Note from the reviewer… this film was produced by George Rush Jr. who is a friend of mine. While I don’t feel his influence directly affected how I feel about this film, I feel it’s important to note the connection between he and I for sake of disclosure. – Don
“4th & Goal,” the new documentary directed by award winning filmmaker Nina Gilden Seavey, is the kind of documentary I like on many levels. The first and most obvious thing I like is that it’s about football. Specifically a group of college hopefuls trying to get a second chance to make it to a large, four-year school by going the Jr. College route after not making the leap from high school.
While I’m a bigger baseball fan than I am football, I still like and have the utmost respect for the gridiron. Football is just more brutal, machine-like and cutthroat than any other sport and I never really get the feel I “know” or relate to football players or know their stories like I do in baseball, and I find those personal touches are more interesting. The thing is, with baseball and even basketball, there’s so many ways to stay in the game with various leagues and organizations all around the world and stories come from those travels and travails when a player makes the pros. And while football seems to be branching out with newer leagues, the NFL still has a pretty firm monopoly on the sport. But in “4th & Goal” we get to know some of the faces behind the helmet and facemask and I found that interesting. Players have a very young and narrow window to make it and if they don’t, that’s typically the end. The ability of “4th & Goal” to show this is one of it’s greatest strengths.
The other thing I liked about the film was it showed me a world I didn’t know existed. In this case, it’s the story of high school football players who, for some reason or another, didn’t make the transition to a big, four-year college and have been given a second chance on the Jr. College level. I was surprised by the Jr. College stuff because it takes place in my own backyard at City College of San Francisco (CCSF) where long tenured head coach George Rush has built a factory of sorts for outcast players who didn’t make the draft. I knew nothing of the program or their accomplishments before I saw the film and what they’ve done and continue to do is seriously impressive. Rush manages to attract a huge amount of monster-sized football players that come together to completely dominate their opponents year in and year out. While the recruitment methods are never explained, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that Rush not only puts an amazing team on the field each year, his success rate and connections get big college scouts to take a look. This is why the players come to him. In short, if you failed to get a scholarship to a “big” college out of high school, your next best bet would seem to be to play for Rush at San Francisco City College.
The film kicks-off in 2003 where we meet six players on the CCSF Rams team who are hoping to make it to a college team and, from there, the NFL. Forget the old “I just want to help the team win” mantra, these are enormous man-children taking the field and losing, or even a somewhat close game, seems impossible due to their size, speed, talent and determination. We see the Rams completely destroy other teams in their division before an impressive march into the playoffs. From there, scouts start plucking the second year players and whisking them off to their campuses across the country and the camera follows.
By now you’re probably thinking “4th & Goal” sounds like “Hoop Dreams” but with football and it is, kind of. There’s way more people involved and with six players in the mix you know the “more the merrier” approach of who to cast your camera on will somehow pay off and, in a way, the intensity and suspense is lessened. The six character approach also gives viewers less time to really get to know the players deeply as you do in “Hoop Dreams,” but then again, the fact you know enough about each to get what their strengths and weaknesses (both mental and physical) are shows some solid editing and directing chops. While it sometimes is tough to remember who is who, you eventually get to know each player and enough about them to build an idea of who they are.
Natural character arcs are formed throughout “4th & Goal” as some players crumble under the various pressures of playing at a big college while others completely rise to the occasion. As the film points out early on, only 1696 players can make it to the NFL so any big injury or personality flaw throws you out of the mix. The film shows this perfectly and the biggest thing that was reinforced to me throughout is just how brutal football is both on the field and off. Some of these guys are simply a piece of meat to colleges and NFL teams and while sports fans already know this, it’s dramatic to see it happen to players who you’ve sort of got to know through the film.
For as intriguing and interesting as “4th & Goal” is, I still found myself wanting more of a balanced approach to the characters and action onscreen. This doesn’t make it a bad film in the least, it’s just a personal preference. For instance no other teams seem to mind that playing Rush’s Rams is akin to NFL players taking on Pop-Warner type kids teams. The coaches that are shown seem to take their ass whuppin’ like a badge of honor and for a sport as intense and competitive as football, surely some of these coaches or players feel it unfair. I also wanted to see more of Rush’s recruiting techniques. But then again, this is ostensibly a film about the six players, not George Rush and his dominating program.
The other level of balance I sought had to do with the players themselves. Obviously some will succeed and others will fail but the film never delves deeply into these results when they happen. With so many characters going in so many directions, those who get in the dog house with their coaches never get the screen time necessary to explain or show exactly where they went wrong. Sure, there’s a lot of finger pointing and excuses but the reality of the situation is never fully explained. Perhaps there is no real reason other than politics or “gut” feelings, but some more investigation was needed I felt.
Aside from that, “4th & Goal” is an intriguing insider look at how college level football works but people who are not fans of the sport will also enjoy the ride. The fact that the filmmakers were able to access six very diverse personalities and follow them for over six years is extremely impressive. As a documentary filmmaker myself the idea of that level of focus and interest is truly amazing. The film really comes together nicely and has an exciting ebb and flow. You find yourself caring about these men and hoping for the best but their foibles are just as gripping. With football in the air, “4th & Goal” is a perfect film to fill the gaps between weekend college and pro games and it’s suitable for family viewing as well. In fact, parents with kids hoping to go far in the sport can do no better than to watch this film and show the level of commitment and focus it takes to make it to the top.
“4th & Goal” is available now on-demand, PPV and through various online outlets