I am a social worker by trade (I hold a Master of Social Work degree and worked with ‘at-risk’ and juvenile offenders in an alternative school), a football fanatic, and a devout Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson fan.
I have probably seen the movie “Gridiron Gang” a dozen times since it was released in 2006. Initially, of course, I was attracted by the film’s star and my love for football. Finding out the story was based on the true life of Sean Porter, a probation officer in a California youth detention camp, peaked my interest as a social worker.
Having worked with current and former gang members, students on parole and probation, and teenagers with long felony rap sheets, I have had the privilege of seeing the hearts of kids who are not eager to show their deep emotions on any regular basis. The idea of watching a group of teenage boys—kids, in my mind—compete for glory and honor on a football field rather than on a neighborhood street corner was, at the very least, intriguing to me.
Regardless of how many times I watch this movie, I still find myself moved by the storyline. A group of tough kids—gang members, killers, car thieves—join a football team organized by a probation officer at their juvenile detention camp. Many are in rival gangs, which means affiliation of any kind is strictly forbidden. The boys are angry, tough, and volatile.
The coach is determined to form a group of individuals and rivals into members of only one gang—a ‘gridiron gang’ known as the Mustangs. This is the goal for any football coach. Coach Porter had a bigger challenge than most coaches could imagine. Boys who are not quite men, with anger and resentment pushed to the breaking point, fighting each other and then fighting for each other.
There were many obstacles along the way. The coach had a difficult time finding schools willing to play convicted, dangerous criminals. A gang-related shooting during one of the games almost destroys the program. Coach Porter fights his own ego and his own childhood memories nearly as often as he fights to hold together his team.
Dwayne Johnson, a former college football player himself, convincingly portrays Coach Porter as a tough man with a big heart for the players and for the love of the game. The final shots at the film’s finale are from a documentary made about Porter and the Mustangs in the early 1990s. Brief bios of the Mustangs flash on the screen describing the successes, and the failures, of many of the key players.
The intense drama, and occasional humor, on the field and off is enough to keep anyone—fan, athlete, or sucker for a feel-good story—watching from beginning to end. Sometimes more than once.