“Life ain’t fair, all right?” East Mississippi Community College football coach Buddy Stephens tells his players during a team huddle. “Fair is where you kiss a pig and give it a blue ribbon.”
Most of Stephens’ players understand exactly what he’s talking about. They have felt fingers on the scale more than once in their lives. Some come from broken homes or troubled backgrounds. Others have had success but squandered opportunities. Others just seem hard-wired to self-destruct. But they all share the desire to win.
And EMCC wins, a point made clear by “Last Chance U,” a six-episode documentary series streaming on Netflix. Under Stephens, the East Mississippi Lions have become a powerhouse, winning the national junior-college championship for three consecutive years, going undefeated for 24 games.
Stephens’ strategy is to recruit talented but troubled players – athletes who may have washed out in more prominent programs – and give them another chance. And it works. EMCC has built a national reputation for sending its players on to programs at Division 1 schools, with several of them making it to the NFL.
That kind of success takes relentless determination and drive, and that’s part of what director Greg Whiteley (“Mitt”) captures in his gripping series. Stephens is the engine of the runaway train that is EMCC, and he’s powered by steam, a hulking presence with a wad of Red Man tucked into his cheek who uses volcanic anger to motivate and punish players.
Stephens’ smash-mouth approach to leadership is tempered by Brittany Wagner, the school’s academic coordinator for student athletes. She develops strong bonds with the players as she pushes them to attend class, study and maintain eligibility. The players hang out in her tiny office to bask in her warmth. Her patience may be limitless but her successes are fleeting. Most of these young men are unprepared for the academic demands placed on them.
But these players will surprise you both on and off the field, and part of the pleasure of this series is getting to know people such as Ronald Ollie, a temperamental teddy bear of a defenseman with a knack for turning fumbles into touchdowns.
“Last Chance U” premiered in late July, and response to the show was so strong that Netflix weeks later announced it was a committing to a second season to air some time in 2017. If you have yet to catch the first go-round, don’t miss it.
Last Chance U
Streaming on Netflix