It’s a true story so implausible that it had to be made into a movie. The triumph of the Mighty Mites, the Depression-era high school football team of the Masonic Widows and Orphans Home in Fort Worth, is one of the better sports tales in Texas history. Everything about it—the poor-as-dirt team of scrappy orphans, transformed under the innovative leadership of Rusty Russell, a World War I veteran from Fredonia—screams “cinematic.”
The facts, as told in Dallas sportswriter Jim Dent’s 2007 book 12 Mighty Orphans, are amazing: the team, without so much as a ball to call its own, once improvised a football by stuffing two socks together; the boys rode to games in the bed of an old Dodge pickup, with wooden rails Russell installed so they wouldn’t fall out the back; and they put together a miraculous first season that saw them go from a ragtag bunch of unskilled, undersized kids to a competitive 8–2 team that defeated bigger, better-equipped opponents. It’s a story of heart, determination, and, for football history geeks, Russell’s invention of the spread offense—the sort of thing that would border on unbelievable if you wrote it into a movie.
Which made actually adapting it into a movie something of a challenge. Just because something true and extraordinary happened doesn’t mean that it makes for an engaging film narrative, and that’s especially the case for the saturated genre of feel-good football movies. This was top of mind for filmmakers Ty Roberts, a West Texas native, and Houston Hill, who’s based in East Texas, as they adapted Dent’s book.
“You’ve got to have your high points and your villains and your buildups and your drops, everything that composes a standard narrative, so you feel like if you’ve seen one football movie, you’ve seen them all,” Roberts told me recently. “We really did our best to be cognizant of that, and to find the fresh elements to an age-old story—and hopefully that works in a genre that’s been done a lot.”
12 Mighty Orphans, which opens in theaters across Texas today and nationwide next weekend, draws its power from evoking the story’s particulars. The film opens by depicting the bleak conditions in the orphanage, in which kids are worked to exhaustion on menial tasks by an overseer (played by Wayne Knight) who views them as a resource to exploit. The thirties setting comes to life thanks to the film’s primary shooting location at the Texas Pythian Home, an orphanage in Weatherford—just thirty miles from the former Masonic Home’s location—that opened its doors in 1909 and still has plenty of spaces that look like a period-appropriate home for the Mighty Mites. (The Masonic Home closed in 2005, but the structure still stands; a 2006 renovation, however, made it a less plausible setting for a Depression-era orphanage.)
But the heart and soul of the story is coach Rusty Russell, played by Luke Wilson. Russell was, then and now, an uncommon figure among Texas football coaches. Legend says Russell, himself an orphan, vowed to dedicate his life to children when he narrowly avoided going blind after a mustard gas attack during World War I. Wilson prepared for the role by studying tape of Russell and meeting with his grandchildren. The result is a refreshing change from the way football coaches are usually portrayed. Wilson eschews both the emotional, win-one-for-the-Gipper histrionics of many cinematic coaches, as well as the avuncular enthusiasm of Kyle Chandler’s iconic Friday Night Lights character. Instead, Wilson’s Russell has a quiet dignity. He’s soft-spoken, wears glasses, and gets called Mister instead of Coach by his young charges. Wilson’s Russell has far less interest in firing up his boys or winning football games than most on-screen coaches; mostly it seems like he just wants them to know that someone cares about them.
Still, 12 Mighty Orphans hits most of the predictable beats you’d expect. It’s Inspirational with a capital I, and even if Roberts and Hill were attracted to the elements that aren’t present in other scrappy underdog football tales, their film is by no means a postmodern deconstruction of the genre’s tropes. Partly that’s because the source material is, well, genuinely inspirational, but it’s also because Roberts and Hill’s filmmaking sensibility tends toward the old-fashioned.
Take the story’s antagonist, a rival coach at Polytechnic High School (played by co-screenwriter and Dallas native Lane Garrison), who comes off like a Republic serial villain, chewing on a cartoonishly sized cigar. Wilson’s Russell is a unique screen presence, but Martin Sheen, who gamely plays the orphanage’s doctor, is the sort of drunken sidekick that was a cliché even when the Mighty Mites were actually playing ball.
All of this is, admittedly, pretty corny. But as the nation emerges from the trauma of the pandemic, a feel-good film with an unusual and compelling main character might be what the country is in the mood for right now. Indeed, the actual Mighty Mites served a similar purpose, during a correspondingly traumatic time. They were a sensation from the first snap: tens of thousands of Texans attended their games, and their story was a bit of good news at a time when there was little to celebrate.
12 Mighty Orphans has something else going for it: it’s a thoroughly Texas movie. There’s a semi-mythical cinematic Texas we’ve seen depicted countless times over the decades. Its heroes are outlaws or lawmen, wildcatters or listless slackers. These films often cast Texans as Texans—Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew McConaughey, and Ethan Hawke pop up a lot—and often feature underdogs who strike back against the desolation of capitalism (The Last Picture Show, Hell or High Water), the unstoppable forces of time (Giant, The Searchers, No Country for Old Men, Boyhood), or Santa Anna’s army (The Alamo, the other The Alamo). 12 Mighty Orphans pits its underdogs against better-funded schools and builds out its narrative of grit and determination in a manner that Texans will recognize.
Even just a couple of years ago, it might have been easy to meet a film like 12 Mighty Orphans, with its combination of Texas tropes and football movie clichés, with a roll of the eyes. (Most critics, at least in the film’s initial reviews, seem to have done just that.) But I found 12 Mighty Orphans—as a film very much by Texans, for Texans, and about Texans, opening first in Texas rather than in New York or Los Angeles—to have a relatable scrappiness that made me want to root for it. We’ve been through an unbelievable time, and an unbelievable true story makes a little more sense than it might have just two years ago. 12 Mighty Orphans plays bigger than it is, and there’s a palpable charm in watching that unfold now—at the end of a stretch that made all of us feel like underdogs.