1. A scrawny underdog gets torn in half, Not Another Teen Movie (2001)
The biggest and most successful football movies are usually the ones that inspire (Rudy, Friday Night Lights), not the ones that horrify. Yet sometimes, it’s the weird stuff that underlines just how insane and only occasionally comprehendible a game football can be. Hot off the heels of realistic-but-improbable movies like Varsity Blues, Not Another Teen Movie sought to skewer the high school football experience with one horrifically gruesome (but still pretty funny) scene when scrawny, bespectacled loser Marty gets thrown in to the big football game. Against the coach’s advice, quarterback Jake Wyler (Chris Evans) makes Marty part of the game’s drive for a touchdown, even though the team is already up 42-0. Marty, after having made the big reception, ends up literally torn in half by two hulking defensive linemen, guts leaking all over the field. Nice hands, Marty.
2. Texas State defeats heavily favored University Of Texas playing “iron man” football, Necessary Roughness (1991)
While Knute Rockne’s “Win one for the Gipper” speech might be the most famous motivational halftime talk in real history, it doesn’t hold a candle to Robert Loggia’s stirring tribute to recently hospitalized Texas State Fightin’ Armadillos coach Ed Gennero in Necessary Roughness. Throughout the season, the depleted team is forced to play “iron man” football; certain players must play both offense and defense. Not only that, the team is led by geriatrics Scott Bakula and Sinbad, two players in their 30s who somehow still have college eligibility. All isn’t lost, though. Even though the team’s losing in the final game of the season, the Fightin’ Armadillos assistant coach Wally Riggendorf (Loggia) rips off his shirt and tie at halftime and gives a speech for the ages, imploring players to, “Go out there, tear their fucking heads off, and you shit down their necks!” Iron man football be damned, Texas State went on to win one of the more improbable comebacks in cinematic college football history.
3. A huddle turns into a puking session, The Replacements (2000)
Loosely inspired by the 1987 NFL strike, The Replacements asks what would happen if a professional NFL team was stocked with a group of people who had remarkable skills but didn’t fit the NFL mold. The result was a collection of boat cleaners, mini-mart employees, convicts, and other reprobates more likely to start a brawl than win a game. It’s a rough transition period, as ex-sumo wrestler Jumbo (Ace Yonamine) learns after devouring a pre-game meal of hard-boiled eggs. A bad choice for an active sport, as Jumbo throws up the entire meal in the middle of a huddle and sets off teammate Clifford (Orlando Jones) to do the same. Unable to break the huddle but risking a chain reaction of vomit, quarterback Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves) leads the team to trot in unison away from the mess, a sight so remarkable it causes long-time football commentators John Madden and Pat Summerall (playing themselves) to look back over their 19-year careers. “Have we ever seen anything like this?” Madden asks his partner. “Not on the football field,” Summerall muses.
4. An offensive lineman gets “power bombed” and glacier water resurrects a linebacker, The Waterboy (1998)
To be fair, everything about The Waterboy is far-fetched—dim-witted waterboy Bobby Boucher (Adam Sandler) works for a bottom-of-the-barrel college team but unleashes heretofore unseen reserves of rage-fueled strength to become the game’s most feared linebacker, smashing quarterbacks away like toothpick sculptures. When he makes it to the Bourbon Bowl things get even weirder, as he’s pitted against the team that tormented him for years, led by offensive lineman Meaney (Todd Holland). On one play, he channels his favorite wrestler and charges through the other players, picking the other man up and pile-driving him into the ground with a cheerful explanation: “Power bomb! Compliments of Captain Insano.” Boucher’s almost taken out of the game himself later, but is magically brought back by way of his girlfriend, Vicki (Fairuza Balk), pouring glacier water blessed by an Alaskan medicine man down his throat.
5. Quarterback experiences death and rebirth at the Super Bowl, Heaven Can Wait (1978)
In the whimsical romance Heaven Can Wait, Warren Beatty plays Joe Pendleton, a superstar quarterback determined to lead his team to victory in the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, an overeager angel, trying to spare him unnecessary pain, yanks Joe’s soul out of his body seconds before a bicycle accident that he was fated to survive. In the end, a quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams is mortally injured during the Super Bowl, and heavenly fixer Mr. Jordan (James Mason) smoothly transfers Joe’s soul into the dead player’s body. He jumps up, re-enters the game, and the Rams emerge victorious. Sadly, the supernatural elements of this climax are invisible to the spectators in the stands, who will never know they’ve been witness to back-to-back firsts: The first on-the-field death and resurrection in the history of the big game.
