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These 9 Sports Flicks Based On True Stories Will Have You Cheering

These films have the perfect mix of realism, sports action, and tear-jerking moments

Hands of Stone

Roberto Duran is one of the best boxers of all time. Growing up in poverty in Panama City, Duran went on to win 103 fights and hold titles in four different weight classes. He was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2007.


Friday marked the release of the film Hands of Stone (Fuego Films/The Weinstein Company, directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz), which chronicles Duran’s life and career, including his relationship with trainer Ray Arcel (played by Robert De Niro).

Though Duran (portrayed by Edgar Ramirez), is known by many for his “no más” withdrawal during a bout with Sugar Ray Leonard, his life story is one of overcoming obstacles, of achievement. And though the film has received mixed reviews, we thought we’d look at some of favorite sports biopics (listed in no particular order) that are sure to leave you cheering and tearing.

[Spoiler alert: Plots of old movies based on real-life events revealed below.]

  1. \nThe Rookie (Disney, 2002, directed by John Lee Hancock)

The Rookie (photo courtesy Disney)

Jim Morris (portrayed by Dennis Quaid) was a high school teacher and baseball coach who suffered a shoulder injury after being drafted, thus dashing his hopes of being a major league pitcher. Years later, after showing in practice that there might still be life to his fastball, Morris – now 35 years old -- makes a deal with his high school team: If they make the state playoffs, he will try out for the majors. They do, and he does.

The film chronicles Morris’ journey through the minors with players barely half his age to an eventual call-up with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Morris debuted in his home state of Texas against the Rangers, striking out the first batter he faced.

Morris went on to pitch in 21 games over two seasons. Quaid went on to voice Grandpa Redbeard on an episode of “SpongeBob SquarePants.”


  1. \nMiracle (Disney, 2004, directed by Gavin O’Connor)

The Cold War heightened the athletic rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Indeed, each nation used Olympic boycotts against the other in the early 1980s. But both were on hand in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the 1980 Winter Olympics and the “Miracle on Ice.”

This film follows US Hockey coach Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) as he assembles his Olympic team and tries to bring them together into a proud, country-first unit. At the Winter Games, Brooks coaches his underdog squad to a shocking victory over the heavily favored Soviets in the semifinals – a victory which inspired Al Michaels’ “Do you believe in miracles?” call.

The Americans would go on to defeat Finland for the gold medal. Lake Placid went on to become the site of a series of mediocre horror films.


  1. \nGlory Road (Disney, 2006, directed by James Gartner)

Glory Road (Photo courtesy Disney)

Segregation in America could be viewed through many different lenses, with sports certainly being among the most visible. Jackie Robinson’s importance and accomplishments are well known—and, to keep with the spirit of this list, can be enjoyed by watching 42 (see below)—but perhaps not as many are familiar with the role Texas Western (now University of Texas El Paso) played in desegregating college basketball.

Coach Don Haskins (played by Josh Lucas) recruits and plays a significant number of black athletes for the 1965-66 season, giving more and more court time (and freedom) to the black players as the season progresses. In the face of racial hatred and threats against his team and family, Haskins leads his team to the National Championship game against Kentucky, in which he starts five black players—marking the first time in title-game history that this has happened. Texas Western defeats Kentucky 72-65 to win the championship.

Haskins and his team ultimately were both inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Kentucky got itself into minor trouble thanks to rapper/singer/songwriter/Canadian Drake.


  1. \nWe Are Marshall (Legendary/Warner Bros., 2006, directed by McG)

We Are Marshall (photo courtesy Warner Bros.)

On Nov. 14, 1970, a plane carrying members of the Marshall University football team and community crashed in West Virginia, killing all 75 people on board. Among them were 37 players and eight coaches, including head coach Rick Tolley.

We Are Marshall chronicles the crash and its aftermath, including the efforts of incoming football coach Jack Lengyel (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) to rebuild the program. Lengyel and school president Donald Dedmon (played by David Strathairn) were forced to recruit players from other sports, petition the NCAA to allow freshmen to play, and deal with pressure from some within the community who believed the football program should have been shuttered. But Lengyel, some players and an assistant coach (played by Matthew Fox) who were not on the plane, and new recruits and coaches did reconstitute the team, and the Thundering Herd scored their first win of the 1971 season in their home opener (the second game of the season) against Xavier.

The team won two games that season. Lengyel coached three more seasons at Marshall. McConaughey did ads for Lincoln. Fox went back to his island.


