Last Chance U: the college that gives young players a final route to the NFL

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When film-makers went to the sleepy town of Scooba in Mississippi they expected their documentary to be about gifted athletes, but the Netflix series, Last Chance U, is about education, class, success and the American dream

The tiny town of Scooba sits in Kemper County in the vast state of Mississippi. Its quiet streets are home to under a thousand permanent residents and there is little excitement to be found. An isolated Subway sandwich shop is the social hub. East Mississippi Community College stands incongruously in Scoobas streets. The college houses some of the countrys finest student American football players who dream of making the NFL. They find themselves in sleepy Scooba for two reasons: their grades arent up to scratch or they need more playing time to prove themselves to larger colleges. For almost all of the players on the Lions playing roster, this is their last chance at football redemption.

Adam Ridley was working as a film director when he came across a magazine article about a team of incredible college prodigies who were toiling on the hot fields in Scooba in search of stardom. I read up about this team and the more I thought about it the more fascinated I became. You have these incredible high school athletes, that for whatever reason things havent worked out for them, whether thats in the classroom or on the field, so they come to this tiny little town of Scooba to try and turn things around. We knew we had to do something.

The series executive producer, Greg Whiteley, and Ridley spent the 2015 season following the Lions, gaining access to the players, the coaches and the academic advisors. Originally, he and his team came expecting a story that was focused on the rosters incredible athletic ability but the story unfolding was something different. Throughout the season, we saw the players incredible abilities on the field, but we also began to understand what they were dealing with off the field. It was a story that went far beyond football. Like all college athletes, they have basic academic requirements and for some this was an incredible struggle. It was difficult to watch these players a lot of them are from difficult backgrounds where theyve received little to no academic support and the staff here have to work hard to fill that gap, or the dreams of big schools in the NCAA or the NFL are gone.

Ridley and his team produced a groundbreaking series on a season with the Lions on Netflix and called it Last Chance U. There are stars on the football field, but the star that seems to shine brightest in the series is the players academic advisor Brittany Wagner. Part psychologist, part academic tutor and part surrogate mother for the players, Wagner works to help the players achieve the requisite academic goals that previously were seen as unachievable.

Starting work here, I had to keep telling myself: youre from a different background and a different place. Dont be quick to judge these players if they dont do an assignment. I forced myself to listen. In many cases, they have the most incredible athletic gifts, but they arrive here with their confidence in academics absolutely shot. Theyve been these high school heroes as athletes and pushed through the academic system with little accountability.

Brittany
Brittany Wagner casts an eye over the squad. Photograph: Alan Markfield/Netflix

Wagners tiny office houses photographs of countless players who have gone on to play at the highest levels of the game, whether that is at a big college in the NCAA or beyond into the bright lights of the NFL. The players do not forget her efforts in working tirelessly to help them achieve the grades needed to graduate on to a larger college.

Wagner watches some of her former students on television at home as they compete in front of tens of thousands of fans in NFL stadiums, but she as proud of the students who have earned their qualifications and returned to their communities. I have so many proud moments. Part of it is the excitement of watching a player play at the highest level, but so much more than that is seeing someone who came in here with little to no belief not only go on to get a degree, but return to their communities and give back. It doesnt get any more rewarding than that. We have a duty of care for these athletes. Its bigger than any football game.

The Lions are a community college powerhouse and are three-time national champions. The town gravitates towards these exceptionally talented young men and their humble stadium is packed for every home game. The pressure to perform is huge. Players understand that they have a limited shop window when playing in community college to gain the attention of a larger college scout who may be able to propel them to the NFL draft. Additionally, the coaching staff have high expectations of themselves and the players that they train. Clinton Trickett (24) is the colleges quarter back coach. Trickett is a former standout athlete, who played quarterback for Florida State University and West Virginia before his career was ended after multiple concussions. He understands the pressure that the players are under both on the field and academically, and is happy that his first job in college football is in Scooba.

Brittany
Brittany Wagner helps one of the players with his studies. Photograph: Alan Markfield/Netflix

Its a hell of a place, Scooba. You come here for two reasons, either books or ball. Theres genuinely not much else here to do and in many ways thats a positive. It helps our players to focus on what theyve got to do, whether that is in the classroom or out on the field. My mission is to help them in every single way I can, as long as they want my help, I will work tirelessly with them to help them to achieve their goals.

Working as a coach, Trickett deals with the frustration of not having players on the field due to academic ineligibility, but he curbs his frustration when he thinks of his own experiences as a college player. Trickett ran out in front of 100,000 people in packed college stadiums as a starting quarterback before his career was ended due to injury.

He understands the necessity for an education in a sport that has an average lifespan of 2.5 years in the NFL. I saw it in my own career. We used to run out in these huge stadiums the boom but one day its all over and what are you going to do? You have to have some sort of education behind you. There are so many players I know who are living through it right now, struggling after theyve finished playing. We work hard so that doesnt happen with our players. From my point of view, yes my job revolves around football and the results needed to progress, but we need to work tirelessly to set these players up for life off the field as well as on it.

Ridley and his camera crew are currently in Scooba filming the second season of Last Chance U. There are new players for Trickett to coach and new academic frustrations to deal with for Wagner. The quiet town of Scooba is strangely energised, its beloved Lions are a game away from reaching the playoffs. Regardless of whether they make the vaunted step to the NFL, the players are laying strong foundations for when they finally hang up their cleats and helmets.

This article is from Behind the Lines
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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/behind-the-lines/2016/oct/31/last-chance-u-college-american-footballers-netflix-nfl