Based On A True Story: The Real-Life Tales Of Sports’ Greatest Movies
They have become some of the most iconic films in American entertainment history. Audiences love a great sports story — overcoming long odds, achieving great milestones, breaking barriers and most of all, winning. But even though we’re suckers for the Hollywood ending. Most of the best sports movies are dramatizations of real-life events. From the Pride of the Yankees, to Rudy to I, Tonya, here are the true stories behind your favorite sports films.
We Are Marshall
One of the worst sports tragedies in U.S. history took place in 1970, when the plane carrying the majority of the Marshall University football program crashed near the airport in Huntington, W.Va., killing all on board. Through the tears, Marshall rebuilt its football program, and stars like Randy Moss and Byron Leftwich heralded its full return in the mid-1990s.
“We Are Marshall,” starring Matthew McConaughy as the new head coach and Matthew Fox as the assistant wracked with survivor’s guilt, tells the story of the first year and first team post-tragedy. It is an emotional tour through a campus and community struggling to find the right way to grieve, heal and move forward.
The story of the “Miracle On Ice” – the U.S. men’s hockey upset of the superior Soviets at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Games – was voted the greatest sports story of the 20th century by ESPN, and it still feels like an understatement. That a bunch of rag-tag college kids could take down the thunderous professional supermen of the Soviet squad is a moment never to be duplicated.
“Miracle” tells the story through the prism of head coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell), who molds his team of college rivals into a cohesive unit with a singular focus – take down the Russians. Brooks’ pregame speech before the semifinal contest against the U.S.S.R, as re-created by Russell, is quite literally the gold standard of inspirational speeches (even if the U.S. didn’t actually get the gold until the next game.)
The ultimate Cinderella story – the iconic images of a totally unknown fighter overcoming impossible odds, triumphantly climbing an awful lot of stairs – became the perfect Hollywood story, winning the Oscar in 1977 for Best Picture. Sylvester Stallone’s title character spawned one of the great movie franchises of all time, continuing to this day with the “Creed” series – literally Rocky: The Next Generation.
But the Rocky story was actually based on a real-life fight: The 1975 heavyweight title bout between Muhammad Ali and the man who inspired Stallone’s vision of Rocky: Chuck Wepner. In the real fight, Ali scores a technical knockout with 19 seconds left in the 15th round. In the film, Apollo Creed, the fictional Ali, scores a split-decision victory (spoiler alert).
The best movie ever made about Muhammad Ali was the documentary, “When We Were Kings,” which tells the story of the Rumble in the Jungle between Ali and George Foreman in 1974. “Ali” dramatizes that stunning upset at the climax of this Will Smith biopic, but he film focuses mostly on the tumultuous decade that preceded it.
Ali takes place in the period between his first heavyweight title in 1964, when Ali was still Cassius Clay, and takes us through the conversion to Islam, the name-change, the protest against the Vietnam War and the stripping of his title. It is this period of Ali’s life, once making him the most hated of athletes, that ultimately turned him into one of the most beloved for his determination to stick to his principles against all odds.
This Martin Scorsese classic tells the story of the great Jake LaMotta, the middleweight boxing champion in the 1940s and ’50s. LaMotta would claim the middleweight championship in 1949 and win a pair of title defenses before relinquishing the crown in his sixth and final fight against the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson in 1951.
But this 1980 film, which earned eight Oscar nominations and won two, is best remembered for the title performance by Robert DeNiro, who so totally immersed himself into the role of LaMotta and walked away with the Best Actor Oscar for his efforts. It is one of the most engrossing portrayals in movie history, a performance worthy of a champion.
Oh, how the echoes awoke when this Notre Dame lovefest was released in 1993. Dan Reuttiger, who walked on to the Notre Dame football team in 1974 as a member of the scout team and finally got a chance to play in his final regular-season game in 1975, ending the final game against Georgia Tech with a sack.
This story was lionized as only Hollywood can, with Sean Astin in the title role. If you close your eyes, you can hear those echoes from South Bend … “Ru-dy! Ru-dy! Ru-dy!” The movie takes some liberties, of course. Ruettiger actually took part in three plays, not just the final sack. But the sequence was shot at Norte Dame Stadium, only the second time a movie was allowed to film in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus. The other: Knute Rockne, All-American.