6. Players ride a garbage-can chariot into the end zone, Horse Feathers (1932)
In the Marx Brothers’ greatest and most anarchic picture, Duck Soup, Groucho is made president of a small country, allowing the Brothers to satirize self-serving government incompetence and hollow appeals to patriotism. In the stellar warm-up effort Horse Feathers, Groucho is made president of Huxley College, and the Brothers satirize what they recognize as the entire point of higher education in America: college football. All the Marxes take part in the climactic big game between Huxley and its hated rival, Darwin College, but the MVP is definitely Harpo; after tying the ball to his finger with an elastic band and swinging it about like a yo-yo, he and his brothers pile into a trash can that’s yoked to a pair of horses and literally ride it across the field for the final touchdown.
7. Prison guards and convicts work out their differences on the field, The Longest Yard (1974)
In Robert Aldrich’s The Longest Yard, Burt Reynolds plays a disgraced and debauched former pro quarterback who rediscovers his integrity in prison, leading a team of convicts to victory over a team of thuggish guards in a game that the football-fanatic warden (Eddie Albert) has cooked up to break the prisoners’ spirit. Thanks to Reynolds, the warden’s scheme backfires, but not until after a series of bone-crunching, crippling altercations that would be broken up by a SWAT team if anyone attempted them in a real game. By the end, the head guard (Ed Lauter) is so disillusioned and so disgusted with the warden’s Gestapo tactics that he refuses a direct order and does not shoot Reynolds dead for “attempting to escape” when he’s really just ambling to the edge of the field to collect the game ball. (The movie has been remade, ineffectually, twice: once as a 2005 comedy with macho muscleman Adam Sandler in the Reynolds part, and as the 2001 English movie Mean Machine, in which the sport is changed to soccer—or, as it’s called in the rest of the world, football.)
8-10. Terrorists blow up the big game, Black Sunday (1977); The Sum Of All Fears (2002); The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
By the late 1970s, football had gone far enough in displacing baseball as the country’s No. 1 pro-sports obsession that it inevitably drew the attention of movie terrorists looking to deliver a body blow to the American way of life. In John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday (based on a novel by Thomas Harris, the creator of Hannibal Lector), PLO terrorists allied with a bitterly unhinged Vietnam vet (Bruce Dern) hope to explode the Goodyear blimp as it hovers over the field during the Super Bowl. They failed. In the Tom Clancy adaptation The Sum Of All Fears, neo-Nazis trying to instigate World War III set off a nuclear device at a football game attended by the president. POTUS escapes in the nick of time, though the villains do manage to level Baltimore—a mixed success at best. More recently, the supervillain Bane (Tom Hardy) in The Dark Knight Rises pulled off the most triumphant feat of football-themed movie terrorism to date, imploding the field at the start of a game to introduce himself to the people of Gotham.
11. A choreographed “Single Ladies” number wins the game, Glee, “Preggers” (2009)
There’s improbable, and then there’s choreography. Back in Glee’s first season, when there was still palpable tension between the football team and the glee club—and when Kurt was still not out to his father—the football team used Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” as an on-field diversion. There’s some plot built in to make it feel a little more probable: Kurt tried out for the football team to impress his father, and he turns out to be a not-half-bad kicker—in part because he’s using “Single Ladies” to concentrate. And Mr. Schuster had already taught the football players the “Single Ladies” dance as a kind of pre-game warm-up. But all that matters is that at some point when William McKinley High has possession, Finn calls for “the play”—and the entire team, in full football gear, breaks out into choreographed Beyoncé. It’s one of those moments that indicated how risky and weird and fun Glee was willing to be—and it brought Beyoncé to a football field well before her halftime performance. Because this is television, the ruse works: The opposing team is so perplexed that Puck manages to steal the ball and score a touchdown. Then Kurt uses his jam to score the game-winning point. As unlikely as this is to occur at the Super Bowl, it’s still impossible to forget the sight of all those football players breaking it down.
12. A Yugoslavian mule kicks a team all the way to the Super Bowl, Gus (1976)
Long before golden retrievers began their gradual takeover of the motion picture industry, mules made a major impact in Hollywood, with Frances The Talking Mule’s seminal work throughout the 1950s paving the way for Disney to make a film about a football-playing mule named Gus. Originally, Gus is a lowly soccer-playing mule based in Yugoslavia, but when word of his ball-handling skills makes its way to the owner and coach of the California Atoms (played by Ed Asner and Don Knotts, respectively), it’s decided that Gus has potential as a seat-filling halftime act. Once they see the mule in action, however, they realize that he’s actually a better kicker than anyone else on their roster, so after they confirm that it’s not technically against the rules, they bring him aboard, a decision that turns the Atoms’ fortunes around so dramatically that Gus and the guys make it all the way to the Super Bowl. While a far cry from Any Given Sunday, it’s amazing how much disbelief one can suspend with a cast that also includes Tim Conway, Dick Van Patten, and Tom Bosley, along with color commentators Dick Enberg, Johnny Unitas, and former Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane.
