‘Last Chance U’ gave us the opportunity to follow players who for one reason or another couldn’t attain or maintain Division 1 status. These reasons can range from not being able to meet testing standards coming out of high school–which is often linked not just to personal choices but to the way kids are moved along in order to please athletic departments–to asinine NCAA policies that punish players who want to switch schools, yet allow for coaches to do the same free of penalty, to those who lose eligibility due to off the field issues.
These players often end up at junior college programs, far below the aspirations they previously set for themselves. ‘Last Chance U’, featuring East Mississippi Community College players, gives us a chance to follow such players who probably fit every scenario possible as to why a player isn’t starring at a D1 school.
I wanted to go over some highlights from the season. The highlights are mostly spoiler free.
Best recurring moments:
Ice baths: The post practice ice bath scenes often offered poignant moments, but did so with the most straightforward conversations. Ronald Ollie and Marcel Andry weren’t shown having a ton to talk about during these sessions, but the moments were genuine even if they weren’t shown to go in depth. At one point Ollie and Andry talk about avoiding class throughout high school. There is humor in how they recount doing everything possible not to be in class; but there’s also a somewhat morose feeling in how they both agree that being at a junior college program opened their eyes to how those high school years are impacting their desire to be at a D1 school. These moments are supremely relatable. What could you have done differently in high school to change your current path in college? What could the schools have done differently to better equip you . . . them?
These sessions serve as a time for player to player reflection in an uncensored environment.
Brittany Wagner’s office: Wagner is the school’s athletic instructional advisor/compliance assistant. Shortly put, she chases down players to make sure they’re showing up to class, doing assignments and are staying on track for graduation. Her other job is to be an ear on endless loan for players. Just about every featured player is in her office for extensive stretches. Sometimes they’re summoned because they’re in jeopardy of being dropped from a class or have missing quizzes. Other times they just drop by when they don’t have class, practice or team meetings. Players quickly learn to be comfortable with Wagner, and she vacillates from temporary mother figure, to friend, to exactly what her job is, keeping them eligible to be on the field for the benefit of the school.
However, even when acting in the capacity of her position, she always manages to do so with empathy and care at the forefront. There’s no surprise the best conversations happen in this office. The team and school don’t always come first during these talks. Instead, the young men’s concerns, trivialities and goals supersede the need to meet expectations. Talks quickly transition from Wagner letting players know what rappers mean by ‘purp’ in songs to trying to convince players to be receptive of offers from schools not on their shortlist.
Motivational speeches/Bible study: These are actually awful, but I love them. They’re the most useless moments in the show, but they’re necessary in showing ways in which the coaching staff will try getting players to buy into game plans each week. These are headed by the offensive coordinator Marcus Wood. Wood finds a Bible verse he can somehow relate to the game plan that week, then tries to explain how it applies. One such moment revolved around a verse that describes a warhorse and how that horse can be the team if they put in the effort to make it so. When he’s done with the Bible verse lesson, Wood quickly transitions back into normal football mode with the grace of a turkey.
Most interesting stories:
Ollie: Following the ups and downs of Ollie is a tightrope act of reveling in his joyous nature, fear that he’ll continue to pursue a dream he doesn’t necessarily love, fear that the obstacles he builds for himself and those given to him will take that loveless goal away, and desire to see his past not be what ultimately defines all of his future endeavors.
At one point Ollie shows up to Wagner’s office with only a pair of new headphones after setting out to buy books and supplies at the bookstore. He starts off headed in the right direction, but he doesn’t always get there. Here, Ollie is frustrating and lovable. In another moment he almost calls it quits over coaches and teammates questioning the validity of a concussion. He gives them everything they want on game days. But after that who has his back?
John Franklin III: Franklin might be the most electric personality throughout the six episodes. His athletic talent is evident even though he’s never named the starter and is yanked at the first mistake. Regardless, it remains easy to see that he’s the QB the team should be starting. Franklin knows this, and the coaching staff seems to know this but actively ignores it. He wants to be the star and thinks he deserves that role as well. It’s hard to argue with him, a Florida State University transfer.
The spark you see in him burns brighter when he talks about being at EMCC, because he’s been on the D1 stage and knows he should still be there. However, NCAA policies have taken away that right from him. Franklin, as well as nearly everyone featured, views EMCC as jail time they must complete before moving on to bigger and better things. While others simply grow tired of their surroundings, you get the feeling that Franklin is angry and hasn’t accepted this detour. He has a right to be and shouldn’t accept it.
