Best High School Football Movies of All Time
There's a tried and true formula for high school football movies. Get the biggest star you can to play the head coach and try to get the best up-and-coming young male talent in Hollywood you can to fill the roles of the players.
And guess what? It's worked pretty well for the last 40 years, dating back to when the idea of the modern sports movie was invented. Come for the football action. Stay for the actors in their early-to-mid 20s playing high school kids and shortly before they become A-listers.
These are the best high school football movies of all time.
15. When the Game Stands Tall
Release date: Aug. 22, 2014
Budget: $15 million
Box office: $30.1 million
Director: Thomas Carter
Starring: Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Alexander Ludwig, Laura Dern
Bottom line: De La Salle High School in Concord, California, has arguably the most legendary high school football program of all time. From 1979 to 2012 with head coach Bob Ladouceur, De La Salle won a staggering 11 national championship
One portion of that journey was made into a pretty serviceable sports movie in 2014. It was based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Neil Hayes. Most notably, it depicts the end of De La Salle's record 151-game winning streak and the aftermath.
14. Johnny Be Good
Release date: March 25, 1988
Budget: $10 million (estimated)
Box office: $17.6 million
Director: Bud S. Smith
Starring: Anthony Michael Hall, Robert Downey Jr., Uma Thurman, Paul Gleason
Bottom line: This is our guilty pleasure addition to the list — a movie that shouldn't be looked at except in the context of the era it was released and probably will only be enjoyed by people who were actively watching movies in that same era.
That means there are a lot of cringeworthy moments in this comedy about the recruitment of the nation's top high school football quarterback, Johnny Walker (Anthony Michael Hall), but we also get a young Robert Downey Jr. and Uma Thurman in her first film role, filmed when she was just 17 years old.
In an especially delicious twist for 1980s movie fans, the guy who plays the assistant principal in Hall's best film, "The Breakfast Club," plays his high school football coach here.
13. Go Tigers!
Release date: Sept. 21, 2001
Box office: N/A
Director: Kenneth A. Carlson
Starring: Dave Irwin, Ellery Moore, Danny Studer
Bottom line: Washington High School in Massillon, Ohio — better known as Massillon High — and its obsession with its high school football team are the subject of this gutting 2001 documentary.
Ever want to understand the pitfalls which occur when we place athletic prowess over being decent human beings? This is the documentary for you.
Release date: Feb. 14, 1986
Budget: $7 million (estimated)
Box office: $26.2 million
Director: Michael Ritchie
Starring: Goldie Hawn, Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson
Bottom line: Of all the movies on this list, "Wildcats" is the one we're the most surprised hasn't been cued up for a remake.
The tale of Goldie Hawn as a high school football coach for an inner-city school is dripping in 1980s nostalgia and has a pair of future superstars on Hawn's team in Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, who were a mere six years away from teaming up for "White Men Can't Jump," one of the best sports movies of all time.
Director Michael Ritchie's career was a roller coaster of hits and misses. "Wildcats" was one of seven sports movies he directed over his career, along with "Downhill Racer" and "The Bad News Bears," and he had his biggest hit one year before "Wildcats" with "Fletch" in 1985.
11. What Carter Lost
Release date: Aug. 24, 2017
Box office: N/A
Director: Adam Hootnick
Starring: Gary Edwards, Jessie Armstead, Derric Evans, Keith Campbell, Patrick Williams, Carlos Allen
Bottom line: A secondary plot in Buzz Bissinger's famed nonfiction book "Friday Night Lights" focused on Dallas Carter High, the team that defeated Permian High in the 1988 Class 5A Texas state semifinals and went on to win the state championship.
Bissinger gives us Carter as a secondary plot the same way a runaway train treats whatever is on the track in front of it. When we get the final details of what happened to some of Carter's star players following the state championship game, it's nothing short of devastating.
Of all the attempts to tell the story over the years, only the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary "What Carter Lost" gets the tone exactly right, and makes the ending hurt just as much.
