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‘Last Chance U’ is compelling and brutal

Netflix documentary follows a junior college football team as it aims for a national championship

When Greg Whiteley was first approached about doing a documentary on junior college football, the Los Angeles-based film director scouted California schools with no success. Then someone sent him a GQ magazine article about East Mississippi Community College, located in a town so rural that the closest Walmart is a 45-minute drive away.

He just might be the first person to ever rush to Scooba, Mississippi.

“We go there for the first time, it’s in the middle of nowhere, and it’s perfect,” Whiteley said. “It was a place where something great was happening.”

The story of that place is Last Chance U, a six-part documentary series that drops Friday on Netflix. It’s a binge-worthy, behind-the-scenes look at the 2015 season of the East Mississippi football team and its quest to win its third straight National Junior College Athletic Association championship.

Last Chance U

Last Chance U

Courtesy of Netflix

The opening 100 seconds are jarring, capturing a ferocious game fight that’s beautifully shot by Whiteley’s crew (and plays a more prominent role later in the series). What follows is an entertaining six hours where the language is raw, the football is brutal and the storytelling is compelling.

This isn’t a junior college version of Hard Knocks, the popular HBO series that follows a different NFL team during each preseason. The access for the entire season, the story development and the combination of machismo and vulnerability displayed by the players bears more of a resemblance to Hoop Dreams, the 1994 critically acclaimed documentary that followed the lives of two Chicago-area high school basketball stars.

It’s the juco setting that makes this documentary special. None of the players want to be in Scooba, a town of just over 700 people. They hope this is just a brief pit stop on the way to big-time college football.

So how did they get to Scooba? Some, like running back D.J. Law, have Division I football talent but are poor students. Others, like former Florida State quarterback John Franklin III, didn’t find success initially at a major Division I level and came to the community college as a launching pad to a second chance.

Last Chance U explores the vast difference between college football on Saturdays where Division I kids have four years to develop (five if you take a redshirt year) and junior college, where every day is a tryout. At most jucos, players risk injury with no guarantee that anyone is watching. At least at the community college, which has developed several NFL and major college players, including New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount and Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly, you’re likely to be seen by a college scout.

If you play.

“You come to community college with one goal: to leave, and quickly,” East Mississippi coach Buddy Stephens, who has the best winning percentage among active coaches at the junior college level, told The Undefeated. “We don’t have ESPN televising our games, and we don’t offer that acclaim. These guys hope to one day play in a stadium with 110,000 people in the stands watching. It’s a challenge to make that happen.”

Especially when you watch players repeatedly circumvent the mechanisms in place to help them succeed. For instance, the cameras show them repeatedly risking their eligibility by not attending class or making the necessary effort in the classroom.

Last Chance U

Last Chance U

Courtesy of Netflix

One of the players walking that line is Law, who’s the first in his family to attend college. Law, a freshman, had a Division I scholarship rescinded after it was discovered he signed national letters of intent to multiple schools.

“School isn’t my thing, but it’s something you gotta do to get to where I want to be,” Law tells viewers in the first episode. “But on the football field it’s easy, it’s natural.”

Another player on the edge academically is Ronald Ollie, a talented, likable and — at times — extremely silly defensive lineman from Shubuta, Mississippi. Much of Ollie’s issues stem from a horrific family tragedy that’s revealed midway through the series.

“I don’t really love football, it’s just something I can do,” Ollie says on camera. “I plan on trying to make it to the league … If that don’t work out, I don’t have a Plan B. So the first plan got to happen.”

Watching the EMCC players make bad decisions was heartbreaking, Whitely said.

“I have an obligation as a documentary filmmaker to authentically capture the experience,” he said. “But there are times where you have the impulse to turn off the camera and tell the kid, ‘Can you take this math class seriously?’ ”

The six hours go by quickly. Viewers will be surprised by what happens to some of the players. And some of the principals of the documentary will be surprised at their actions on-screen.

Count Stephens, who’s coached at EMCC for nine years, among the latter.

“Some of it was tough to watch,” Stephens said. “We watch film with the kids each day in practice to correct what they’re doing wrong but we, as coaches, don’t get to see ourselves. Watching this made me realize there are things I can do better as a coach, and as a father.”

But that hasn’t deterred Stephens from doing it again. He met with Whiteley and school officials two weeks ago to discuss a possible second season.

“There’s so much good content and good aesthetics in capturing football, and we wanted to honor what’s being done with Hard Knocks and NFL Films,” Whiteley said. “I think we were able to accomplish that in a way that sets us apart.”

Last Chance U

Last Chance U

Courtesy of Netflix

While in Scooba to discuss a possible second season, Whiteley held a screening for the players. He was a little nervous at first, but was quickly put at ease with the positive response from the players.

“The kids were happy, and a coach came up and said, ‘I’ve seen Hard Knocks, and as good as that is, that show doesn’t get into what the game is really like,’ ” Whiteley recalled. “We felt we captured the real essence of the team. And the kids were happy to see themselves perform which, at this level, they never get a chance to see.

“It was fun being in that room with them, and seeing their reaction was one of the highlights of my career.”

All six episodes of Last Chance U are available on Netflix.

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.