By Joseph Santoliquito/CBS Sports
Los Angeles (CBS)–Chances are no one is going to stick a microphone into Bill Courtney’s face and ask him “who are you wearing?” Chances are not many will even know who Courtney is, or what he’s done, or the impact the 43-year-old Memphis, Tennessee native has had on a group of kids that learned as much from him, as Courtney did from them.
It started as a guy getting off his couch and a bunch of inner-city kids who needed a coach. Eleven years later, it’s evolved into Courtney wearing a tuxedo for the first time since his college senior formal, hobnobbing with film industry giants “on the red carpet” at the 84th Academy Awards in Los Angeles.
Bill Courtney finds himself the unlikely center of attention for an Academy Award-winning documentary called “Undefeated,” based on the 2009 football season of the Manassas (Memphis, Tenn.) Tigers, the brainchild of filmmakers T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay.
What was originally intended to be a 30-minute documentary focusing on budding Manassas lineman O.C. Brown morphed into a full-blown movie project, with Martin and Lindsay altering their own lives and moving to Memphis for nine months to chronicle the daily affairs of Courtney and his coaching staff.
The movie is scheduled for a national release on March 2. But in the meantime, Courtney and the filmmakers are on a whirlwind tour, promoting the movie and adding another great slice of life as to what high school sports can be.
The genesis came from producer Rich Middlemas, a huge Tennessee football fan who follows the Volunteers’ recruiting. Middlemas had stumbled on the story of O.C. Brown, a kid from the harsh North Memphis area going back and forth from his grandmother’s home. Middlemas passed the story along to Martin and Lindsay as a project possibility. When the two arrived at the North Memphis high school, they found out the Manassas story layered much deeper than O.C. Brown.
What the filmmakers found was the story of a businessman who volunteered countless hours to coach and invigorate a dormant program in the heart of the ghetto that had 17 players and went 6-54 the previous six years before he arrived. What they found was Courtney, the barrel-chested owner of Classic American Hardwoods, a lumber company with sales offices worldwide. A onetime coach and teacher, Courtney had veered the Tigers’ program into winners.
“When I graduated Old Miss, I taught school and coached football for a living; it’s what I always wanted to do but unfortunately the real truth is I couldn’t afford to keep doing it,” Courtney said from Los Angeles. “One thing led to another and I started a lumber company in 2001. I never quit coaching. I kept coaching throughout that whole period of time. I love coaching. It’s what I’m passionate about.”
His passion took a new direction when a college buddy, Jim Tipton, mentioned to Courtney he was looking to mentor kids. Courtney broached the high school about a block away from his business, Manassas. When football season approached, Tipton said in passing it looked as if Manassas had a few players.
“I started volunteering my time over there and saw that everything was deficient,” Courtney said. “The equipment was horrible, but the kids were fantastic. I fell in love with the place. The kids all wanted to be taught, they all wanted to learn, and they responded to everything. In that first year, we won four football games and made the playoffs. I fell in love with the kid’s resilience and their determination, and six years later, it turned into something we still don’t believe. For me, it was most rewarding experience I ever had. It’s the most rewarding experience anyone could have. We’re talking about a zip code where kids are more likely to be incarcerated than go to college.”
Courtney gathered a staff that included Tipton, Mike Ray, Carl Coleman, Jeff Germany, Mike Walker, Greg Hollenback and Tommy Warren. Courtney watched as O.C. Brown and players like linebacker Chavis Daniels and lineman Montrail “Money” Brown developed. He also was the doorway for his coaches to learn a little something, too.
Ray took in O.C. Brown and Montrail Brown.
“I did it for two years and helped Bill,” Ray said. “I always had a respect for coaches of every level, but it’s a little deeper now because a full-time high school coach makes so many sacrifices and they do that for maybe a few thousand dollars. They’re amazing. What I think the thing I take most from this experience is that not everyone is born equally. These kids have a stacked deck against them and we have kids that have lived with us, like O.C. and Montrail, getting them ready for life. I really got close to five or six kids who still call me once a week. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
Nor will Montrail Brown. There is a scene in the documentary where he’s talking about his pet turtles (which he’s since released back into the wilds). “Turtles are like human beings, on the outside they want to be hard and show their strength, but on the inside it’s just all flimsy,” he says in the movie. “Everyone wants to play this role, they’re tough and they don’t want to break that brick wall,” he says today. “To me, I’d rather be the person who says I am tough, but I can show the inner true me inside. Honestly, I miss it, I miss playing high school football, and my high school experience.
“Part of me says I still miss that chance to be in those last games I couldn’t play (because of a partial ACL tear). I saw the movie several times and it was a little scary, because it caught me off guard. I tried to avoid (the filmmakers) and it stepped into my personal life. I think I learned from the experience that you can’t be selfish and stay humble.”
Recently, Montrail was in line at a store wearing a Manassas t-shirt. An older gentleman in line spotted the shirt and asked if he played for Manassas, then remarked there was a movie coming out about the team. Brown smiled and told the man he played for that team … “I don’t want to get big-headed and get caught up in it; I want to stay who I am and keep doing what I’m doing.” He’s working towards becoming a fireman.
As for Courtney, he’s a volunteer coach at St. George’s Independent School, the Tennessee Division 2 state champion. He’s been featured in major magazines, and was recognized as the person of the week by a major network. It’s been head-spinning. But there’s a chance no one will ask him who he’s wearing, and what he’s there for when he strolls down the red carpet.
“You have to keep it balanced and keep things real, but my family is enjoying this moment in time though we won’t let it define us,” Courtney said. “I gained an enormous amount from this. I have the satisfaction of knowing because of me and my coaching staff we changed the lives of young men. They taught me as much about their world as I taught them about the fundamental tenets of character. They broadened me and my perspective into becoming the person I want to be. Regardless of a score, knowing the depth of my player’s character, all I needed to do was remind them of who they are inside, and their talent will take over. In the movie, the background is high school football, but more important story is about building the character of these kids than winning football games.
“What you’ll see in the movie are lifelong bonds with coaches and players. We experienced something together that can’t ever be taken away. Not just the kids, but the coaches at well. The reason why the Oscar nomination came was that bond displayed. Put away race and creed, drop all the preconceived notions and it showed everyone working toward a common goal. It’s really a coming together of many, many different worlds that didn’t care about outside influences. We just wanted to get better together; 70 blacks and one white coach. We didn’t look at each other that way. It never did matter. It came down to just a guy and a bunch of kids who needed a coach and that’s all there is. People want to look at something different. I’m someone who loves to coach and a bunch of kids who wanted to be coached that saw good things happening.”
After the Academy Awards, and the various dinners and evening engagements, Courtney plans on returning back to his Memphis home and business, go back to being a volunteer assistant coach at St. George’s, and frame his Oscar tickets up next to the pictures of all the kids he coached at Manassas.