Senior tight end Lucas Kanerva made a one-handed catch in practice and all I could do was shake my head.
”Nothing like cheater gloves,” I said, shooting a quick smile at the Superior Central Cougars varsity football players so they could tell I was just being a smartass. There were two modes to Coach Sam Eggleston: friendly and fun, and downright terrifying. Fun coach was on the prowl.
”Did they even have gloves back when you played?” one of the players asked. The others laughed.
”Not really,” I responded. “The hushed whispers were always about using Stickum on your hands so you could catch the ball.
”But, you had to be careful with it.”
I clapped my hands together, simulating a break from the huddle. Then I pretended my hands were sticking together. A few of the boys laughed, but they all fell silent when I then slapped my hands against my chest and pretended they were stuck to the material of my shirt.
”Like in the Little Giants,” I said. Confused looks still reigned supreme. “Little Giants. The movie?”
”It’s the kid who can only catch a football if he imagines it’s a roll of toilet paper,” piped up senior Zach Englund.
Phew, I thought to myself. At least one of these guys didn’t make me feel like I was a dinosaur that had just crawled out of a cave after 1,000 years.
It was in that moment I decided we would be watching Little Giants as a team. It just so happened it was also the 25th anniversary of the movie that came out in October 1994.
It was the Monday of our homecoming week when the team gathered into Brenton Fitzpatrick’s classroom.
Fitz, as he’s more often called, became head coach of the Cougars 8-player program around the same time I joined it as an assistant coach, in 2013. It was the young football program’s fifth year of existence.
Watching the film with Fitz was a relief. It was uplifting to know I could have a conversation regarding the movie with someone who had watched it in their youth and could reflect on it from the perspective of being 25 years older.
”The film definitely is a fond memory of my childhood. A classic example of the adolescent antics and slapstick comedy that make any kids movie great,” Fitz said after our viewing. “I enjoyed watching it as a kid, but it did not have as strong an effect on me as other films. While I remembered a lot of iconic moments from the film, the details and movie lines were not etched into my memory.”
I agreed. Fun moments stuck with me, but the finer the detail, the more I was surprised to discover it again. The arrival of the NFL players, for example, had escaped me through the decades, as did some of the fun little moments like the foaming mouth intimidation trick, and the bubble-wrapped Jake Berman, whose mom thought the provided pads just weren’t enough.
Fitz pointed out that the movie didn’t lose much luster. It still resonated with the players on our football team. Like we had in the past, they still found connections with the players and the scenes throughout Little Giants.
”They joked about different situations that were similar to those they had experienced, and about players that reminded them of current or former teammates. They laughed together, and were drawn in during the final playoff scene,” Fitz said. “I guess that’s a testament to the timeless qualities of this film. It’s still a compelling story of underdogs facing impossible odds, the bonds of a team, and the love of the game.”
The love of football. That is a theme that echoes throughout the years, through hundreds of movies, thousands of books, and, to this day, on gridirons across the country. From pee-wee leagues to the professionals, the love of the game is still the driving force behind why it is played.
And that doesn’t mean only the rough-and-tumble boys drive the narrative of love for the sport, just as in Little Giants. Fitz’s second year as head coach at Superior Central was also the first season a girl, Jaelynn, played on the team. In my first season at the helm, we had four.
In my high school career, I played side-by-side with a young woman named Kim. She was “one of the boys” to most of us. She didn’t come back her sophomore season because she became a cheerleader. The next season, she started dating one of my teammates.
Art, they say, imitates life. The character Becky O’Shea, known throughout the film as Icebox, was one who many girls across the nation not only identified with, but were also inspired by.
Coaches like Fitz want life to continue to inspire stories of strong young girls who aren’t afraid to pursue the sport they love.
”There are a lot of messages that young girls can get from Icebox. On the surface, she proves that football is not exclusively a man’s sport. I have always been a supporter of girls playing football, including my head coaching career,” said Fitz. “I want every little boy or girl to share in the experience of football, and be affected in a positive way. She overcomes adversity in various forms, is committed to her teammates, and stands up for the little guys.”
Fitz and I, with the help of my wife, finished cleaning up the pizza boxes and returning desks to their original positions before a group of 25 football players had rearranged them.
”So what did you think?” I asked as we were getting ready to depart. “Do you think it holds up?”
Fitz nodded as he closed his classroom door. As we walked down the hallway just beginning to be decorated for the upcoming homecoming festivities, he glanced over at me.
”It’s about the love of football and pushing through adversity,” he said. “That’s a timeless message.”
In October 1994, when Little Giants first hit the big screen, I was a freshman football player stepping into the sport for the first time at a small school in a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Now, 25 years later, I’m a nearly-40-year-old head football coach at a small school in a small town just about 40 miles away from where I first fell in love with the game. Maybe that has a lot to do with why the Little Giants still feels so familiar, and why the emotions at its heart still resonate with young football players.
The love of football, the challenge of defeating adversity, and the Little Giants — timeless classics indeed.