  1. \nSeabiscuit (Spyglass/Universal, 2003, directed by Gary Ross)

An undersized horse. A partially blind jockey. A newly divorced owner still reeling from his son’s death. A nation suffering through the Great Depression and fearing an impending war. This had underdog/feel-good story written all over it.

Seabiscuit was a race horse in the 1930s who captured the sporting public’s imagination. The film chronicles the various obstacles faced by jockey Red Pollard (played by Tobey Maguire), owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), and trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) as they are brought together around the surprising rise and success of this horse. In a match race made for the times, the Seabiscuit team challenges businessman and breeder Samuel Riddle and his horse War Admiral, a Triple Crown winner.

There were plenty of prerace dramatics, including an injured jockey and secret strategy, and Seabiscuit ends up pulling off the upset of the ages.

Seabiscuit was retired in 1940. The 33-race winner died in 1947 after siring 108 foals. And Tobey Maguire was replaced by Andrew Garfield after the latter invented Facebook.


  1. \nRudy (TriStar, 1993, directed by David Anspaugh)

Rudy

Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger grew up dreaming of someday playing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. But Ruettiger, despite being a good high school player, was deemed too small to compete at the highest levels of college football. Further, dyslexia hindered his ability to earn high-enough grades to earn entrance to Notre Dame.

But after attending a nearby junior college, Ruettiger (played by Sean Astin) eventually is admitted to Notre Dame, and he goes on to make the football team as a walk-on. Still, it wasn’t until the last game of his senior season that Ruettiger, thanks to the intervention of his teammates (according to the film, anyway) and the chants of “Rudy” from the crowd, finally got into a game.

Naturally, Ruettiger recorded a sack and was carried off the field by his teammates.

Ruettiger, who has a college football award named after him, went on to become a motivational speaker. He also has founded scholarships for high school players. In 2011 Ruettiger was indicted on security fraud charges, for which he paid a substantial fine. Meanwhile, Astin helped Frodo dispose of some precious jewelry in Mordor.

  1. \n42 (Legendary/Warner Bros., 2013, directed by Brian Helgeland)

42 (photo courtesy Warner Bros.)

This Jackie Robinson biopic feels timely. With the question of race relations in America being at the forefront of public discourse—including San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the playing of the national anthem during a preseason NFL game last week—revisiting the story of Robinson’s breakthrough into Major League Baseball seems appropriate.

The film tells the story of Robinson (played by Chadwick Boseman), who is tapped by Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) to break baseball’s color barrier and join the Dodgers in 1947. Robinson must overcome repeated instances of racism—while also learning to control his own reactions to said incidents—as he helps his team win the division, earns the league’s Rookie of the Year Award, and becomes one of the most important and respected figures in the history of American sports.

Major League Baseball retired Robinson’s No. 42 in 1997. Ford went on to have an unfortunate encounter with that kid from “Girls.”

  1. \nMcFarland USA (Disney, 2015, directed by Niki Caro)

OK, I’ve never seen this movie and only have a vague idea of what it’s about. Something along the lines of “Dances With Wolves” becomes “Runs with High Schoolers,” who in turn become “Wins State Championship”— all in Kevin Costner’s 318th sports flick.

Apparently the movie is a good fit for this list. So people tell me. So, you know, there’s that. Check your local Redbox.

  1. \nThe Blind Side (Alcon Entertainment/Warner Bros., 2009, directed by John Lee Hancock)

The Blind Side (photo courtesy Warner Bros.)

Michael Oher already was a terrific football player. But he had a troubled childhood, with his father in jail and his mother suffering from drug addiction. Oher bounced around multiple foster-care situations and was sometimes homeless, and he repeated grades.

The film chronicles Oher’s journey from his impoverished upbringing to his adoption by Sean and Lee Anne Tuohy (played by Tim McGraw and Sandra Bullock, respectively). The Tuohys’ involvement gave Oher (played by Quinton Aaron) stability and helped him overcome a learning disability and become a more successful student—which was critical to maintain playing eligibility and be more attractive to college coaches. Oher also excelled on the football field, becoming a highly recruited offensive lineman out of high school and a first-round NFL draft pick out of college.

Oher currently plays for the Carolina Panthers, where he protects the blind side (the side of the quarterback’s non-throwing arm) of NFL superstar Cam Newton. Bullock went on to become stranded in space until the ghost of George Clooney helped to nudge her back toward the third rock.

Also receiving votes: Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights, Moneyball, Rush, Invictus, Soul Surfer, Invincible, Million Dollar Arm, and Space Jam.

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