Christmas is an NBA holiday, but this year the NFL is aiming. Along with two tasty Saturday games, the league has a pair of upcoming films that will rival any Hallmark TV feature film for sentimentality.
American Underdog, Lionsgate’s biopic of former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, comes only to the movies – a ragged-to-wealth story according to my own heart. I moved to Missouri for college when Warner stranded on the St Louis Rams list in 1998 as the 27-year-old third stringer and watched each game of his standout season in 1999. Years later, as a Sports Illustrated reporter, I would vibrate with professional football insider Michael Silver over his 2000 Warner biography All Things Possible, the text American Underdog is based on.
Viewers familiar with Warner’s story will be relieved to know that the script hits all the big beats: the âKill Kurtâ college drills that instilled his patience in the pocket, the arena league football experience that fine-tuned his quick release from viper, coach Dick Vermeil’s weeping ‘We will rally to Kurt Warner’ press conference that took place after a low blow to the knee from Chargers safety Rodney Harrison wiped out the starter of the Trent Green Rams. As for viewers who don’t know the story, oh yeah, it’s all true. Warner really stocked the grocery store shelves after being unedited. Her beloved future in-laws were truly killed by a tornado that swept through their Arkansas home. And when Warner finally pulled it off, he was really that good, like a 100-rated passing god that could only be created in a video game.
Christmas Day is also premiered by All Madden, Fox TV’s highly anticipated documentary about the American icon. Like American Underdog, it’s also a trip of nostalgia, a chance to spend 75 minutes with an authentic character who has been fairly reclusive since his retirement in 2008. Co-directed by Fox Sports reporter Tom Rinaldi, undisputed champion of the fuzzy interview, All Madden doesn’t offer a lot of twists; Most of those who have played football in the past 40 years are undoubtedly familiar with Madden’s success as a coach, analyst and pitcher. Where the doc surprises is who he talks about Madden in – most notably boss Rupert Murdoch, who paid a king’s ransom to bring Madden to Fox after he outbid CBS for the NFL broadcast rights. Besides Murdoch, among the three dozen people polled by the doc, ideas range from Madden’s wife and sons (What? He has a family?) “John Madden told about my career,” he says.
Madden was in the booth for Warner’s epic 1999 season, which saw âPop Warnerâ punctuate the league in touchdowns and QB ratings while leading the Rams past the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXIV. Along the way, he became one of 10 players to be named regular season and Super Bowl MVP in the same year. Most memorable, he brought the arena league experience to the NFL, hanging in his pocket just long enough to hit an Isaac Bruce or Az-Zahir Hakim in stride.
American Underdog lingers in the fallow years before its breakthrough in the Rams, but spends most of its 112 minutes focusing on the romance between Kurt and Brenda Warner – the original ride or death. (They are the executive producers of the film.) St Louis Rams fans, who should feel seen by directors Andrew and Jon Erwin, will vividly remember Brenda calling for sports talk shows to defend her man. When they first met, Kurt was a neglected QB in second tier northern Iowa, and Brenda was a former single mother of two. The surprise here is the perfect cast. Zachary Levi nails Kurt’s sweetness as much as Anna Paquin does Brenda’s tenacity. But the revelation is Hayden Zaller as Zachary Warner, the son who was blinded after his biological father dropped him as a baby. And then there’s Dennis Quaid as Vermeil, a choice that will make football moviegoers who remember him as Any Given Sunday’s quarterback feel like they are old.
Besides the low-key title, there’s not much to quibble with American Underdog. (Although I can see Mike Martz, the chatty mastermind behind the attack on The Greatest Show on Turf, feeling salty about the doppelgÃ¤nger Chance Kelly for not having more linesâ¦) If this hero’s journey sometimes feels like a walk of faith is because the Warners do not hide their deep Christian belief. (He thanked Jesus on live television after the Super Bowl victory.) In another movie, religiosity can feel heavy. But in this one, you can’t say it’s not won given how miraculously things have turned out for Warner, a professional Football Hall of Fame member who might just be the best non player. drafted, if not Cinderella’s greatest story in sports.
The fact that he continues to thrive on television is a testament to Madden’s lasting impact as a teacher who has done more to demystify the game than anyone else. He did so not only with clear commentary, but with graphic innovations like the telestrator, which allowed him to scribble on our TV screens like he would on a blackboard. Even the Madden video game franchise has had a pronounced effect on the camera angles and graphical presentations used in live games.
And then there’s the stuff you forget about Madden: that he hosted Saturday Night Live, that he was right behind Michael Jordan as a pitchman. Sprinkling some of those classic commercials on it was a good idea, as was the vanity of watching Madden looking at himself over the years and seeing what his admirers had to say about him. When Mike Madden launches into his love for his father – “All of your careers have been Hall of Fame careers, even your role as a father” – well, the line opens the floodgates as suddenly as Martz from the American Underdog telling Warner he believes in him right before hitting him on Ray Lewis’ Baltimore Ravens.
As Covid threatens to shut down the sport again, you could do worse than put American Underdog and All Madden on. Rather, they lay bare the paradox at the heart of football, showing how a game that produces so much brutality can really make you feel all the thrills.