I offered a sampling of the year’s sports documentaries last month, with stories of all-time greats and shocking fraudsters. This year has been such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to these films, so I just couldn’t stop at three recommendations.
So here are three more, this time with a unifying theme: stories about athletes who are and were the very best.
34 is not old. The average life expectancy for men hovers somewhere around 77 years old, so 34-year-olds haven’t even hit the dreaded middle age yet. It’s definitely not old.
But you wouldn’t know that looking at Jason Kelce. After a lifetime of football that has included torn MCLs and ACLs, foot, shoulder, and elbow injuries, and God only knows how many hits to the head, he hobbles around like a terribly old man.
Kelce is the 2023 documentary that charts the course of Jason’s 2022 NFL season. It shows this battered man off the football field as he ponders retirement and wonders who he will be once he’s permanently off the football field. He’s an all-time great center, a position that’s difficult to quantify. “I snap the ball,” Jason quips in an interview early in the film. He has won a Super Bowl and become a Philadelphia sports icon. The film was intended to be his swan song.
But anyone who follows the NFL knows that Jason Kelce didn’t retire at the end of the 2022 season. They know that the Eagles started the season 8-0 and cruised to a 14-3 finish. They know that Jason and his brother Travis (another all-time great, a tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs – but you learned that a few weeks ago if you didn’t know already) met in Super Bowl LVII, also known as the “Kelce Bowl.” As a result, none of the football stuff in the movie is particularly interesting. This is also because highlight reels of centers just show them snapping a ball and executing a block over and over again. There are no spectacular feats of height or distance.
But it’s the personal stuff that makes the movie so interesting. A lot of time in the film is spent with Jason’s family, even when he’s away, (the film is titled Kelce, after all, not Jason Kelce.) His wife Kylie is expecting their third daughter. Travis and Jason start a podcast at an unbelievably perfect time in their lives and careers, which naturally takes off. And, of course, Travis contemplates retirement.
What will I do next? How will I provide for my family? How can I stay involved with the Eagles and the City of Philadelphia? Will my body ever recover? Will CTE cause me to literally lose my mind? Will I meet my grandchildren?
The football stuff is great because Jason is a great football player. But the inside look at this future Hall of Famer putting his daughter to bed and icing his knee on the couch is so much more interesting because that’s what we never get to see.
In his semi-controversial (everything he did was semi-controversial) 1975 self-titled autobiography Reggie, Jackson didn’t mince words:
“My name is Reggie Jackson, and I am the best in baseball. This may sound conceited, but I want to be honest about how I feel … there is no one who does as many things as well as I do .. I can do it all, and I create an excitement in a ballpark when I walk on the field. I like that just fine.”
I guess that’s what happens when you write an autobiography at the not-quite-ripe age of 29.
In the new documentary, also titled Reggie, Jackson sings a different tune. His Hall of Fame playing career and achievements are almost secondary to the story he wants to tell of how his career symbolizes a transitional time in civil rights (and workers’ rights, like Major League Baseball free agency, but that’s less highlighted). He talks about his early days playing minor league ball in a segregated South. He talks about trying to carry on the legacy of Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron. He meets with Derek Jeter and Julius Erving to see how progress has been made (or hasn’t been made) in baseball and how it’s been made (or hasn’t been made) in other sports. It ends with him talking about how he was never given the chance to own a baseball team (he doesn’t mince words there), but how he’s transitioned to working in front offices, focusing on diversity and inclusion in the game.
The baseball stuff was fun, but some things are more important.
I guess that’s what happens when you take another look at your life story at the never-too-late age of 77.
Candace Parker: Unapologetic
Legendary Tennessee Lady Vols Head Coach Pat Summitt was full of wisdom, but it’s the simplest of her mantras that sticks out:
Left foot, right foot, breathe.
Candace Parker has it tattooed on her body.
That whole “one foot in front of the other” thing? She’s had to do that a lot. It might sound kinda crazy to say that about one of the greatest WNBA players of all time; an MVP, NCAA champion, WNBA Champion, and decorated Olympian. But it hasn’t been easy.
Listing it all here would spoil the movie, but the personal and professional highs and lows have been plentiful. That is, of course, the focus of every athlete’s documentary. But I was struck by Candace’s story because many of her struggles are representative of systemic issues within women’s sports.
Low pay. No respect. Having to work overseas to make ends meet. If you know anything about the sporting world, you know this.
But when Michael Jordan gets called “tough,” it’s a compliment. When Candace Parker is labeled “tough,” it’s rarely complimentary. And Michael Jordan never had to miss the first few games of the season because he was pregnant.
It’s a familiar story; that of an athlete, but from a totally different perspective.