Untitled Mike Flynt Project

When a 59-year-old former strength coach decided to reenroll at his alma mater and play one final year of college football, he seemed like the lead in the greatest sports movie ever. He had rabid fans, a quirky coach, heroic young teammates, and a complicated backstory filled with rebellion and redemption. Roll cameras . . .
Flynt, photographed in Alpine on October 28, 2007.
Photograph by Brent Humphreys

The movie would have to open with a shot of Jackson Field, in Alpine, home of the Sul Ross State University Lobos. Built in 1929 and having seen little touch-up since, the rock-walled stadium would give an instant feel for what it means to play small-college football in a West Texas ranching town. Narrow stacks of metal bleachers face off on either side of the gridiron, but there’s no horseshoe seating behind the goalposts, just practice fields, a few rooftops, then long stretches of scrubby desert floor. An ancient press box sits atop the home-side stands, its Plexiglas windows bowed and yellowed, with busy train tracks running just twenty yards behind it. In the film’s opening moments, an old freight train could roll by the field, hinting at a resilient power ignoring the passage of time. If the scene were filmed after a rare rainy period, as Alpine experienced in 2007, the hills around the stadium would be unbelievably green, implying a sense of renewal and rebirth. If by the time of filming the regular drought had returned, the verdant effect could be created in the editing room. Reality can never be allowed to interfere with the telling of a good story.

Set the scene at a practice. Since Mike Flynt didn’t see action at linebacker until the season’s final game, make it the Friday workout before that last contest, a home game against Mississippi College. Script it as much like that real November afternoon as possible: The players stroll onto the field in bunches, dressed in red shorts and jerseys, no pads, most carrying their beat-up gray helmets with the bar- SR-bar logo. Flynt stands out, but not because he’s forty years older than his teammates. At five nine he’s a little short, but his barrel chest, reputedly still capable of bench-pressing four hundred pounds, dwarfs everyone else’s, and his sleeves are bunched above better-defined biceps. His helmet never comes off, a nod to the old-school virtue of always being ready to go into the game.

Shots of other players reveal a ragtag bunch that couldn’t have played anywhere else, the Bad News Bears of Division III football. They’re all shapes and sizes, the tall and the short, the ripped and the rippled. Their mood is loose, and the trash talk is constant. Though their playoff dreams dissolved with a week-eight homecoming loss, they still hope for a victory on Saturday to cement a winning 6-4 record, an impressive feat for a team that played six games on the road. Finishing with a win would mean even more to the team’s seniors, most of whom—except Flynt, of course—have recently endured winless seasons at Sul Ross.

The comic relief comes from head coach Steve Wright. As the players assemble, he lounges on a sofa on the sideline. One of his players points out that at least he’s not chipping golf balls or lying at midfield talking on his cell phone, as he often is. After some brief words of inspiration, Wright sends the team off by position for drills, but the camera stays with him as he heads for a goalpost to visit with alumni and journalists. In his Smoky Mountain drawl—his “y’alls” sounding like “y’owls”—he tells them how unusual their presence is at a frontier program like Sul Ross. Traditionally, reporters and alums have been scarce even at Lobos games, forget Lobos practices.

Mike Flynt has changed all that, Wright tells the reporters. Big media outlets from all over the country have looked in on Alpine this season— CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox News, ESPN, the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated. There have been movie and book offers by the dozens, blog posts and radio interviews in the hundreds. Flynt has even been writing a weekly column for the Associated Press. It’s been a strange autumn.

The camera finds Flynt. He’s jogging across the field with the linebackers, and by his gait you can tell he’s still a player—up on his toes, with his elbows in and his fists high and together like a boxer’s. Instead of pumping his arms, he swings them slightly side to side, as if he’s conserving his energy in case the chance comes to cream someone. He stops with his group to practice intercepting passes, and his voice can be heard over everyone else’s. “Attaboy, Milo!” “Good hands, Nate!” “That’s it, Kyle!” And then, when he takes his turn, his teammates give back. “Nice job, Mike!”

But some moment in this scene will have to explain why Flynt’s here. Maybe now he turns to a teammate and repeats the line he’s told reporters and players all year, that he has come back to right an old wrong, to make up for having been booted from Sul Ross for fighting during two-a-days in 1971. Have him add his invariable reality check, that though his aging body has kept him from contributing on the field the way he’d hoped, being teammate to these young men has been reward enough. But one thing will need to be made absolutely clear, maybe by having Flynt squint his green eyes at a tailback goofing near midfield, juking in and out of stationary teammates: Flynt has returned to Sul Ross to play linebacker, and tomorrow’s game will be his final opportunity to make one last big play, to deliver one last good hit.

The scene should probably end there, though if the movie were to depict the whole of that day, it would have to keep rolling through a curious moment after practice. As the players retired to the field house, two of the team leaders, seniors Austin Davidson, the school’s all-time leading passer, and his best friend, Zach Gideon, a giant defensive tackle with a mohawk and perfect nickname, Giddy, lingered on the field for a field goal—kicking contest. They made a ridiculous sight, the pretty-boy blond quarterback versus the hulking lineman, who finally won the battle with a straight-on toe kick from 25 yards.

Afterward, they talked about their years at Sul

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