Every Hollywood director and screenwriter who has ever made a movie about high school football, and there have been many such films, should see the documentary “First and 17.”
The film by director Brad Horn and produced by The Washington Post captures all the drama, joy, heartbreak, and tragedy (well, an unfortunate amount of tragedy) that comes with a high school football season.
The film, which aired at the American Film Institute’s AFI DOCS festival in Washington over the weekend, is ostensibly about Da’Shawn Hand, a star defensive lineman at Woodbridge High School in a Virginia suburb of the nation’s capital. Hand has received 94 college scholarship offers by the beginning of his senior season. He has narrowed his choices to three finalists: the universities of Alabama, Florida, and Michigan. But his choice will come at the end of the season.
While Hand seems to have his head on straight, and seems not to be a self-absorbed star, the real gem of the film is first-year coach Karibi DeDe, who guides his team through a tragedy to success on the field.
“Even if you play in the NFL and have a great career, you have to spend the rest of your life doing something—you have to fall back on something,” DeDe tells his players.
We hear an indictment of big-time college football from the author Gregg Easterbrook, who says, “At the high school level, football is a wonderful sport, and it helps boys become men. But there are far too many boys, especially African-American boys, with a dream of going on [to play football in] college, and not spending enough time studying.”
Hand makes the most of being a highly sought recruit, and we see him on visits to each of his top three college campuses. His signing-day decision is covered by national sports networks. I’m not going to give away his choice, but one fun moment is when Hand goes to a sports store to buy baseball caps of Alabama, Florida, and Michigan, for the suspense of putting on the cap of his college choice during the signing ceremony. But he makes sure to ask the store clerk, “I can return the other two, right?”
Do yourself a favor—don’t Google Hand’s choice before watching “First and 17.” Sure, it would be easy enough to learn what his choice of college was and how he did in his first season.
Instead, just let the script write itself.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.