Not long after the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature was awarded to “Undefeated” during the 84th annual Academy Awards, the film’s big-name executive producer excitedly sent out a flurry of tweets.
Bill Courtney and the Manassas football team have the nation cheering. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
“Dreams do come true!! Hard work pays off!!” read one of them from rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs at the end of a big night for the movie, which is about the struggles of the Manassas High School football team and the local businessman who came to the North Memphis school as a volunteer coach.
That particular missive from Combs, who reportedly broke down in tears after watching the movie for the first time, also represents the theme of the film and of the message behind the inspiring brand of tough love and leadership brought to the team by that coach, Bill Courtney.
He’s the owner of lumber company Classic American Hardwoods with a longtime love of coaching football and a desire to give back to the community.
Starting in 2003, he worked on and off the gridiron to get the demoralized Manassas football team to do something extraordinary – start believing in itself.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Courtney didn’t have anything to say about himself an hour or so after the Oscar announcement Sunday, Feb. 26. Emailing from Los Angeles, Courtney replied only that he was “happy for the directors and the kids.”
A fitting comment, indeed, because there’s much to be happy about surrounding the film. It screened last fall at the Indie Memphis Film Festival and opened here March 2 after getting an initial limited run around the country earlier in February. Meanwhile, Combs – who became executive producer of “Undefeated” a couple weeks before the Oscars – will be involved with the film’s studio, The Weinstein Co., on a dramatized remake. And daytime talk show host Ellen Degeneres has announced that she’s giving $10,000 to Manassas.
Hard work clearly has paid off for the filmmakers, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin. But also for the inner-city students at Manassas, where principal James Griffin said all of the attention will “go a long way toward keeping the fire lit.”
It’s also paid off for Courtney, a businessman whose company today has offices around the world, has weathered the recession and who started out “with no family money, kind of wing-and-a-prayer.”
Local businessman Bill Courtney, former offensive coordinator and assistant head coach of the Manassas High School football team, greets players Eric Fulton, right, and Je T'aime Wiggins during a recent visit to the school. Courtney and some of his players were featured in a documentary about Manassas, “Undefeated,” now in local theaters. (Photo: Lance Murphey)
His is a story likewise fueled by the brand of commitment he brought to the Manassas players whose team at one point was so hard up for money it resorted to what from the outside might seem like a desperate move: The team was charging far better teams to play Manassas so it could raise money for the season.
Before he ever stepped into the locker room at Manassas, the competition Courtney was first involved in was that of a small-business owner. He launched Classic American Hardwoods in North Memphis in 2001. He once told The Daily News he runs the company according to an old adage: “When they’re yelling, be selling. When they’re crying, be buying.”
“It was started out of my living room, and one thing led to another, it took a lot of luck, and the reason I’m here is the original piece of property I bought was just cheap,” Courtney said in his office a few days before leaving for the Oscar ceremony. “For my business, you’ve got to have space, you’ve got to have roofed space and it needs to be developed. This was cheap, fenced and that’s it.
“If you’d have been here all those years ago, you’d have passed by … a lot of stuff.”
That’s because the area around his original acreage was not yet developed and looked like much of North Memphis in the declining years after the area’s heyday.
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. Nothing has been the same since the urban and industrial heartbeat of North Memphis slowed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the biggest blow coming in the form of the closing of the Firestone plant.
Team photo of the Manassas Tigers from Dan Lindsay’s and T.J. Martin’s film “Undefeated,” which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. (Dan Lindsay/TJ Martin/ The Weinstein Company)
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.
For his part, Courtney started amassing land around his property, clearing it after he bought it.
“Now I’m glad I did, because I’m using it,” he said. “Back then, I did it because in our business, a lot of people come to see you and to see the lumber before they start buying volumes of it. Some people prefer to go on what they call mill trips, where they go around to mills and see the lumber and then make the decision who they’re going to do business with.
“We do a lot of business with people overseas. You get a German guy from Stuttgart, he gets off his plane at the airport and gets in his car and says, ‘OK, this is nice enough,’ and then he hits the road half a mile from here, he might have been liable to turn around and go home. It was really bad.”
Courtney got involved at Manassas a few years after starting his company thanks to Jim Tipton, who works as the company’s southwest territory manager. Tipton came to Courtney 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.
Rich Middlemas, TJ Martin and Dan Lindsay pose with their Oscars for Best Documentary Feature for their work in “Undefeated” during the 84th Academy Awards on Feb. 26. (AP Photo: Joel Ryan)
Not long after, he saw the needs of the football team and decided to let Courtney know. One of the problems Courtney wanted to fix early was the team’s practice of charging other teams for the privilege of beating them handily.
“My first year we won four games, and that was pretty amazing,” Courtney said. “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. And my heart was breaking. Because these kids who did start to commit to practice, who were starting to buy in, were getting literally broken up.
“It irritated me. It hurt me. It was taking a bunch of kids from the inner city who already felt second class and telling them to come play football and have your butt handed to you.”
Courtney said he went to the administration to get the practice to stop.
“They said, ‘How are we going to pay for it?’ And I said, ‘We’ll figure it out,’” Courtney recalled. “Jim started a 501(c)3, and we started going around telling the story, getting people to donate. We bought new equipment. Bought new jerseys. We just leveled the playing field. We gave them the same things kids out east get.”
Race and class are undercurrents in the “Undefeated” story that are left to the viewer to ponder. One of the filmmakers told The Los Angeles Times the kids set the tone for “Undefeated.” And because they didn’t bring it up, the filmmakers didn’t either. Griffin said “Undefeated” could be looked at as a kind of “Blind Side II,” referring to the film dramatization of Michael Oher, a homeless black youth taken in by a wealthy white Memphis couple who is cared for and goes on to become a professional football player.
There are similar dynamics in “Undefeated,” such as the white authority figure mentoring a group of black inner-city students playing football. And two years after “The Blind Side,” the Academy awarded “Undefeated” with a golden statue. But in “Undefeated,” notions of race are overshadowed by themes of hard work and the triumph of the underdog. That’s what the filmmakers were trying for, at any rate.
“When I went over there, there was no agenda,” Courtney said of his time at Manassas. “I was just going to coach football. And at the end of the day, they didn’t look at me as their white coach, and I didn’t look at them as my black players. I was coach, they were players, that was it.
“And there’s a story under every helmet. You don’t just demand respect because you’ve got a whistle and a hat. You earn respect. And I think you lead by first serving. You find out where (the players) live, you find out who they live with, whether it’s a mom, a dad, an auntie or a grandmother. 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 buy in.”
One of the key lines in the movie from Courtney is that football doesn’t build character; it reveals character. Character is what he preached to the players. And he motivated them not so much by giving them a playbook with a winning formula than he did by giving them a foundation for life.
“You preach commitment,” he said. “Coming to practice every day is commitment, but also marrying your baby mama is commitment. You preach discipline. Doing what your coach says and saying ‘Yes, sir’ is being disciplined, but so is having the discipline to not talk back to teachers or parents or to walk away from a fight instead of getting in one.
“You preach character. To me, the true measure of a man’s character is how he handles his failures. How do you handle things when you’re being hit in the mouth? You preach that on a daily basis, and then you walk it. And if you walk it, they start to believe it. And if you can show them how these things can make a difference in your life, then it changes from just a bunch of noise from a guy who’s older than them to being something worth listening to. The X’s and the O’s are a hell of a lot less important to me than character development.”