It’s a scene guaranteed to raise goose bumps. With all of Notre Dame Stadium chanting his name, undersized Rudy Ruettiger, in the first, last and only down he ever played for the Fighting Irish, sacks Georgia Tech’s quarterback. The crowd explodes, the team carries the kid off the field and that dude from Roc gives him the slow clap. But as Joe Montana, a Notre Dame freshman quarterback at the time, told Dan Patrick recently, Rudy stretched the truth quite a bit. Fine, you say, that’s poetic license. And what does some old dude wearing Skechers Shape-ups know about football, anyway? We tend to agree. We want those triumph-against-all-odds moments, after all.
But then we started checking around, and it turns out a lot of heralded sports movies are guilty of some pretty laughable interpretations of history — or just flat-out lies. While some don’t seem all that consequential to the plot, others make you wonder how anyone thought there was even enough of a story to make a movie. So if you don’t want visions of your athletic idols tarnished by, you know, what actually happened, stop reading now. However, with The Fighter — starring Mark Wahlberg as real-life boxer “Irish” Mickey Ward — opening nationally this week, we thought the following truth nuggets might help you take your seat feeling less like a starry-eyed rube. Hell, Wahlberg already pulled a fast one with Invincible. As you’ll see, he’s hardly the worst offender.
Disney’s recreation of lowly USA hockey defeating mighty Russia at the Lake Placid Olympics actually gets a lot of details — including Kurt Russell as Coach Herb Brooks earning an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Hair — right. But a few things bother us. The huge Mark Johnson goal that tied the game 3-3 happened with almost nine minutes left, not under five. And the games were played on Olympic-sized ice, not the NHL-sized rinks in the movie. Also, the movie’s about hockey.
11. Coach Carter
This 2005 high school basketball flick is best known for Sam Jackson being Sam Jackson and, as Richmond High School coach Ken Carter, padlocking the gym door to punish his players for poor grades. In reality, Carter was a part-time coach with no authority to actually lock his team — and all the school’s other teams, for that matter — out of practice. Also, the real Coach Carter never butted heads with the school board over the (lock-less) lockout, and he never quit his job in protest. In fairness, he has had it with these motherf***in’ snakes on this motherf***in’ plane.
Granted, this hoops epic is more “inspired by” than “based on” tiny Milan high school’s glorious Indiana state championship run in the 1950s. They even changed the name of the school to Hickory. Still, it’s so closely linked with the real story — to the point that Jimmy Chitwood’s climactic game-winner is taken from the same spot on the floor as real person Bobby Plump’s actual shot — that we’re calling them out on one thing: In the movie, the team is portrayed as a huge underdog. But Milan had made the state semis the year before, went into the tournament at 19-2 and won seven of its nine tournament games by double-digit margins. Still, it’s amazing what they accomplished, especially when you consider there was no drunk Dennis Hopper type helping coach them.
9. The Pride of the Yankees
Thanks largely to this 1942 Lou Gehrig biopic, the name Wally Pipp has become synonymous with bonking on the job and being replaced by someone totally awesome. But Gehrig did not in fact get the first action of his 2,130-game streak thanks to Pipp having a headache. Pipp was already scheduled to have the day off, and Gehrig only stepped in at first because Pipp’s backup, Fred Merkle, had a headache. And anyway, Gehrig’s streak actually started the day before, when he pinch-hit for shortstop Pee-Wee Wanninger. Which just goes to show…people had really funny names back then.
8. The Hurricane
Yes, it’s a gripping movie about Rubin Carter, a top middleweight contender who fights to prove his innocence after being convicted of a triple murder. Denzel Washington even got a Best Actor nomination for it. So why’d they go and screw it up by saying that in 1993, Carter was the only boxer to receive an honorary championship belt from the World Boxing Council? A fighter from Carter’s era, Joey Girardello, got one too — at the exact same Vegas banquet.
What an underdog story! Tiny Seabiscuit somehow bests towering War Admiral in a match race, somehow overcomes a traumatic injury, then somehow rallies from dead last at the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap to win by a nose, inspiring little guys — and little horses? — everywhere. Too bad the actual Seabiscuit was roughly the same size as War Admiral, never sat worse than fourth during the Santa Anita race and was in a great strategic position at key points. That sentence just sucked out so much drama, we stopped reading halfway through.