10. School Ties
Release date: Sept. 11, 1992
Budget: $18 million
Box office: $14.7 million
Director: Robert Mandel
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Matt Damon, Chris O'Donnell, Ben Affleck, Amy Locane, Randall Batinkoff, Cole Hauser
Bottom line: Over the last 30 years, "School Ties" has become well-known for being a film that featured future Academy Award winners Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in supporting roles, as well as Chris O'Donnell, who spent a few years as an A-List actor through the mid-to-late 1990s.
And that's not even mentioning the film's lead, Brendan Fraser, who has headlined five films that have grossed over $100 million each in the years since. In "School Ties," Fraser plays a Jewish high school football star who earns a scholarship to an elite prep school in Massachusetts, where he quickly learns his core group of friends and teammates are anti-Semites.
The film is good because of the young stars, and you get a glimpse of why they all became such big successes — peep a young Cole Hauser in a pivotal role at the end of the film as well.
Release date: March 28, 1986
Budget: $6 million
Box office: $8.2 million
Director: David Seltzer
Starring: Corey Haim, Charlie Sheen, Kerri Green, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Winona Ryder, Jeremy Piven
Bottom line: If you want to know what made Corey Haim such a gigantic star in the 1980s, look no further than "Lucas." The movie has a murderer's row of a supporting cast with Charlie Sheen, Kerri Green, Courtney Thorne-Smith, Jeremy Piven and Winona Ryder in her first movie role.
What makes "Lucas" so endearing is Haim's ability to portray such a wide range of emotions — love, jealousy, anger, embarrassment … and ultimately a kind of triumph with one of the great slow clap scenes in movie history.
We love this movie for a lot of reasons but do have one qualm. The scene of the high school football game Lucas enters is beyond ridiculous to the point where we question if anyone involved with the filming had ever actually attended a football game before.
8. Varsity Blues
Release date: Jan. 15, 1999
Budget: $16 million
Box office: $54.3 million
Director: Brian Robbins
Starring: James Van Der Beek, Jon Voight, Paul Walker, Scott Caan, Ali Larter, Amy Smart
Bottom line: The late 1990s were kind of a trip when it came to over-the-top football movies as both "Varsity Blues" and "Any Given Sunday" were released in 1999.
Fictional New Canaan High served as the backdrop for this teen dramedy starring a surprisingly athletic James Van Der Beek and Paul Walker right before his breakout role in "The Fast and the Furious" in 2001.
That being said, you can make a good case that the true star here is Jon Voight as New Canaan's evil head coach, Bud Kilmer, who can count himself among the greatest sports movie villains of all time with this role. It's like playing a powerful old man with twisted thoughts and delusions of ultimate power came naturally to Voight.
7. The Best of Times
Release date: Jan. 31, 1986
Budget: $12 million
Box office: $7.8 million
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Starring: Kurt Russell, Robin Williams
Bottom line: "The Best of Times" is the third and final film from 1986 to make the list following "Lucas" and "Wildcats." What an incredible year for movies about high school football.
This little-seen comedy starred Kurt Russell and Robin Williams as former high school football teammates, with a dropped pass by Williams in their final game coming to define Williams' life.
Russell's character has one of the all-time great football movie names — Reno Hightower. Director Roger Spottiswoode went on to direct several notable films over the next decade, including "Turner & Hooch" starring Tom Hanks, "Air America" starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr., and the James Bond/007 film "Tomorrow Never Dies," starring Pierce Brosnan.
6. Boyz n the Hood
Release date: July 12, 1991
Budget: $6.5 million
Box office: $57.5 million
Director: John Singleton
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Morris Chestnut, Ice Cube, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Nia Long
Bottom line: We know you're doing a double-take right now because you've never seen "Boyz n the Hood" on any sort of list regarding sports movies, but hear us out.
One of the three main characters in the movie, Ricky, is a star running back at Crenshaw High. Good enough to get recruited by USC at one point. In the majority of the scenes surrounding Ricky, his prowess as a high school football player is mentioned. It's even part of some foreshadowing in the scene at the beginning of the movie, when the three main characters go looking for a dead body.
In one pivotal scene, Ricky is even wearing his letter jacket when he almost gets in a fight. There's even a highlight film shown of Ricky's junior season at Crenshaw, when a USC recruiter visits his home.
