“Once you take sports from us, we don’t know anything else.” These distressing words are spoken by star running back Isaiah Wright, but there’s an uncomfortable level of truth to them. As you watch Netflix’s sensational documentary series “Last Chance U,” questions arise about college football. Some are uncomfortable, some are more thought provoking. Some are depressing and make the audience question how a big time junior college team exists in a town with less than 10,000 people. Simply put, there are few docu-series on television today that reach the heights of “Last Chance U,” and it is a much-watch for college football fanatics and general audiences alike.
“Last Chance U” follows the controversial football team at East Mississippi Community College. The team is best known for its willingness to take extremely talented athletes, despite character flaws from its primary players. In the past, the college has rehabilitated players and pushed them to become college and professional stars. Some of its storied alumni include LeGarrette Blount, Quinton Dial, and Chad Kelly. These are players who left previous teams due to drugs, academic troubles, or simply a lack of effort. Despite this, EMCC and its coach Buddy Stephens have turned players around and made them superstars. Colleges throughout the southeast, including Alabama, Auburn, and Texas Tech recruit from EMCC, and give a second opportunity to these players.
The stories and narratives of the players are just part of what makes “Last Chance U” so compelling. That said, the below-the-line accomplishments are incredible. The sound design makes you feel like you’re in the game at its best moments. The cinematography captures moments in the game that the players may not even be aware of. The video quality is crisp and makes you wonder how SportsCenter has grainy video of their games at times. The editing builds anxiety throughout games. It is spectacularly pieced together and helps the multitudes of story work in only eight episodes.
What makes the series so fascinating is the unflinching view that the documentary crew takes when developing the series. There are heroes and villains like any reality series, but this one is aware of the problematic nature of idolizing its subjects. This season features former Florida State quarterback De’Andre Johnson, who came to national prominence after video of him physically assaulting a woman in a bar went viral. The series refuses to shy away from the controversy. The cold open for the second episode is the viral video and the controversy that follows. Accompanying his workouts, there are local commentators who criticize EMCC for taking him on. Stephens provides a justification for why a program would still be interested in a player like Johnson.
There are times that Johnson comes off as the hero of the season. However, his issues are never forgotten by the editors and directors. The question of whether or not Johnson should be allowed to play football is brought up. However, the show does not seem interested in answering this question. Instead, the audience is given the pieces to make the decision for themselves. This is a wise move, as it allows the audience to attach their own opinions to the footage shown.
One of the best aspects of the series is that no narration is provided by the crew. There are no Liev Schreibers or Jon Hamms to contextualize these players. Instead, they edit together pure footage from games, coaches, and players to build the story. You hear the players openly discuss drug use and trying to break their addictions. Players deal with horrific family tragedies, and the series follows them closely. Each of these clips and stories could serve as a spotlight on College Gameday, and be more emotionally affecting than you may be prepared for. The personalities of the players are big, and you will undeniably be drawn to their stories of redemption.
There is no doubt that the most harrowing story belongs to Isaiah Wright. There may be no player that you want to root for more, and it makes his story this season more challenging. Wright emerged as a superstar in season one of the series and is one of a few holdovers to also play a big role in season two. He is so talented that a layman would identify him as one of the greatest athletes in the game. He is a positive and good kid whose background is one of the hardest stories to watch yet. By watching Wright’s story unfold this season, you will at once believe in why college athletics is important for these players, and simultaneously hate the system in place.
Perhaps the most incredible moment in the first few episodes occurs after Wright suffers a devastating concussion. Wright is mic’d up, so we hear the sound of his body and head slammed into the ground. As the scene unfolds, players come up to Wright and tell him he needs to get back on the field. Wright utters worrisome sentences while on the sideline, and at one point admits he doesn’t know where he is. The sequence lasts about 10 minutes and shows Wright progress from the initial shock of the moment until he is taken away in an ambulance. It’s an intense sequence that reminds you of the brutality of the game.
Simply put, “Last Chance U” is one of the superior sports documentaries on television today. It is “Hoop Dreams” set in 2016. The show deserves the spotlight it has received in college football circles. In reality, it is one the strongest docu-series on TV today. The drama that surrounds the show is palpable and shines a light on the positives and negatives of college football. Each game feels like a premier sports movie that surpasses “Friday Night Lights” and other football films. Lingering over the series is the fact that these players need these opportunities to potentially succeed in life. That said, what is the cost for these opportunities? While the question is never fully answered, the ride will make you cheer, cry, and eagerly await another season.