We’re smack dab in the middle of baseball season, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate a good football movie.
Football has taken a hit in recent years. It’s often plagued with news about assaults, drugs, and incessant politics that keep the focus places other than the field and gameplay.
Enter 12 Mighty Orphans, which reminds us how football can be used to unite and raise marginalized kids from obscurity into fine young men.
Family-friendly, inspirational films once proliferated movie theaters, but an obsession with crime and violence have culled dramatic efforts from most venues, but this Ty Roberts-directed film from a script he, Lane Garrison, and Kevin Meyer adapted from Larry Dent’s novel bucks the trend.
Luke Wilson stars in 12 Might Orphans as Rusty Russell, a legendary Texas football coach who coached football for the Masonic Home and School orphanage from 1927-1941.
As we battle daily about whether the United States of America has grown as a society, 12 Mighty Orphans revisits the proliferation of orphanages in the early 20th Century and the stigma placed upon the kids who found themselves there, especially when they often had living parents.
Russell himself became an orphan when his mother surrendered him because she could no longer afford to support him. The rate at which it occurred left roughly 100,000 orphans by 1927 when Russell and his wife, both teachers, relocated to the Masonic Home and School, and Russell created its football program.
Russell was known to be an excellent coach by that time, and he was recruited specifically to introduce football. The longest-lasting residents were teen boys with little hope for adoption, and they craved the personal touch, a little compassion.
Before Russell arrived at the school, nobody believed the resident students capable of anything. Uninspired teaching left them uneducated, and the hard work they did on behalf of the home had them treated more like criminals than abandoned or parent-less children.
Russell, too, suffered that same fate when his mother surrendered him and his brother to an orphanage as children. Only a man like Russell could impact the students that he did and an understanding of how desperately the kids needed a win on and off the field.
You may not know Russell by name, but as a football fan, you should know that he changed the game itself with his Might Mites football team and the spread offense.
With the odds against him and qualifying team members in short supply, Russell’s innovation allows the smaller team to take on larger, dominant teams that made up the teams of Class A schools they competed against.
It was as if the fortitude they needed to succeed literally spilled onto the field.
Russell’s game-changing work at the orphanage changed the game, but his courage to stand up for children who otherwise stood alone is his real legacy.
Russell’s nature offered inspiration when hope was all but a passing memory. He motivated young men to excel academically (passing grades were required for the students to play ball) and bolstered their morale. He gave them the family they needed.
Russell stood up for children when others used them as slave labor by expecting the best from them. Aspirations need goals, and Russell’s intervention in the lives of his students and the game of football provides an excellent foundation for 12 Mighty Orphans.
The film unfolds like a love letter to Texas and the importance of football in the Lone Star State. Wilson is perfectly cast as Russell, an actor with as much heart as the fabled football coach.
Martin Sheen stars as Russell’s sidekick, Doc Hall, who was instrumental in bringing Russell to the Masonic Home and School. As the school’s physician, Doc’s heart is in the right place, but as an alcoholic, he, too, has something to learn from Russell.
There are plenty of foils, as well.
There’s a fellow educator at the school played by Wayne Knight, who assaults students daily, actively trying to rip out their emerging self-assurance, a rival football coach played by Lane Garrison who can’t abide by a ragtag team of orphans on the field, let alone winning, and a local elected official played by Scott haze as eager to stomp the spirit of the new team as much as Russell wants to inspire it.
A host of other actors lent their talent, including Vinessa Shaw, Robert Duvall, Levi Dylan (Jakob’s son and Bob’s grandson), Rooster McConaughey (Matthew’s brother), and Treat Williams, and Jake Austin Walker, who costars on Stargirl with Wilson.
There’s talent to spare in this male-dominated film, an official selection at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Roberts’ solid direction gives 12 Mighty Orphans a slightly grittier Disney-esque feel.
Russell is as worthy of this exploration as the Mighty Mites team is to be remembered in this heartfelt recreation of the greatness they achieved.
In 12 Mighty Orphans, adversity becomes a strength for the students and school. Texas and the U.S. needed that kind of win during the Depression, and the message is well-received as the country struggles to return to normal after the pandemic.
12 Mighty Orphans is in theaters now and available for preorder on major VOD platforms like Amazon.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.