Watching him on the sidelines during games is at times infuriating. As Franklin continuously finds a camera to proclaim his ability to, you believe him. You know he’s right that he should be in the game. You know he’s right when he says it’ll be a problem for the other team if coach puts him in. You know he doesn’t just believe the things he’s saying; he’s already seen them happen in his own mind. He’s right. You’re right to believe him. Yet, he remains firmly anchored to the bench most games.
DJ Law: For as sure as he is of himself on the field, Law is as unsure of himself in the classroom. Outside of Ollie, Wagner spends the most time trying to wrangle Law for class. Law received D1 interest out of high school and again while at EMCC. His ability to make the grades have kept these interests at bay, however. Law, like Ollie and others, tells Wagner he doesn’t have a plan b if football doesn’t work out, but at the same time he flirts with walking away from it all.
Brittany Wagner: You know how Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Anne Tuohy, in ‘The Blind Side’ was forced down our throats as a guardian angel character who took no nonsense from anyone? This is actually Wagner, but without coming off as contrived. The empathy feels genuine, the passion authentic, and yet she doesn’t buck at the notion that part of this is also just a function of her job to help the school win. She can be admirable as a confidant while also striving to do her job. As a one woman wrecking crew she puts in as much legwork as the entire coaching staff.
Scooba: Scooba, Mississippi is the town where EMCC resides and is home to about 700 residents. Scooba locals, and those who travel from neighboring towns, who root for the team are something to behold. This is basically ‘Friday Night Lights’ with more at stake. There are identities and self-worth tied to this team year in and year out. Here national championships are the norm, and losing one game can summon dark clouds over the entire area. This town and area live vicariously through its football team, not unlike many D1 towns, but they can only do so if a player either fails to make it to D1 or is forced to go elsewhere because the rules are unfavorable. It takes disappointment to create joy at the JUCO level.
Wyatt Roberts is as unassuming off the field as he is on it. This somehow allowed him to remain the starter over John Franklin all season. Not making a mistake was just as important as big play potential. Also, being a walking Miller Light in this part of Mississippi is good as gold. The thing that is very interesting about Roberts is his desire to continue football, but he’ll only do so on his terms. He wants to go to a notable school after serving as the backup to an Ole Miss starting quarterback before they made it there. This means he’s completely, externally at least, satisfied with the idea of walking away from football and going to school as a regular student if scholarships land him somewhere on his secondary picks list. He’s not spectacular, but he’s pretty interesting in his steadfastness to being unnoteworthy.
Coach Buddy Stephens definitely knows how to play to the cameras. I’m sure he never turns it off when the cameras aren’t around, but he definitely turns it up for the cameras. He’s a successful coach as far as wins and losses go, but it doesn’t seem like he always puts his players first. The end of the year brawl, and subsequent comments from Stephens, lost him the team at a time where they needed him the most. Resorting to regurgitating rhetoric about thug-like behavior when dealing with a majority African-American group of young men isn’t the best way to endear yourself. His apology seemed heartfelt, although not direct enough in addressing exactly what he said, but I was okay with the team shutting down on him.
Lines that stuck with me:
Two lines of conversation stick with me throughout the six episodes. One is “What do you think your life would be like if you came out Black,” which was random, noteworthy and funny. There was no lead-up to this question. It was given to us without context in the middle of an otherwise mundane practice. The white player who was asked the question didn’t really know how to respond other than to say something along the lines of “the same I guess, just black . . . I don’t know how to answer that because I’ve never been Black.”
The other one that stuck out to me is courtesy of Coach Stephens. After grilling dinner for his family, his wife says she should’ve made a salad. Coach’s reply is, “No, we’ve got steak & chips. We’re good.”
These two conversations give you a good look at Scooba and EMCC.
Football, as a sport and overall culture, often goes above and beyond to show that its athletes, while being integral to its success, are not important as people. We often consider D1 athletes, but not lower ranks, during these conversations, and that’s when we consider the athletes at all.
‘Last Chance U’ represents a new opportunity to be empathetic towards these players–although the reality that the reason this show exists is that people are ready to gobble up football shouldn’t be lost.