Battle of the Sexes
The early 1970s were merely an extension of the tumultuous 60s, as calls for racial and sexual equality dominated the landscape. Women’s rights were at the forefront in 1973 with calls for an equal rights amendment. It was against this backdrop that men’s tennis player Bobby Riggs challenged women’s star Billie Jean King to a “Battle of the Sexes” match at the Houston Astrodome.
King wins the match easily, and the victory becomes a symbolic rallying cry for the women’s rights movement. The film goes deeper, examining the struggles women’s tennis players had in obtaining equitable prize money, a battle that would linger far beyond King’s playing days.
Steve Prefontaine was one of America’s most-talented long-distance runners, and ultimately perhaps its most star-crossed. The Oregon track star, trained under the tutelage of Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman, would go on to a brilliant college career and participate in the fateful 1972 Summer Games in Munich.
Amid the tragedy of the murder of 11 Israeli team members in a terrorist attack, Prefontaine, played in the movie by Jared Leto, loses a late lead in the 5,000 meters and fails to medal. At age 24, a year shy of competing for redemption in the 1976 Summer Games, Prefontaine is killed in a one-car accident.
The story of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher, The Blind Side focuses on the suburban white family, led by Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw, who takes in the troubled African-American youngster who has been in and out of different foster homes.
The film was criticized by some for promoting stereotypes of a white hero family saving a disadvantaged youth of color, but the story is an accurate one, taken from the pages of Michael Lewis’ football book of the same name. The film also chronicles the allegations against the family that the violated NCAA rules by steering Oher to their alma mater, Mississippi.
Chariots of Fire
Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams were runners who took part in the 1924 Olympics. Their stories became the foundation for one of the most critically successful sports movies of all time, even if the subject matter lacked the drama of a Rocky or the visuals of a Longest Yard. What the 1981 film had was awards, and lots of them.
Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Costume Design and last but not least, Best Score, as the soaring theme by Vangelis became an iconic piece of music, used over and over again in documentaries and short clips trying to evoke the striving of athletes to succeed.
Pride of the Yankees
It remains one of the saddest stories in Major League Baseball history. Lou Gehrig, the first baseman for the New York Yankees in the 1920s and ‘30s, was the Iron Man for playing in 2,130 consecutive games. But in a terrible ironic twist, Gehrig’s career and life were cut short by an incurable disease known as ALS. Later, after his death, it would earn the nickname, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and it remains to this day without a cure.
“Pride of the Yankees” stars Gary Cooper in the title role, telling the story of Gehrig’s upbringing and eventual career with the Yankees, wearing No. 4 and hitting behind Babe Ruth, who plays himself. Cooper’s re-enactment of Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium – “Today, I consider myself, the luckiest man in America.” – can even bring a Red Sox fan to tears.
One of the most dramatic races in modern Olympic history came in the 1964 Games in Tokyo, when a relatively unknown United States runner named Billy Mills pulled off an historic upset by coming from nowhere and running down a group of heavy favorites in the final lap of the 10,000 meters to capture the Gold medal.
Twenty years later, Mills story came to the big screen in “Running Brave,” with Robby Benson in the title role of Mills, a Sioux Indian from South Dakota who overcomes racism and poverty to make the U.S. Olympic team as a distance runner and pull off the miracle in the 10K.
Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947 was first memorialized on film with “The Jackie Robinson Story” in 1950. Playing the title role was none other than Jackie Robinson himself. Hollywood went back to Jackie’s inspirational story in 2013, focusing on Jackie’s signing with the Dodgers organization and the racial hurdles he faced early in his first season of 1947.
The most prominent actor to star in “42” was Harrison Ford as Dodgers GM Branch Rickey, but history will remember “42” as the first starring role for actor Chadwich Boseman, who would go on to star as Black Panther in the iconic 2017 Marvel installment.
For the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking college basketball championship won by the 1966 Texas Western Miners, the film “Glory Road” was released in 2006 and told the story of the first NCAA men’s basketball team to win a national championship with a starting lineup of five African-American players.
Texas Western, now known as the University of Texas-El Paso (UTEP), made its history in the most symbolic way possible, defeating all-white Kentucky in the national championship game. One of the Kentucky players who watched Texas Western beat them with an up-tempo style of play was future Lakers “Showtime” coach Pat Riley.
Borg vs. McEnroe
One of the greatest Wimbedon men’s singles finals took place in 1980 between four-time defending champion Bjorn Borg of Sweden, vying to become the first to win five titles in a row, and controversial upstart John McEnroe, on the verge of dominating the sport himself. The icily focused Borg and combustible McEnroe made for great theater. And their five-set thriller, ultimately won by Borg, lived up to the hype.
