Earlier this week, Manassas High School principal James Griffin was shopping at a Sam’s Club store and was stopped by several people raving about “Undefeated,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about one season in a hard-fought turnaround of the Manassas football program that could earn an Academy Award this weekend.
Local businessman Bill Courtney, former coach of the Manassas High School football team, greets players Ratavius Laws, right, and Eric Fulton during a recent visit to the school.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
An Oscar win would come on the heels of an unrelenting stream of national attention being given to the film, to the underdog players it depicts and to their take-charge coach who starting in 2003 took on a seemingly impossible task. That coach is Bill Courtney, a Memphis businessman who runs a lumber company in North Memphis he started in 2001 and who a few years later volunteered his time to coach – really, to inspire – a team that both on and off the gridiron was in need of direction.
Courtney isn’t coaching the Manassas team anymore, but Griffin said the school still has the “undefeated” spirit the documentary focuses on.
“And these things have helped keep the fire lit,” Griffin said.
In an interview this week in the office of his company Classic American Hardwoods, the take-charge businessman with a longtime love of coaching football talked about the size of the challenge he inherited. How he met it by repeatedly preaching about the importance of commitment and character, and how involved he got in his players’ lives even off the field.
“There’s a story under every helmet,” Courtney said. “And when you learn that story and that kid’s willing to tell you that story because he believes you actually care, that’s when they start to buy in to what you’re doing. You don’t just demand respect because you’ve got a whistle and a hat. You earn respect.”
“Undefeated” is certainly a film about football. But there’s an even more foundational element. At its core is a businessman who, after setting up shop in the inner city and buying up then cleaning up the land around it and eventually opening offices overseas, decides one day to step out of his comfort zone and do what he can to give back.
In many ways, Courtney’s love of the game and his charisma made him a perfect choice to lead the Manassas team. On the desk of his office is a mock grenade that welcomes visitors to “the complaint department.” They’re encouraged to take a number – and the only number is stuck behind the grenade’s pin.
Manassas was part and parcel of the urban and industrial heart of North Memphis, and nothing has been the same since that heartbeat slowed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The biggest blow was the closing of the Firestone plant, the other surviving landmark in the area.
The closing and demolition of other industrial giants along Thomas Street followed, leaving only an open field where their large industrial works once stood. On a winter day when the trees are bare, a person can see the new Manassas High all the way from Thomas, its brickwork brighter and newer than the worn single-story brick structures sprinkled between the gaps with driveways and steps leading to open lots.
One of the Manassas teachers in “Undefeated” describes the neighborhood as looking like New Orleans after the flood, except that North Memphis never had the flood.
Courtney got involved at Manassas thanks to Jim Tipton, who works as the southwest territory manager for Courtney’s business.
Tipton came to him at one point to say his Sunday school class had started doing some volunteer work, he wanted to get involved and he ended up driving to Manassas, walking in and introducing himself. Not long after, he saw the needs of the football team and decided to let Courtney know.
“If Jim doesn’t walk across the street, none of this happens,” Courtney said. “Which is such a lesson in being willing to get out of your comfort zone, be willing to put yourself out there a little bit, and amazing things can happen.”
One of the problems Courtney wanted to fix early was the team’s practice of charging other far-better teams for the privilege of beating Manassas by embarrassingly lopsided spreads. Manassas’ players endured that, since it was how the team raised cash for the season.
“Here’s how that works,” Courtney said. “You’ve got an inner-city school over there with no booster club and no parental support, no home field, no ticket sales. They would schedule teams that would pay them $3,000, $4,000 to go up there, get their butts absolutely destroyed, then they’d hop on a bus to go home and there’d be pizza waiting for them.
“When I got there, my first year we won four games, and that was pretty amazing. But I was like, why was Manassas going to play the previous year’s state runner up in 4A football? I couldn’t understand it.”
He quickly got hold of the schedule and put an end to that. He wanted the players to know they were valuable even as he preached a brand of tough love they sorely needed. One of his seminal quotes in the film is that football doesn’t build character, it reveals character.
“The X’s and the O’s are a hell of a lot less important to me than character development,” Courtney said.
The rap superstar known as “P. Diddy” was reportedly moved to tears after seeing the movie, so much so that he got involved with the film and has been helping promote it.
“There’s three things I hope people get out of this movie,” Courtney said. “One, if you put race and preconceived notions aside … it’s amazing what we can accomplish if nobody cares who gets the credit. Two … the only way in my opinion to really kick abject poverty’s butt in this country is to not give a hand out but a hand up.
“Three, I hope people are inspired to get out of their comfort zone and go find something to do somewhere. If people get all that, then I’m glad.”