark Wahlberg in Invincible.
Another football movie based on a true story, Invincible follows Vince Papale, a 30-year-old bartender who has lost just about everything, until he attends an open tryout for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Papale impresses new Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil enough to earn the final roster spot for the 1976 season. The oldest rookie in NFL history to play without college football experience, Papale goes on to compete at wide receiver and on special teams in Philly for three seasons. He also eventually married a Giants fan.
Not only is The Waterboy a top football movie, it’s a good Adam Sandler movie.
The football flick that had us all yelling, “You can do it!” is ridiculously funny, and surprisingly uplifting, as 31-year-old Bobby Boucher goes from taste-testing “high quality H20” to pouring on back-breaking tackles for the South Central Louisiana State Mud Dogs.
The story is a bit over the top, but what Sandler plot isn’t?
The cast elevates this Oliver Stone film more than the actual script and filmmaking, but Any Given Sunday is nonetheless a good football movie. From Jamie Foxx, to LL Cool J, Cameron Diaz, and Dennis Quaid, this fictional football movie is brimming with '90s star power. The most memorable moment, of course, comes when Al Pacino’s character — Miami Sharks head coach Tony D’Amato — delivers his motivational speech about a game of inches.
The true story of Bears running back Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo's unlikely friendship, Brian's Song was a made-for-TV masterpiece in the '70s. With solid performances by future Star Wars icon Billy Dee Williams and Godfather alum James Caan, Brian's Song is an emotional depiction of two professional teammates and roommates who grow close during a time of racial strife. The film is most known for Sayers' famous speech, in which he dedicates the George S. Halas Most Courageous Player Award to Piccolo, who is dying of cancer. Good luck keeping your eyes dry while watching this movie.
“Old Days”Gale Sayers(played by Billy Dee Williams)Emotional Speech about Brian Piccolo in the 1971 Movie“Brian’s Song”#Chicago #Bears #movies #1970s pic.twitter.com/QO7X6YdfV7— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) June 30, 2020
“Old Days”Gale Sayers(played by Billy Dee Williams)Emotional Speech about Brian Piccolo in the 1971 Movie“Brian’s Song”#Chicago #Bears #movies #1970s pic.twitter.com/QO7X6YdfV7
Friday Night Lights was such a hit in 2004, it eventually inspired an NBC TV series by the same name. Adapted from the novel by H. G. Bissinger, the film accompanies the 1988 Permian High School Panthers and head coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) on their quest to win a state championship. Another coming-of-age story, Friday Night Lights identifies the struggles of small-town America, while young kids deal with the everyday pressures of family life and school, on top of the expectation they must win in football, no matter the cost.
The true story of NFL offensive tackle Michael Oher, who went from homeless teen to budding football star, is brought to life in this touching tribute to family and football. The Blind Side earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar in the role of Leigh Anne Tuohy, who takes in Oher as a foster parent and helps him not only improve his grades, but work his way to a football scholarship and a first-round NFL draft selection.
The critically-acclaimed Tom Cruise feature is not only a good football movie, but a romantic dramedy seeping with heart. Filled with electric performances from Cuba Gooding Jr., who won Best Supporting Actor for his role as Arizona Cardinals receiver Rod Tidwell, Cruise, and Renée Zellweger, this film didn’t include a whole lot of football action, but it showed us a fascinating peek into life behind the scenes. It also handed us some of the most memorable lines in cinematic history, from “Show me the money” to “You had me at hello.”
One of the most famous underdog stories captured on film, Rudy is considered by many to be the best football movie of all time. Featuring a young Sean Astin, the feel-good drama chronicles the real-life journey of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, who dreamt of playing football for Notre Dame but lacked the talent, physical stature, money, and grades to do so. That didn’t stop Rudy from chasing his goal. He enrolled at a nearby college, worked diligently to overcome a learning disability, and eventually transferred to Notre Dame, with the chance to take the field for the Fighting Irish. To this day, kids know the story of Rudy and the famous final scene, in which the crowd chants his name, before the coach finally puts Rudy in the game.
Clearly the best football movies come from true stories of triumph. In 2000, Remember the Titans enchanted audiences with the retelling of coach Herman Boone’s hiring at a Virginia high school, where he becomes the first black head coach of the school’s racially integrated football team. An inspirational account of teamwork and acceptance, Remember the Titans taught us the importance of looking past our differences, uniting for a common cause, and doing what is right, even when it’s the hardest thing to do. Not only is the storytelling good, but so is the soundtrack, which takes a central focus at times in the film. Ryan Gosling, Donald Faison from Scrubs, and Hayden Panettiere also appear in what quickly became a huge hit in the early 2000s, and is now known today as one of the greatest football movies of all time.
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