Alocal white businessman volunteers to lead a struggling inner-city football team to an undefeated season, yielding an Oscar-winning documentary film.
It sounds like a story right out of the pages of the old Manassas High School that stood for decades in the center of a North Memphis that no longer exists – racially segregated by law, a place where factories stood along side modest neighborhoods.
Except it is the story of the new Manassas High School, an all-black school in a poor neighborhood where the population continues to dwindle some 30 years after many of the factories closed. Some factors in the part of North Memphis where this story takes place have not changed.
That applies to the power on one person to make a difference because that difference is in the lives of others who in turn changes the lives of still others.
Bill Courtney – the volunteer coach in “Undefeated” – probably seems to some to be very different from the players he coached.
But you barely have to scratch the surface of Memphis history to understand that Courtney is the owner of a lumber company called Classic American Hardwoods and that Manassas – old and new – are in the same area as the epicenter of the city’s once-thriving hardwood industry.
On the large open lot northwest of Manassas once stood E.L. Bruce Co., in its prime the largest hardwood floor manufacturer in the world.
Courtney watched the nearby Wolf River rise with some trepidation less than a year ago and moved some of his stock around the yard to dodge the high water. Maybe he and his players didn’t have much in common in the view from a distance. But that underestimates the power of place that has always been part of the identity of being a Memphian.
It’s not just where we live. It’s where we used to live, where we work, the places that exist in family stories passed through previous generations.
These are real places with a real connection on which new stories are being made every day – not dreams, not storylines.
Most of us live those stories with no idea that an audience larger than those around us is watching. If we are lucky we come to see that our identity is a matter of realizing we have more in common once we take the very small risk of reaching out that can seem so intimidating.
Behind the Oscar talk is someone who didn’t let what was dictate what could be. He saw others struggling in ways different than his own and identified with the struggle instead of the differences.
Football analogies to life are easy. We’ll end with a quote from Courtney who was talking about his team and not in the abstract.
“There’s a story under every helmet.”