Super Bowl Sunday is upon us once again, and while the Kansas City Chiefs are taking on the San Francisco 49ers this weekend – with Jennifer Lopez possibly stealing the whole show at halftime – don’t forget about those feisty West Canaan Coyotes, underdog Texas State Armadillos and misfit Washington Sentinels who’ve each taken a turn winning over Hollywood.
The best of all sports-movie subgenres, football films have given us great characters – real and fictional – and a bunch of awesome cinematic moments in everything from screwball comedies to real-life narratives.
In honor of the Super Bowl, we’re ranking the 25 best football movies of all time. (Sorry, “Brian’s Song” fans: We’re only counting theatrical releases, not made-for-TV weepers.)
25. ‘Leatherheads’ (2008)
Square-jawed team captain (George Clooney) recruits a talented World War I hero (John Krasinski) to be the 1920s-era Duluth Bulldogs’ saving grace, but they both fall for the same newspaper reporter (Renee Zellweger). Like a not-as-good “Bull Durham” with more mud and helmets.
24. ‘The Waterboy’ (1998)
Cajun accents and “high-quality H2O” flow in this guilty pleasure with Adam Sandler as a dim-witted mama’s boy and college football wannabe who turns into a force of nature on cleats when he gets ticked off enough.
23. ‘Varsity Blues’ (1999)
When an all-state high school quarterback (Paul Walker) gets injured, his backup (James Van Der Beek) learns the positives of Texas football celebrity (popularity, girls and strip clubs!) and the negatives (the wrath of Jon Voight’s cruel coach).
22. ‘Friday Night Lights’ (2004)
Let’s be honest: The “Friday Night Lights” TV show is better than half this list, but the film adaptation of H.G. Bissinger’s novel about Texas high-school football is noteworthy for its authentic obsession with the game and Billy Bob Thornton’s thorny, win-at-all-costs coach.
21. ‘The Express’ (2008)
Syracuse running back Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy, gets the biopic treatment in an inspirational story with more than a touch of melancholy (since leukemia cut his playing career and life short).
20. ‘The Game Plan’ (2007)
If you didn’t know Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a big ol’ softie, this highlight of his family-friendly phase features the former Miami Hurricane as a cocky pro quarterback who has to learn a whole new playbook when he finds out he has an 8-year-old daughter.
19. ‘Paper Lion’ (1968)
A master of participatory journalism, George Plimpton (Alan Alda) has the idea to go to a pro team’s training camp and attempt to make the team, but the Detroit Lions are the only ones to bite. While his teammates (like all-star Alex Karras) come around to digging him, his one game as a quarterback is disaster. (Three plays, negative 41 yards!)
18. ‘Invincible’ (2006)
Mark Wahlberg always looks like a dude in good enough shape to play some ball, and in this true-life tale, he also rocks some serious 1970s style as a Philadelphia bartender who manages to surprise everyone when he goes to an open tryout for his beloved Eagles and makes the squad.
17. ‘All the Right Moves’ (1983)
Before he felt the need for speed, Tom Cruise was all about picking off passes in one of his earliest film roles. He plays a high school defensive back who sees football as a way out of his working-class Pennsylvania steel town, gets on the bad side of his coach (Craig T. Nelson) and, surprisingly, dates a marching band member (Lea Thompson).
16. ‘The Last Boy Scout’ (1991)
This nicely over-the-top action film teams a disgraced quarterback (Damon Wayans) and an LA private eye (Bruce Willis) to investigate shady dealings involving legalized gambling. The bonkers opening is a highlight, with a rockin’ “Monday Night Football”-type intro and a guy in a drug rage shooting his way into the end zone mid-game.
15. ‘Horse Feathers’ (1932)
The Marx Brothers hit the field for one of their classic comedies. Groucho Marx stars as the new president of Huxley College, who attempts to sign on two pro players to help beat rival Darwin University but ends up getting a pair of bootleggers instead. High jinks ensue, including a hilarious scene in the Big Game with a scampering dog and a chariot chase.
14. ‘The Replacements’ (2000)
When the Washington Sentinels go on strike, a disparate squad of schmoes takes the field instead of the usual players. Now at quarterback and No. 1 in your hearts: Keanu Reeves’ Shane Falco, who’s still trying to move on from an epic Sugar Bowl meltdown when he was a college All American.
