Scooba, Mississippi is described as a “place you’ve never heard of,” and the starters of the East Mississippi Community College football team land there on their asses with one foot back out the door.
Greg Whiteley’s Netflix documentary series, Last Chance U, follows the Lion’s 2015 football season. The show aired in 2016 and has altered many viewers’ perceptions of what it means to dedicate your life to athletics. Recently, Netflix confirmed its intentions to film a second season at EMCC. The show demonstrates the redemptive capacity of junior college football. Young men, filling sweaty shoulder pads and locker rooms, are recruited from FBS schools all over the country, and whether it came down to bad grades or failed drug tests, the big-time programs dumped them.
John Franklin III, a failed Florida State recruit who never made it off the scout team, transfers to EMCC. His arrival causes a battle for the starting quarterback job, currently held by Wyatt Roberts, a native Mississippian, a loyal plugger—the opposite of Franklin. The faux-friendly rivalry provides one of the dramatic climaxes of the series.
Another highlighted player, Ronald Ollie, a defensive tackle, attracts attention for his dominating ability and his affecting story. At age five, Ollie lost both his parents in a domestic dispute. Fellow players, and EMCC staff members, describe him as a fun-loving but fragile guy who can only be pushed so far. To imagine such a mammoth man as breakable seems impossible, but Whiteley humanizes these unapproachable athletes.
Ironically, a central focus of the documentary never actually takes the field. Brittany Wagner, academic adviser, self-proclaimed “eligibility coordinator,” and den mother, gives most of her day and her heart to the reluctant student-athletes.
As a single mom heroine, she does little outside of work besides taking care of her daughter and leading an aerobics class. Daily, guys three times her size lounge around her office, requesting homework help in exchange for a dose of maternal advice. She texts them about test dates and class times, making sure they don’t cut too many classes before they flunk out and are kicked off the team. Adopting a spoon-feeding philosophy, she hopes her players will grow a sufficient appetite for educational vegetables long enough for EMCC to win a third championship and her players to make it back to the FBS, or even the NFL. The petite woman juggles player’s class schedules, football practice and college drama, and appears on the verge of drowning in the pressure.
Also flailing under the stress is head coach, Buddy Stephen. As the season bears down on him and the schools’ winning tradition is in jeopardy, the red-faced coach teeters on the edge of disaster. Stephens pleads with his powder keg players not to fight, but is suspended for brawling with a referee. Ultimately, he spends the season wrestling his need to dominate the sport against what appears like a genuine desire to set a good example for his players. Yet, he never benches a player for cutting class or not meeting the character standards that he blathers about in the locker room. The players know it only takes a few bad practices, a missed tackle or a dropped pass and they’re sidelined. For good. Then the swift trip back to reality of life off the gridiron: minimum wage jobs or convenience store street corners.
They talk a good bit about God on this show; it’s the South. After every game, the coach has the team recite The Lord’s Prayer, and one of the assistant coaches has weekly bible study filled with yawning players. But the real God manifests in a leather bound form—the pigskin.
Based on the show’s trajectory and comments the filmmaker made to Indiewire.com, the series focuses on forgotten people. One-hit wonders, who rose to a skewered version of stardom but sputtered out along the way. This a story about football for people who may not like football. The players and the staff, reflect a truth about the world—we make it through life thanks to divine kindness and unmerited last chances.