13-14. Even more animals play football, Air Bud: Golden Receiver (1998) and Bonzo Goes To College (1952)
A mule that can kick a long field goal is a fantastic feat, but that’s a special teams gimmick. What about the animal players in skill positions? Bonzo Goes To College, the sequel to Bedtime For Bonzo (which starred then-future U.S. president Ronald Reagan), sees the former lab chimp escaping a carnival sideshow and getting adopted by the granddaughter of a small-town college football coach. Once there, the newly literate Bonzo passes the tests necessary to make the team, thus providing cruel fodder for anyone making jokes about NCAA academic eligibility. Air Bud: Golden Receiver—the second and final Air Bud film to get a theatrical release—discovers that Buddy, fresh off his basketball court success, can also be a skilled route-runner for the middle school football team. (Despite once again not actually attending the school, which any opponent would logically contest makes him ineligible.) Football has never been more far-fetched than with a dog lined up at receiver.
15. A beautiful blonde turns politically incorrect young punks into winners, Wildcats (1986)
The ’80s wasn’t a great decade for football comedies, but it had a strong showing in the field of occasionally amusing Goldie Hawn films, one of which revolved around the daughter of a much-admired football coach who wants to follow in her father’s footsteps, no matter how difficult a task it may prove to be. It’s a testament to how little faith the powers that be have in Molly McGrath (Hawn) that the only gig they’re willing to give her is at Central High School, an educational institution filled with sexist, racist teenage athletes—including Woody Harrelson, Wesley Snipes, and Mykelti Williamson—who find the idea of having her as their coach to be absolutely preposterous. Molly’s enthusiasm remains unflagging for an extended period of time, and just as her gusto starts to go, her team conveniently comes around and decides they’re willing to take her coaching seriously. As a result, the team ends up taking home the glory against Prescott High School, resulting in high-fives all around and a performance of LL Cool J’s “Football Rap” over the closing credits.
16. Liz Lemon: varsity placekicker, 30 Rock, “Ludachristmas” (2007)
As often as 30 Rock used Jack Donaghy as a target for quick jabs at conservative policies and 1-percenter myopia, the show never went easy on his liberal foil, Liz Lemon. Though 30 Rock’s POV is squarely in Liz’s corner—she was played by series creator Tina Fey, after all—it recognized that her passion for certain causes often led her to bite off more than she could chew. The second-season holiday extravaganza, “Ludachristmas,” set up such a scenario, introducing its protagonist’s short-lived football career via cutaway gag. The lawsuit that allowed Liz to suit up for the White Haven High School squad was a matter of principle—”Yeah! Feminism!” she declares after a squibbed kick—but it also caused her and her teammates to miss the playoffs. (“But I think we led the league in bravery,” she proudly qualifies.) Not that her extra point for equality was the true cause of White Haven’s season-ending disappointment: As illustrated later in the episode, the game took place in early December, suggesting the team was on the verge of a postseason berth. Maybe disappointed White Haven boosters like “It Wouldn’t Be A Lemon Party Without Old” Dick Lemon should’ve blamed their coach for putting an unseasoned newcomer at such a crucial position. As Liz herself might’ve said to the blunder, “A-doy-ee.”
17. A star player brings a gun on the field, The Last Boy Scout (1991)
In a torrential downpour on the world’s darkest football field, the Los Angeles Stallions find themselves losing to the Cleveland Cats. During halftime, star player Billy Cole (future Tae Bo pitchman Billy Blanks) gets a phone call from an unidentified man who reminds him how much money is on the line, so he’d better “start scoring some touchdowns.” Later, with little time remaining on the clock, and the Stallions needing a touchdown to win the game—apparently the spread doesn’t matter?—Cole catches a pass from the quarterback and eludes a pair of tackles with the end zone in sight. When a Cats player looks like he has him for an open-field tackle, Cole pulls a gun out of his uniform and shoots the guy and two other Cats on his way to the end zone. Inexplicably, the teams immediately run out to the filed to surround Cole, and before law enforcement can arrive, he turns to everyone and says, “Ain’t life a bitch?” before putting the gun to his head and pulling the trigger.