This 2017 film examines the backstories of these two tennis titans, particularly the lesser-known, but equally complicated personality of Bjorn Borg, who battles the pressure of maintaining his superstar status as much as the opponents he defeats on the court.
Before Netflix sensations Making A Murderer and The Staircase, one of the most famous films about a wrongly-accused man was not a documentary, but a drama about the prize fighter Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who spent 19 years in jail for a 1966 triple-murder in New Jersey he didn’t commit and the efforts of unlikely citizens to get him freed.
The film traces the boxing career, arrest, trial and fight for justice for Carter, played by Denzel Washington. Helped by a foster child with an intense interest in the case and the foster family, led by Liev Schreiber, Carter wins his appeal in 1985 and is freed. “Hate got me into this place,” Carter says. “Love got me out.”
North Dallas Forty
Before Any Given Sunday and Playmakers and Concussion, the underbelly of the NFL was examined in this 1970s classic, based on the novel by former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent. The production value might be dated, but the film’s take on the corporate, drug-fueled, player-safety-averse NFL rings true even in 2018.
Nick Nolte plays a wide receiver loosely based on Gent, who played for the Cowboys in the 1960s. Mac Davis plays quarterback Seth Maxwell, who is the fictional version of Don Meredith. Veteran character actor G.D. Spradling totally nails it as a fictional Tom Landry. Spoiler alert: The big game’s ending gives Tony Romo the shakes.
The only movie officially sanctioned for men to openly cry, this football drama is based on the true story of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer at age 26 in 1970. Piccolo, played by James Caan, was the close friend and roommate of star running back Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams), and the movie also details their interracial bond in an era just emerging from segregation.
The film’s most iconic moment comes when Sayers accepts the George H. Halas Courage award in 1970 and dedicates it to his stricken friend. That scene is re-created from Sayers’ real-life acceptance speech, and his declaration, “I love Brian Piccolo,” stands as one of the most emotional in sports movie history.
Eight Men Out
Ever wonder why Pete Rose remains banned from Baseball and the Hall of Fame, while accused steroid users get a relative pass? Study up on the 1919 “Black Sox” scandal and you have your answer. The betting scandal, in which several Chicago White Sox players conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, nearly killed Major League Baseball, and gambling on the game remains the sport’s third rail above all other transgressions.
The scandal was immortalized in the movie, “Eight Men Out,” in 1989, based on the classic book by Eliot Asinov. Directed by John Sayles, the film was a Brat Pack of sorts, with John Cusack, Charlie Sheen and D.B. Sweeney among the White Sox players who would be banned for life.
Did we mention sports scandals? No sports spectacle of the late 20th century could quite compete with the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal that rocked women’s figure skating – and arguably made it more popular than any single event on or off the ice. Harding, jealous of Kerrigan’s success and stature in the run-up to the 1994 Winter Games, took part in a plot to erase her arch-rival, and left us all asking the same question as the wounded Kerrigan: Why?
A “hitman” whacked Kerrigan in the leg after a practice. Harding’s goofy husband and an even goofier band of goons were caught and Harding somehow managed to avoid the law long enough to participate in the Games. She lost. So did Kerrigan. Oksana Baiul, anyone? The biggest winners turned out to be the film’s actresses. Margot Robbie was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Harding and Allison Janney won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Harding’s domineering mother.
Easily the best movie every made about a sports labor dispute, The Replacements was the fictionalized story of the replacement players for the Washington Redskins who took the field during the NFL players’ strike at the start of the 1987 season. The Redskins replacement players went 3-0 in that 1987 season and eventually won the Super Bowl.
The movie borrowed one other moment from real life had a little fun with it. At one point in the film, the Washington team scores a touchdown re-created to look like the famous Oakland Raiders “Holy Roller” touchdown against San Diego in 1978. John Madden, who calls the play in the film in his familiar broadcaster role, was the Raiders head coach when the play happened for real in 1978.
A League of Their Own
Before 1992, most of America had completely forgotten that once upon a time, during the Second World War, there was a professional women’s baseball league, established to keep interest in baseball alive with so many Major League players fighting in Europe and the Pacific. When the war ended, so did the women’s league. But a legacy was there.
