When engrossed in a football game, it’s easy to forget that there are people underneath all of those pads. We see the flying helmets, the crushing tackles, but rarely do we get to see their faces.
Last Chance U, a Netflix documentary, takes off the helmets and offers a raw, often emotional look inside the lives of Independence Community College Pirates football team. The Pirates are part of a small-town junior college (JuCo) in Kansas that, for some students, is their last chance at football stardom and a degree.
Center to this story is Head Coach Jason Brown, a cutthroat, testosterone-laden individual in his first season at ICC whose main purpose in life seems to be to win and motivate his players towards graduation.
He drops the f-bomb about twice per sentence, and his motivational tactics border on emotional abuse, but players still love him. Born and raised in Compton, he’s as tough as his players are and communicates with them well.
After serving as Garden City Community College’s offensive coordinator (and primary recruiter) and winning a national championship with them the previous season, Coach Brown took over at ICC in 2017—and brought all of his players with him.
Many of these players are Division I, NFL-caliber talents, including starting quarterback Malik Henry. Henry, who was the top quarterback recruit in the nation coming out of high school, was kicked out of Florida State for undisclosed violations of team rules.
He deals with an ego bigger than the city of Independence and a tendency to become despondent when things go south—poor qualities for a quarterback. His rollercoaster of a season was featured prominently throughout the series. Often times a volatile train wreck on the sidelines and in practice, he had his moments of triumph throughout the season, leading ICC to a 9-2 record and their first bowl victory in decades.
There were others, too. Running-back Rakheem Boyd, a transfer from Texas A&M. Wide receiver Carlos Thompson, a transfer from Texas Tech whose struggles with marijuana sent him to Independence. These are top-tier Division I schools that have produced All-Pro NFL players, and these players were supposed to be next, until they weren’t.
It’s both sad and moving, seeing how far these young men have fallen from grace. For some, they still possess dreams of transferring to a bigger school and playing in the NFL. For others, Independence Community College is their last stop.
With most of these men coming from poor areas, graduating with a degree is essential to survival. Otherwise, they’ll be thrown back on the streets, where the cycle of crime and poverty will continue for yet another generation.
Such was the case with linebacker Bobby Bruce, one of the most compelling characters on the show. He was easy to root for, soft-spoken but a hard-hitter. He had trouble with school, but cameras followed him through English class with Professor LaTonya Pinkard, a no-nonsense Southern teacher with a deep passion for education and an even deeper passion for helping people.
Pinkard and Bruce formed a close-knit relationship over the series; Bruce seemed to pick up from Pinkard at least a spark of that same passion for learning, as he joined her book club and grinned to himself whenever he answered a question correctly in class. However, it was revealed in the last episode that Bruce was arrested for robbery over the summer, and would likely not return to Independence. The viewer forms relationships with these characters; it felt like hearing that same news about a troubled friend.
The show, of course, was about football. When game time came at the end of each episode, it was hard not to cheer for the Pirates, thanks in part to Netflix’s beautiful cinematography. The action felt near; the hits were crisp. When Malik Henry bombed touchdowns to Carlos Thompson, it felt like you were really there. It was a superb piece of camerawork by the Netflix crew.
In fact, it was a superb third season to their hit documentary. It offers one of the most unique looks into the world of football that’s out there. Be prepared to cheer, be prepared to smile and be prepared to cry.