6. Eight Men Out
Eddie “Knuckles” Cicotte is best known (if he’s known at all) as one of the eight “Black Sox” banned from baseball for taking money to throw games in the 1919 World Series. If you saw this movie, you’d believe the right-hander only agreed to the fix after realizing White Sox owner Charles Comiskey had him benched so he wouldn’t have to pay Cicotte a $10,000 bonus for winning 30 games. If you saw the facts, you’d know Cicotte actually agreed to the fix before hearing about that potential dick-over. On the upside, his grandnephew Al Cicotte also made the majors! And went 10-13 with six teams! Guess throwing games runs in the family.
5. The Game of Their Lives
No one saw it, but in 2005, the writer and director of Hoosiers teamed up on a soccer movie starring Gerard Butler, Gavin Rossdale and the oldest kid from Home Improvement. It’s about the USA’s shock 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 World Cup and is relayed via flashback by Dent McSkimming, the only American reporter to witness the match, as he chats with a younger journalist at the 2004 MLS All-Star game. Only problem is, McSkimming — who would have been 107 that year — died in 1976.
This gridiron tale is littered with little lies — Vince Papale was a schoolteacher, not a bartender, and his future wife was a lifelong Eagles fan, not a Giants fan — and two big ones. First, while it’s true that Papale never played college football when he cracked the Eagles roster in 1967, he was a veteran of two seasons in the World Football League. Second, while the climax makes it appear that after recovering a fumbled punt, he scored a touchdown to give the struggling Eagles a win over the hated Giants, in reality the refs called it back; they ruled the play a muff, not a fumble, meaning the ball could not be advanced. Said Papale, who never scored in three NFL seasons, “My life must have been too boring for a movie so they had to make some things up.” Well, at least he’s honest.
3. Chariots of Fire
In this 1981 British flick, sprinter Eric Liddell only learns that his 100-meter dash heat is scheduled for a Sunday — a day on which the Scottish Christian refuses to run for religious reasons — as he’s traveling to the 1924 Paris Olympics. Thank God teammate Lord Andrew Lindsay selflessly gives up his place in the 400 meters, a Thursday race, so that Liddell can compete in it. Liddell then steps up and wins gold. Super dramatic, right? Too bad it’s also super b.s. In reality, Liddell knew of the schedule months in advance, and he simply switched to and started training for the 400 then. Which is about as dramatic as LeBron James shaking off a hangnail to help the Heat beat the Timberwolves.
Montana said no one really chanted Rudy’s name, and the team sort of jokingly carried him off the field. Also, Notre Dame’s players never protested evil Coach Dan Devine’s refusal to dress Rudy for the final game by handing in their jerseys. They didn’t have to, because Devine — who’s called the account “unforgivable” and “a lie” — insisted Rudy get on the field for that game. And then there’s the “sack,” which, if you watch the actual footage, looks more like Ruettiger simply chasing the QB into the arms of a much bigger guy, rather than superhumanly leveling him. But considering he’s managed to parlay that into speaking fees of at least 15 grand, Rudy’s still a real American hero in our book.
1. Remember the Titans
The premise is powerful: Alexandria, Virginia’s T.C. Williams High School gets integrated in 1971, with a black head coach (Denzel again) and a white defensive coordinator running the football team. The black and white teammates clash, then bond, at a preseason camp before returning to a school and town bitterly divided over these kids buddying up. Yet, united by their coach and their love of football, the players become both stars of an undefeated squad and emblems of racial harmony while creating a goose bump epidemic. What the movie fails to mention: Alexandria’s racial tensions had little to do with the football team, T.C. Williams had been integrated since 1963, and the Titans’ success grew more from the consolidation of two other high schools that tripled the talent pool than anything else. But here’s the real travesty: Has any bratty coach’s kid ever grown up to be as hot as Hayden “save the cheerleader” Panettiere? No freakin’ way.
(Steve Mazzucchi is Managing Editor of Made Man. Email him at smazzucchi[at]breakmedia.com.)