Greetings again from the darkness. Ty Roberts is a native Texan and Austin-based director committed to bringing Texas tales to the big screen. His previous film was THE IRON ORCHARD (2018) on wildcatting, and this time he tackles the 2007 Jim Dent novel, “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites who Ruled Texas Football”. The film is inspired by the true events of a legendary Texas coach and his development of a football program at an orphanage, the Masonic Home and School in Fort Worth. Set in 1938 as the nation is still rebounding from the Great Depression and the area has earned the label, “the Dust Bowl”, the film opens at halftime of the state championship game, as the Mighty Mites limp into the locker room, battered from the first half.
The film immediately flashes back to 6 months earlier as Rusty Russell (Luke Wilson) and his wife Juanita (Vinessa Shaw) arrive at the orphanage. Both are teachers and Rusty is also tasked with starting a football program from scratch. “Scratch” may be too nice of description, as the home has no field and none of the boys have ever played the sport. If that’s not enough challenge, there is also Frank Wynn (Wayne Knight), the abusive director of the orphanage who undermines Rusty at every turn and uses his wooden paddle as a demented form of discipline. This was a different era, and it’s heartbreaking to see how orphans were treated not just as castaways from society, but also as free labor so Wynn could personally profit.
Rusty Russell’s commitment is a key to the story, and although he suffers from post-war PTSD (with flashbacks), he brings structure and humanity and teamwork to a group of boys who had none. We learn that Rusty was also an orphan, and this helps us understand why this mission was so important to him and Juanita. Martin Sheen appears to be having fun co-starring as Doc Hall, an alcoholic who not only serves as Rusty’s assistant, but who also served the home for 30 years without ever taking a paycheck. It’s Doc Hall who was responsible for luring Rusty to the home, and he’s very supportive of building the program for the boys.
The sports movie clichés are numerous, but this is the kind of story and movie that we desperately want to like – an inspirational story with clearly defined good people and villains. Boys stigmatized by society goes beyond the underdogs against-all-odds. Although they had some success on the field, the real message here is self-respect and education for those who felt superior. Co-writer Lane Garrison plays the arrogant coach of the powerhouse Polytechnic, and though the performance is a bit of a caricature, his attitude speaks volumes about the mentality of the times. Oscar winner Robert Duvall (now 90 years old) makes a brief appearance as a Freemason, who was also an orphan.
Historical significance resonates here as “Fort Worth Star-Telegram” publisher (and early Fort Worth mover and shaker) Amon Carter (played here by Treat Williams) was so enamored with the “Mighty Mites” that he got President Franklin Roosevelt to intercede on behalf of the boys when controversy struck. The Masonic home closed in 2005, but its impact remains today. One of the featured players on the team was Hardy Brown (Jake Austin Walker) who went on to serve in the Marines, and later play professional football. Rusty Russell went on to coach at SMU, and became a legend thanks to his creation of the “spread offense”.
The film was co-written by director Ty Roberts, Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer, and the script takes some liberties with history and the source material from author Jim Dent. Mr. Dent also wrote the 1999 book “The Junction Boys”, and spent many years as a sportswriter covering the Dallas Cowboys. On a personal level, he faced serious consequences from his run-in with the law over his many DWI convictions, and remains incarcerated today. The post-credit sequence features actual photographs and a real life update of each of the players and the key people involved. Sure, some of the acting is a bit stilted, the dialogue often unnatural, and the football sequence heavily edited, but we do find the story uplifting at a time when such stories are quite welcome.
The film opens in Texas on June 11, 2021 and then on June 18 nationwide.
***NOTE: Former Texas Longhorns defensive standout Breckyn Hager appears in the film, and thanks to one of my favorite Austinites for the heads-up