Superior Central Cougars senior and two-year varsity football captain Jack Rondeau leans back and shakes his head, laughing at the screen as a small football player has his entire helmet torn off. Left behind is nothing but air, the kid having turtled his head down into his oversized football pads.
No, it wasn’t some horrific replay during a film session for Rondeau and his teammates in tiny Eben Junction, Michigan. Instead, it was the first time most of the 24 boys, ranging from ninth to 12th grade on the varsity football team, had ever watched the 1994 movie Little Giants. The player having his head ripped off by angry opponent Spike is none other than snot-nosed, fan favorite character Jake Berman, played by actor Todd Bosley.
”Can we try that?” asks one of the boys as the movie plays in the classroom of former head coach and current assistant coach Brenton Fitzpatrick.
Everyone laughs in response, envisioning the shock such a scene would cause.
”We should have Wyatt do it,” someone jokes, calling out freshman Wyatt Kulik. The other players in the room laugh, including Kulik. As the smallest player on the team at 5’0 and just shy of 100 pounds, he’s used to the friendly teasing.
But the movie on the screen was showing you didn’t have to be the best or biggest athlete on the field to make a difference in the final outcome. Maybe it would prove inspirational. After all, his brothers, Ben and Josh, both started as players of similar build in their freshman seasons and went on to be starters on both sides of the ball as upperclassmen.
Other players saw the upstart Giants as a team that seemed familiar in some ways, despite the 25-year gap between then and now.
”I’m a huge movie buff and it was a cool movie to watch, especially with our small team from the Upper Peninsula,” says junior captain Caleb Nimee, who plays on the defensive line and special teams.
Nimee’s favorite part was pretty easy to identify. “(It) was when they had to play at the end and showed how they could defeat the team with their dedication and skill, even though they were severely undermatched to the winning and well-equipped team.”
For the Cougars, it’s a scene that plays out every week. The team is in its ninth year of existence, having been born in the district at the dawn of 8-player high school football in Michigan. With 120 students in the entire high school, Superior Central is the perfect home for 8-player football. Their team isn’t big enough for a JV program, so players in ninth through 12th grades all suit up for varsity games. The Cougars often play teams approximately the same size, like Rapid River (an enrollment of 131) and Forest Park (121), as well as schools with even fewer students, like Carney-Nadeau (87) and North Dickinson (86).
”It stands up pretty well after 25 years as we see many teams in the same circumstances play their heart out over and over again,” Nimee says. “That’s the true spirit of football, playing with your all and giving it your best shot because you truly do it for the love of the sport and the brotherhood of your team.”
Other players on the team also say the movie has aged well. Some, like senior defensive lineman Wyatt Fink, think the message the movie portrays still comes through loud and clear decades later.
”Although it’s primarily a comedy, I think the message — about that even if you are inferior at something, you can pull it off at least once — was potent and still a strong idea that can be used today,” he says.
For current high school students, born in 2001 or later, Little Giants is a virtually unknown movie. Only one player in the room, senior Zach Englund, had previously watched it and understood some of the references his coaches had made leading up to the screening. For the team’s coaches, it is a childhood classic — although now, they identify with very different characters than they did in their younger days.
”Unfortunately, I do identify with Rick Moranis in this film,” Coach Fitzpatrick says, referencing the coach of the Giants. “Not as experienced as my opposing coaches, less than ideal equipment and facilities, and trying to teach the basics of the game to some very green players. I had the privilege of being the second head football coach in my school’s short history of fielding a team, which often felt like I was trying to start from scratch.”
And like Moranis, Fitzpatrick found ways to win during his two-year tenure. He helped motivate his Cougars no matter the odds before them.
Everyone dreams of being on the team that upsets the perennial powerhouse. Some dream of stopping their opponents on the 1-yard line to win the game. Some just want to have a moment of personal glory. In the movie, that comes on the final play of the game — “the Annexation of Puerto Rico.”
The gentle ribbing throughout the movie culminates as the entire room fills with chants of “Joe! Joe! Joe! Joe!” as Little Giant Rudy Zolteck, played by Michael Zwiener, scoots as fast as a big lineman can run down the field in the famous final seconds of the game. They were really cheering for Cougars senior Joe McNally, who, like Zolteck, was also living a lineman’s dream. He had caught his first high school pass just about a week before after being thrust unexpectedly into the role of tight end following an injury to the team’s quarterback and some shuffling on the depth chart.
That catch, it just so happened, was a touchdown. His smile is wide as his teammates chant his name. A lineman’s dream indeed.
The boys erupt in more cheers as, on the screen, little Jake Berman crosses the goal line for the score to win the game and the movie comes to an end.
The lights come on. The coaches start picking up the empty pizza boxes.
For a minute, the talk from the players as they gather up their belongings changes to Superior Central’s early-season win over Carney-Nadeau. Junior quarterback Kyle Frusti scrambled 20 yards off a broken pass play on fourth down as time expired. He was hit at the 5-yard line, spun off one defender and pushed into another, and stretched his arm out to break the plane of the goal to tie the game, 42-42. On the conversion, Frusti hit Rondeau with a quick pass to score two points and secure the win in the final seconds — the only time they led during the game. It seemed like an improbable task at the time, having trailed 30-14 at halftime.
It was clear why the movie had the boys remembering their last-minute victory.
”Well, wait a second, guys,” Coach Danny O’Shea says in Little Giants. “Who said you had to be good to play football? You play football because you want to. You play football because it’s fun. You play football so you could pretend you’re — Joe Montana throwing a touchdown pass, or Emmitt Smith going for a long run. And even if those Cowboys are better than you guys, even if they beat you 99 times out of 100, that still leaves …”
”One time,” Tad Pritchett says.
Twenty-five years later, that message still rings true.