Director Penny Marshall brought the short-lived women’s league back to life in a brilliantly entertaining comedy-drama starring Tom Hanks in his early 1990s breakout hit, along with Geena Davis as his star player. Although playing for laughs, the film shows great respect to the All-American Girls Baseball League, depicting the league in almost documentary form.
Knute Rockne, All-American
Before Joe Montana, before Lou Holtz, before “Rudy,” the legend of Notre Dame football was cemented into the American sports consciousness with this 1940 biopic, telling the life story of the Fighting Irish’s greatest football coach, Knute Rockne. The film became one of the most popular sports movies of the first half-century.
Rockne, who was killed in a plane crash in 1931, coached the famous “Four Horsemen,” as Notre Dame became the premier college football program in the nation. Rockne also coached a player named George Gipp, who died at age 25 and told Rockne to impart to the team, “Win one for the Gipper.” Gipp is played in the movie by a young actor named Ronald Reagan.
Fear Strikes Out
In today’s sports world, famous athletes like the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Kevin Love can do public service television ads about his mental health issues, and how to get help. In the 1950s, a player like Red Sox outfielder Jimmy Piersall suffered with bi-polar disorder in silence. His illness went untreated and his on-field breakdowns led to ridicule and shunning from the game.
Piersall’s harrowing tale became the basis for the 1957 film, which was based on Piersall’s memoir by the same name. Anthony Perkins, who would go on to make movie history three years later as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, starred as Piersall.
Usually, it is the documentary that is inspired by the feature film. In the case of The Fighter, it was a 1995 documentary about a young fighter from Lowell, Mass., named Mickey Ward that inspired the film, with Boston’s own Mark Wahlberg in the title role and Christian Bale as Mickey’s half-brother and trainer, Dicky Eklund.
The movie would go on to earn seven Academy Award nominations, with Bale winning Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Eklund and Melissa Leo Best Supporting Actress as the family matriarch. While the film depicts key fights in Ward’s career, it omits the thrilling trilogy with Arturo Gatti, three of the greatest welterweight fights of all time.
Arguably one of the greatest sports movies ever made, Hoosiers tells the story of tiny Hickory High in Indiana, which overcomes numerous obstacles – not least of which the begrudging embrace of their combative new head coach (Gene Hackman) – to win the 1951-52 Indiana state basketball tournament.
The film feels like a fictional Rocky-style tale of improbable triumph, but the story is loosely based on the actual 1954 Indiana state champions, Milan High School. That title game was won on a last-second shot by a player named Bobby Plump. In the movie, it’s Jimmy Chitwood who makes good on his guarantee, “I’ll make it.”
Although primarily based on the novel of the same name, the character Roy Hobbs is loosely based on Shoeless Joe Jackson, who was banned from baseball for his role in the 1919 Black Sox scandal. The novel and the movie both draw upon elements of the scandal, with wildly different final outcomes.
The young Roy Hobbs and the shooting that derails his career at the start of the movie is thought to be based on the true-life incident involving Chicago Cubs shortstop Billy Jurges, who was shot by his ex-girlfriend and missed much of the 1932 season, only to return in time to help the Cubs win the pennant.
“Moneyball,” based on the Michael Lewis book by the same name, focuses on Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the architect of the early 2000s A’s who embraced sabermetric statistical analysis to build winning teams despite one of the lowest payrolls in the game.
The movie follows the A’s through the 2002 season, which included a record 20-game winning streak. While Beane gets the credit for brining sabermetrics to the field, the film (and to an extent, the book) fails to mention that the cost-controlled A’s also had one of the most devastating pitching rotations in the American League (Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder).
Based in large part on a devastating “Frontline” investigation into the NFL’s attempts to minimize – if not outright cover up — the dangers of concussions in football, the film traces the role of Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith.
It is Omalu who first discovers the brain degeneration disorder CTE in several former NFL stars, such as Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, and begins to realize the connection between concussions and the brain disorder. But Omalu soon discovers, to his cost, that the NFL does not want to accept Omalu’s findings, even as other former players commit suicide and demand their brains be examined for CTE.
When Jim Morris took the mound for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in late September, 1999, he was 35 years old. That qualified Morris as the second-oldest rookie in Major League history, and his journey to the Majors was just as improbable as his appearance against the Rangers.
Morris story became the subject of a 2002 Disney film starring Dennis Quaid as the one-time prospect who became a high school teacher and tried out for the Devil Rays as a dare from the players on his high school baseball team. Morris even found a role in the movie as an umpire.