“‘Perfect’ and ‘bulletproof’ are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.” – Brene Brown
Every football player wants to win. Coaches teach players how to hide weakness and exploit the weaknesses of their opponents. Soon, perfection and invincibility are expected away from the football field as well. Failure in football and life is scorned.
At least this is the vision of football present in Last Chance U, a Netflix series that follows a select group of players on a junior college football team during the course of a season. Many of these players have failed on their first attempt to be successful at a Division One college football program, so they find themselves on a quest for redemption at a junior college. Each player hopes for one last chance to pursue their dream of playing in the NFL. Season 4 follows players from Independence Community College (ICC) in Kansas, along with head coach Jason Brown.
Each episode is shaped to reveal the team’s weekly routines, while also weaving the players’ past experiences into the narrative. Stories of extreme poverty and adversity make the stakes of the athletes’ football dreams even higher. The climax of each episode is game day, where the camera provides an all-seeing perspective in the midst of player fights, in-game brawls, and injuries. An excellent use of microphones allows viewers to hear players' moments of extreme joy, pain, or despair, which normally would not be heard above the crowd noise. What quickly becomes apparent is that no vulnerability is allowed to be shown by any player or coach associated with the team. Each game is seen as an urgent battle that must be won.
Many rituals are used during game day, including the pre-game speech delivered by Brown, the head coach. A pattern emerges in which Brown urges his players to strike first and violently for fear of being humiliated and dominated by the opposing team. Injure or be injured is a prominent message. And any injury is seen as weakness. Cameras catch players receiving concussions, then lying to the training staff to get back into the game. In one particularly chilling moment, a member of the defensive line, Kailon Davis, lies motionless on the field after a devastating hit. The medical staff suspect a neck injury and begin to secure him to a stretcher. Brown comes over and asks Davis if he wants the stretcher and Davis immediately refuses. Brown responds by saying, “No s***, then get you’re a** up and let’s go.” Physical sacrifice is expected, yet the reward is conditional. When players lose or fail to meet expectations, they are blamed, some are cut, and the injured are left behind.
No vulnerability is allowed to be shown by any player or coach associated with the team.
In order to prepare for battle, music becomes another powerful ritual for the players. Each member of the team wears headphones and chooses their own soundtrack on the bus ride to the game. In the locker room, music becomes communal and builds in intensity. During one game, “War With Us” by YoungBoy Never Broke Again becomes a sing-along anthem that unites the players: “Who want war with us? … Since I was a baby I was born to be violent. I'm a bust yo' f***in' head and my confidence on highly.” The combination of aggression found in both the music and lyrics fuels the players before battle begins.
Finally, prayer is also a prominent ritual before the game. At one point a different coach ensures that his entire team recites the Lord’s Prayer before taking the field. Yet even in prayer, players are not allowed to show weakness or doubt. When Kailon Davis reveals to an English instructor that he is in the “middle of not believing in God” because no Division One schools are offering him a scholarship, she encourages him to be more specific in his prayers and to really believe it. She instructs him that “doubt and belief can’t stay in the same house.”
All these rituals teach players that weakness is bad and must be hidden from others. But is there another way of understanding weakness and power? In Playing God, Andy Crouch argues that we are true image-bearers of God when we exercise both authority and vulnerability. Authority without vulnerability leads to idolatry and injustice. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown uncovers how cultural expectations for men to hide weakness causes damage in communities, often creating hurtful cycles of violence, blame, and shame. And, most importantly, in Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus encourages those who are vulnerable to come to him: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Jesus allows us to express our burdens to him without fear that he will exploit our vulnerability. Last Chance U unveils a football program at Independence Community College where vulnerability is despised. Coaches abuse their power and act cruelly toward players. Players act violently towards opponents and ignore personal injuries. Academic support staff stifle what little vulnerability players may share. Most players do not achieve their dream of playing in the NFL and are left to struggle with failure alone.
At one point, ICC graduate Kerry Buckmaster recounts first turning to alcohol when he was told his injuries made him a liability for any future football team. Finally tired of being alone and angry, Buckmaster describes the moment he no longer wanted to hide his weakness from others. He calls an old friend for help, asking, “I don’t got anybody to talk to about anything … how do I talk to God?” Jesus’ invitation to rest and relationship is given to all who admit their vulnerability—even those playing on a team where no weakness is allowed.