Any Given Friday
Directed by Keith Barber
Thursday, November 11th, 1 p.m.
Thalian Hall Black Box
There’s an obvious reason why sports make perfect subjects for films: The morality is already built in. There’s a good guy and a bad guy (depending on the perspective). Someone wins and someone loses. There’s usually rising action and conflict, and there’s always a clearly-defined ending that helps usher in tragedy or triumph.
“Any Given Friday” is a documentary about coach Gordon Walters and his four-year tenure at the helm of the South Brunswick High School football team, out of Southport, NC. It’s a familiar story that’s been told multiple times: A celebrated coach comes into a program with little history, or hope for a future, and rights the ship, despite opposition from all sides. But it stops short of being a caricature, or entering into “Hoosiers” or “Rudy” territory. The credit goes to first-time filmmaker Keith Barber for artfully crafting a story that writes itself about a terrible team and a coach who wanted a challenge.
“The community around the football team seemed to have accepted losing, and the players had accepted losing, too,” Barber says about South Brunswick at the time of Walters’ arrival. “And what Gordon Walters had to do, in one of the most titanic feats you could imagine, was turn around the way these young kids thought about themselves, how they thought about winning and losing, and to fill that expectation of winning every single game, no matter who they were playing. It didn’t matter who the opponent was. If you came out prepared, and you bought into the system, you were going to win.”
What’s remarkable about Walters entering the fray was how he left a nationally-ranked program at Southern Durham to do it. He had success at every stop before coming to Southport. So why would he leave a program that he helped build to take over one that hadn’t won a playoff game in its 32-year history? As the film’s tagline reads, “It’s the challenge.”
“This isn’t ‘Remember The Titans; or ‘Friday Night Lights’ where you had a championship-caliber team,” Barber says. “We’re talking about a team that was terrible. Yet, you find out that it wasn’t because of the fact they had no athletes at the school. The athletes didn’t go out for the team because they were embarrassed. And when Gordon came and started to build a tradition, then he started to get the best athletes. He was instilling in these kids a pride that they never had before, and it was spilling over into their academics and how they conducted themselves in school. It improved other programs because he encouraged them to go out and play other sports. His impact on the whole school was tremendous.”
Although there are a few secondary characters and tangential storylines (the most heartbreaking one revolves around a former student from Durham who moves to Southport to continue playing for Walters), the focus undoubtedly is on Walters himself. Whereas some viewers may ask for more depth, most will be satisfied in seeing the growth of the players from Barber’s cinéma vérité style of storytelling and in Walters’ reactions to the score on the field.
While it’s no spoiler to reveal that Walters leaves after his fourth season coaching the Cougars, it’s not exactly clear if seeking another challenge was the reason or if South Brunswick wasn’t a perfect fit. Either way, Barber cannot deny that Walters probably never felt overwhelming support, despite the fact that by his last year there, he led them to a 10–3 season and into the third round of the state playoffs.
“I don’t believe that he was honestly ever fully accepted at South Brunswick,” he says. “Even in the administration, I believe there were two camps—one pro-Gordon and the other anti-Gordon. But he had the support of the athletic director, and he had the support of many of the teachers because they could see the improvement of the players, not just in their on-the-field performance, but in the classroom too. He took the lack of support personally, I think, but he stuck it out for four years because he was committed to those freshmen—he really wanted to see those kids through to the end of their senior year. And when they were gone, he may have felt the time was right.”
Although it may not be a Hollywood ending, it is an ending fit for a man like Gordon Walters—a coach always looking for a challenge, and an opportunity to mold young athletes into men. “He said to me, ‘When I got to South Brunswick they had a team, and when I left I really felt like they had a program,’” Barber reveals. “They now have a foundation that’s prepared them for success and I’m sure he’s really proud of that.”