13. ‘North Dallas Forty’ (1979)
The only thing that may be crazier than the actual football life is this satirical comedy-drama that has more to do with a hedonistic existence than play-action passes. The North Dallas Bulls are led by a constantly blitzed receiver (Nick Nolte) who has a greater interest in sex, drugs and alcohol than in the game itself.
12. ‘Necessary Roughness’ (1991)
Oh, no, Texas State University’s football program got shut down! No worries with no scholarships, since the Fightin’ Armadillos find success fielding a group of misfits, including a talented 30-something freshman quarterback (Scott Bakula), a brainiac defensive lineman (Sinbad in his best role ever) and a female kicker (Kathy Ireland) with no patience for on-field misogyny.
11. ‘Remember the Titans’ (2000)
Part civil-rights drama and part inspirational sports flick, “Titans” cast Denzel Washington as a coach who has to get white and black kids all on the same page when he takes over the team at desegregated T.C. Williams High. Come on now, who wouldn’t want to play for Denzel? (Also of note: Young Ryan Gosling!)
10. ‘The Longest Yard’ (1974)
If you’re still mourning the loss of Burt Reynolds, dig into one of his best film roles ever as Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, an ex-pro baller convict tasked with leading a jailhouse squad (aka the “Mean Machine”) against a group of villainous guards put together by a nasty warden (Eddie Albert).
9. ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (1978)
Football is the framing device for this romantic fantasy about LA Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton, who wins the starting job, then dies in a traffic accident while biking home (thanks to angelic error). Because he wasn’t supposed to croak yet, though, he gets a second chance at life and love in the body of a murdered industrialist.
8. ‘Jerry Maguire’ (1996)
Oh, sure, there’s the whole “You complete me” lovey-dovey romance, if you’re into that sort of thing. But then there’s the bromance: Cuba Gooding Jr. won a best-supporting actor Oscar for playing uber-confident Arizona Cardinals wideout Rod Tidwell, who shouts “Show me the money!” and becomes best pal to his struggling agent (Tom Cruise).
7. ‘Any Given Sunday’ (1999)
Oliver Stone gave us the next crazy level up from “North Dallas Forty” with the on- and off-field drama of the Miami Sharks, from their embattled high-profile coach (Al Pacino) to the insanely talented third-string quarterback (Jamie Foxx) to the star running back (LL Cool J) who doesn’t like others getting in the way of his spotlight.
6. ‘The Freshman’ (1925)
Even back in the 1920s, nerdy kids went to extremes to be popular. Harold Lloyd is the title rookie who gets to Tate University looking for football glory and maybe a girlfriend, too, and quickly becomes the resident tackling dummy in a template for sports and college comedies that followed.
5. ‘The Blind Side’ (2009)
Sandra Bullock won a best actress Oscar for this charming biopic about Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron), a very large foster kid in Memphis whose life is turned around when he’s taken in by a caring couple (Bullock and Tim McGraw) and finds he’s really good at protecting quarterbacks.
4. ‘We Are Marshall’ (2006)
Tragedy is at the heart of this film about Marshall University and the 1970 plane crash that killed most of the football team. Jack Lengyel (Matthew McConaughey) is hired as the new coach of a new batch of players that help the town and school recover but never forget their loss.
3. ‘Draft Day’ (2014)
An exciting and quotable film about the wheeling and dealing of the NFL Draft, focusing on a Cleveland Browns general manager (Kevin Costner) whose job hinges on his picks. Look out for a pre-“Black Panther” Chadwick Boseman as linebacker prospect Vontae Mack, who has one of the all-time goose-pimply sports-movie moments when he’s drafted.
2. ‘Knute Rockne, All American’ (1940)
The old-school biopic casts Pat O’Brien as the Notre Dame player-turned-coach, though it’s future President Ronald Reagan who steals the movie with his role as Fighting Irish halfback George Gipp and his famous deathbed line to “Win one for the Gipper.” Unfortunately, it’s a loss today because the true victor of this list is …
1. ‘Rudy’ (1993)
As rousing as any “Rocky” film – and pretty much any movie, period – this thing has you all in through the journey of Sean Astin’s “5-foot-nothing, 100 and nothing” squirt as he wins the hearts of not only the audience but also his Notre Dame teammates. By the time he hits the field in the movie’s climax, you’ll be ready to joyously tackle somebody, too.