That's essentially a third of the plot spent on Ricky's high school football career. Were it any more, this film would be higher on the list.
5. Friday Night Lights
Release date: Oct. 8, 2004
Budget: $30 million
Box office: $62 million
Director: Peter Berg
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, Jay Hernandez, Lucas Black, Tim McGraw, Connie Britton
Bottom line: Buzz Bissinger's "Friday Night Lights" is the conversation for greatest nonfiction sports book of all time, and it's a testament to the book that it not only spun off a really good-to-great movie and a great television show on its main subject but also led to a feature film and a documentary about one of its secondary subjects, the Dallas Carter High football team.
The FNL movie featured an Oscar winner, Billy Bob Thornton, in the lead role and a who's who of up-and-coming stars in supporting roles, led by Derek Luke, Garrett Hedlund, Jay Hernandez and Lucas Black. All of them are still working actors almost 20 years later.
It also gave us a glimpse of what country singer Tim McGraw could do as an actor, as he almost steals the entire movie playing a psycho football dad.
4. The Blind Side
Release date: Nov. 20, 2009
Budget: $29 million
Box office: $309.2 million
Director: John Lee Hancock
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron, Tim McGraw, Kathy Bates
Bottom line: This was the movie that finally brought home Oscar gold for Sandra Bullock. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the matriarch of the family who adopted future Ole Miss star and first-round NFL draft pick Michael Oher.
But don't get it twisted. This movie was a mega-hit for all involved. Made for just $29 million, it made over $300 million at the box office.
Director John Lee Hancock already had a good sports movie pedigree after he helmed "The Rookie" for Disney in 2002, although he hasn't returned to the genre since "The Blind Side" was released.
3. All the Right Moves
Release date: Oct. 21, 1983
Budget: $5 million
Box office: $17.2 million
Director: Michael Chapman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Craig T. Nelson, Chris Penn, Lea Thompson, Leon, Terry O'Quinn
Bottom line: Did you know Tom Cruise made a high school football movie? The plot of "All the Right Moves" is as straightforward as they come. A troubled high school football star tries to escape his dead-end Pennsylvania hometown.
It's notable not only because it's one of Cruise's first starring roles but also because the supporting cast is particularly notable, with Craig T. Nelson, Chris Penn, Lea Thompson and Leon all backing up Cruise. This represented an important step in Cruise's career because it showed he was bankable, as the film tripled its production costs at the box office.
Modern quibbles with the movie might point out Cruise — playing hard-hitting defensive back Stefen Djordjevic — wearing a neck roll and T-bar on his face mask. As any football fan from the 1980s can attest, that type of gear setup was not out of the realm of possibility for a defensive back.
Release date: March 13, 2011
Box office: $562,000
Directors: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin
Starring: Bill Courtney, O.C. Brown, Montrail "Money" Brown,
Bottom line: Few documentaries have hit us like the thunderbolt that was "Undefeated," the winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2012. Co-director T.J. Martin was the first African-American to win an award in that category.
It tells the story of the down-and-out Manassas High football team in Memphis, Tennessee, and how they were somehow able to turn things around with new head coach Bill Courtney — which is grossly underselling how good this documentary is.
The best comparison we can think of is the seminal basketball documentary "Hoop Dreams" or Netflix's critically acclaimed "Last Chance U" series.
1. Remember the Titans
Release date: Sept. 29, 2000
Budget: $30 million
Box office: $136.7 million
Director: Boaz Yakin
Starring: Denzel Washington, Will Patton, Wood Harris, Ryan Hurst, Ryan Gosling, Donald Faison, Kip Pardue, Ethan Suplee, Hayden Panettiere, Kate Bosworth
Bottom line: "Remember the Titans" is also in the running for the greatest football movie of all time, and we can overlook most of its historical inaccuracies because it's so well made.
It's also a stunning testament to Denzel Washington's on-screen power. An estimated $15 million of the film's $30 million budget went to his salary, and it earned a staggering $136.7 million at the box office.
"Titans" also featured an ensemble cast of up-and-coming stars led by Ryan Gosling, Wood Harris, Kate Bosworth, Donald Faison, Ryan Hurst and Hayden Panettiere.
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