Pigskin Picks: 'Radio' tells another great football story

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By Jenna McKenna

This week's Pigskin Pick veers back to the modern era with a fairly recent film - Michael Tollin's 2003 movie 'Radio.' I didn't go see this movie in the theater because the trailer looked awful ? contrived, emotionally manipulative and far-fetched.

Not long after the movie came out, a friend of mine gave me a collection of stories by Gary Smith, a writer for Sports Illustrated. As it turns out, Smith's 1996 story 'Somebody to Lean On' was the foundation for the movie's screenplay, about a mentally challenged young man who hangs out watching a high school football team practice and ends up a beloved fixture at the school.

Around that time I read the story, I started covering area high school basketball games, and meeting some of the mentally challenged adults who live in the area and who are, to varying degrees, devoted to their teams. One Bronson man roots for the Eagles, but has to leave the game if they're not doing well. A Hawthorne man even travels with the team, suited up in a Hornets t-shirt and the same sneakers and warmups the team wears.

As I met people who reminded me of the real-life Radio from Smith?s SI piece, I thought I might give in and watch the movie.

It's wonderful. Ironically, since I hate most sports movies that are critically well-received, it appears I loved the one that really took a beating from the experts. I can only conclude that the experts, who live in rigid urban environments, where almost nobody with significant disabilities can scoot along the edge of the system, do not know what I know, what Smith knows, and what the T.L. Hanna High School community knows: that there's a little extra space in the world for almost anybody to fit in.

'Radio' is about a young man with a moderate mental disability. The movie takes place in the mid-1970s, and the only significant way it differs from the factual account is in the way Tollin condenses about 40 years of community life into one dramatic year.

Radio, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., comes by the football field and is teased and harrassed by kids who mistrust and fear the unknown in the mentally handicapped. Coach Harold Jones (Ed Harris) invites the young man to become the team manager and takes over the task of socializing him. The team, shocked by the intrusion, gets distracted and loses a bunch of important games before they get inspired and start winning. One of the football dads still doesn't get it and tries to get Jones fired and Radio removed from the school. Things get really bad, and then everything resolves happily.

If the formula bores you, here's a fact that should excite you. This is a movie in which everything turns out right, because it is imitating a real story in which everything turned out right. The characters in the movie have the same names as their Anderson, S.C. counterparts because nobody needs to be protected. Everybody (eventually) did the right thing.

What's good about a football movie with only a little football? 'Radio' is about the reason that parents say they want their sons to play, the reason coaches and administrators give for elevating football to its present status among high school sports. It's about character.

In the time that I've covered high school football, I've heard coaches talk about their players being good students and good citizens, learning discipline and responsibility. The way Coach Jones behaves toward Radio, and teaches his assistants and players to behave, is an example of what organized sports should teach. Other football movies tell other true things about football - the insularity of the team structure and social isolation of players from non-players. These aren't truths we necessarily embrace, but the 'Radio' story is.

The power that football coaches, players and boosters have in a community is exactly the force needed to pick up a lonely, confused young man and help him live up to his potential. It's amazing that high school football can do all that, but with the work of a few courageous people, almost anything can happen.

Radio, now 60 years old, still lives in Anderson, S.C., and goes to T.L. Hanna High School. He is a beloved member of the student body and a fixture in the school's history and culture.