Sports are a major part of American culture, so it’s no surprise that film studios have looked to capitalize on their popularity in an effort to turn a profit at the box office. Real life sporting events are frequently cinematic themselves, so it’s easy to write a script about an uplifting underdog story or a team overcoming adversity – universal themes that make a sports story relatable to the audience.
Most of the time, athletes are the main protagonists in such films (and for good reason), but they are far from the only important characters in the movie. Just like Michael Jordan had Phil Jackson, or Eli Manning has Tom Coughlin, some of the best and brightest competitors in sports films had someone at their side, guiding them to the promised land.
In this week’s Draft Day, Kevin Costner portrays one of these people in the form of (fictional) Cleveland Browns general manager (GM) Sonny Weaver. As the GM, he’s in charge of finding the right players to build a winning roster and help the organization contend for a championship. Given Weaver’s crucial role in the film, we started thinking about some of our favorite non-athletes in sports films.
For the purposes of this article, we’re only using characters from fictional movies. In order to qualify, the character CANNOT be an active, competing athlete, but still be professionally involved with sports in some capacity (trainer, coach, agent, GM, etc.)
Mickey Goldmill – Rocky
The Rocky series is full of iconic imagery (the steps) and characters (any opponent from the first four movies), that through all the montages, Apollo Creed nicknames, and Clubber Lang “pain” predictions, it’s easy to lose sight of arguably the franchise’s greatest offering: Mickey Goldmill, who was Rocky’s trainer and mentor for the first three installments.
Brought to life by the incomparable Burgess Meredith, Mickey served as both a coach and a father figure for our hero. His famous motivational dialogue provides timeless pieces of advice that can still be used today, while his hard-edged nature is perfect for keeping Rocky alert and ready for the task at hand. He may specialize in tough love, but Mick also has a softer side that came to life in his later appearances. Through all the ups and downs, he truly cared about and loved Rocky, making their final farewell all the more heartbreaking.
Jerry Maguire – Jerry Maguire
When you see Peyton Manning or LeBron James popping up every time a game goes to commercial break, it’s because their agent is working hard at trying to increase their clients’ exposure. “Brand-building” is a big part of professional sports, and agents like Jerry Maguire are in charge of making sure their players bring in the big endorsements (not selling water beds). After a hockey player’s kid gives him a conscious, Maguire strives to form personal relationships with the athletes he represents as opposed to using them to make commission.
With his mission statement, Maguire becomes someone looking to change the world (or… at least his industry) for the better, which is a noble goal worth getting behind. His perseverance and dedication to sticking with his new beliefs through all the rough patches he encounters can serve as an inspiration to those viewers who are battling their own troubles. Throughout the film, Maguire shows the value of hard work and the benefits it can lead to.
Jimmy Dugan – A League of Their Own
While the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and the Rockford Peaches were real at one point in history, the characters in the classic baseball comedy/drama A League of Their Own are entirely fictional, allowing us to pay homage to one of Tom Hanks’ more underrated roles: ex-MLB slugger-turned-manager Jimmy Dugan.
A drunk with an apathetic attitude towards his new profession, the actor never lets Dugan slide into the realm of unlikable characters and instead turns him into one of the film’s highlights. Offering plenty of laughs along the way – “There’s no crying in baseball!” – Dugan’s friendly rivalry with Dottie Hinson (their humorous “sign-off”) also allows the manager to undergo a personal transformation and appreciate the toughness and tenacity of his players. Earning the respect of his team by treating them as if they truly belong, Dugan reveals he honestly cares about what happens to the girls and wants what’s best for them in the end.
Mr. Miyagi – The Karate Kid (1984)
Mr. Miyagi didn’t just train Daniel LaRusso in the art of karate; he instilled wisdom and inspired an entire generation of moviegoers with famous lessons such as “wax on, wax off.” Earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination, Pat Morita crafted one of the finest examples of the mentor archetype put to film. Star athletes need a great coach showing them the ropes, and LaRusso certainly had that.
Miyagi showed he was both assertive and smart with his unique training program that included washing cars and painting fences (only to show how it all comes together in a fight). While his attention to detail made him an ideal instructor, his heart made him a great person. Miyagi’s bond with Daniel creates a father-son relationship between the two and the old karate expert goes the extra mile to help his friend better himself and earn respect from peers.
Tony D’Amato – Any Given Sunday
Since a team is comprised of a wide variety of personalities – with players having their own backgrounds and beliefs, a key aspect of a coach’s job is to find a way to manage all the egos and find a way to connect with everyone on the roster, motivating each player equally. Whether it’s the all-star quarterback or the backup kicker, the coach has to find a way to unify everyone so the team works as a collective unit. There aren’t many who do that better than Coach D’Amato.
Pacino’s hard-edged performance molds a weary, veteran head coach that any regular football fan is familiar with. What makes him a great leader is the fact that he is committed to winning and motivating his players to perform to the best of their abilities. His climactic speech is hailed as one of the greatest sports movie moments, is a perfect illustration of what D’Amato is all about, and shows what it takes to make a group of talented football players come together as a family.
With so many classic sports movies to choose from, here are a few honorable mentions that just missed the cut.
- Norman Dale – Hoosiers. While the film is largely fictitious, its “inspired by a true story” (using the 1954 Milan High School team as its basis) moniker makes it difficult to include this legendary coach in the list proper. Pictured above.
- Professor Wagstaff – Horse Feathers. This memorably hilarious Groucho Marx creation quipped jokes and sang tunes into our hearts, but his participation in the film’s grand finale of a football game technically makes him ineligible (despite him not being an athlete for a majority of the film).
- Gordon Bombay – Mighty Ducks. The defense attorney turned junior hockey coach turns a community service assignment into a mission to inspire kids to have fun and love life.
- Harry Doyle – Major League. The announcer of this fictional take on a misfit Cleveland Indians team was only on-screen for brief moments, but they certainly stick out as some of the comedy’s brightest highlights.
- Coach Buttermaker - The Bad News Bears. A former minor league player who takes a motley crew of unskilled ball players and turns the kids into a group of winners who accomplish a lot through hard work.
Of course, our list is not meant to be all-inclusive, so be sure to share some of your favorite (fictional) non-athletes in sports films and tell us what makes them special to you in the comments section below.
Follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisAgar90.
Draft Day is in theaters April 11.