Football is the most popular sport in the United States. Yet for some reason, that has never translated to great movies about the sport. Maybe it’s hard for fiction to be better than NFL reality.
The best sports documentaries aren’t from the football world either, but there have been some great ones on all levels of the game. In between episodes of “The Last Dance,” it’s worth looking at the 15 greatest documentaries on the great game of football.
A quick note: I didn’t include “O.J.: Made in America” or “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez.” With O.J., it’s much more than a football documentary and seemed unfair to rank it against the others (it would be No. 1 without a second thought). The same goes for Hernandez, and it was hard to avoid being impartial because Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel was a producer on the project. It’s a fantastic documentary and you should watch it if you haven’t already. It would easily be in the top three if I ranked it.
Also, if there was a series I tried to only consider individual episodes. Ranking a single doc against the “America’s Game” series doesn’t seem right. That’s why you won’t see any entries from “Hard Knocks” or the underrated “All or Nothing.” There’s no single episode that stands out. I also left off documentaries that weren’t primarily football stories — so apologies to “The Legend of Jimmy the Greek” or “June 17th, 1994.”
The NFL Network documentaries can be seen on NFL Game Pass, which is free right now, and the “30 for 30” documentaries are available on ESPN+.
15. League of Denial
There was a lot of important work to bring attention to the issue of concussions and the NFL’s neglect in addressing it. The best work is probably this PBS documentary, in conjunction with a book of the same name. It’s the definitive word on one of the biggest stories in the NFL world this century.
14. The U
I’ve always thought this “30 for 30” was a little overrated, but I’ll go with the crowd on this one. Everyone seems to love the story of the rise of the Miami Hurricanes in the 1980s. And there is plenty of fun, from Luther Campbell “denying” that he gave players any money to Randal Hill’s unapologetic explanation of mimicking shooting guns in the tunnel of the Cotton Bowl after a touchdown.
13. 30 for 30 Shorts: The Irrelevant Giant
This short should have been a full-length feature. John Tuggle, “Mr. Irrelevant” from the 1983 draft, made the New York Giants. Then in 1984, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Tuggle died in 1985. The documentary is carried by Bill Parcells, who shows an emotional side we’re not used to seeing. This 10-minute documentary hit harder than most two-hour films. When Parcells tells the story of Tuggle’s final visit with him, you’ll probably cry along with him.
12. 75 Seasons
Made in conjunction with the NFL’s 75th season in 1994, this show is just a highlight reel for the NFL. And there’s nothing at all wrong with that. This comprehensive look at the NFL’s early history is a must for any younger fan who isn’t caught up to speed on the first 75 years of NFL football, or any older fan who just loves revisiting the old clips.
11. The Violent World of Sam Huff
In 1960, the NFL was still growing. This CBS show hosted by Walter Cronkite on Huff, the New York Giants’ middle linebacker, is dated. But it’s also worth watching to understand the era and the NFL’s growth. When it aired the public was still unaware of many nuances in professional football. This helped make middle linebackers stars, and helped fuel the legends of guys like Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke.
10. A Football Life: Chris Spielman
This NFL Network series has become a bit formulaic, but it’s still a good look at some of the game’s biggest names. Some of the best storytelling in the series has been on players who aren’t necessarily superstars. Spielman’s story resonates with everyone. He sat out the 1998 NFL season as his wife Stefanie was battling breast cancer, and then a neck injury in 1999 ended his career.
Mike Vick is one of the most fascinating figures in football history. This two-part documentary as part of the “30 for 30” series delves into every facet, from the good (his Sugar Bowl performance vs. Virginia Tech, his one-of-a-kind dual threat ability, his cultural impact) and the bad (his dog-fighting conviction). It’s a fair, nuanced look at an athlete everyone has an opinion about.
8. A Football Life: Bill Belichick
One of the NFL Network’s signature series kicked off with a two-parter on the Patriots coach. There have been some good books on Belichick and his process, but this is the best look at the greatest coach in NFL history from a documentary perspective. The inclusion of great behind-the-scenes footage makes it stand out. The meeting with Belichick and Tom Brady a few days before a game against the Ravens should be put in a time capsule. As should Belichick’s expletive-laced sideline exchange with Ravens receiver Derrick Mason. A few other great “A Football Life” episodes: Dwight Clark, Rodney Harrison, Kurt Warner and the shows on the 1993 Houston Oilers and 1995 Cleveland Browns.
7. America’s Game: 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
“America’s Game,” on each of the Super Bowl champions, is the best documentary series NFL Network has made. They’re all worth watching. The best one isn’t the 1972 Dolphins or 1985 Bears. It’s the one on the Bucs. The three talking heads are Jon Gruden, John Lynch and Warren Sapp. That’s hard to beat. Sapp is phenomenally entertaining in this episode, the best interview subject on any of the 60 or so America’s Game entries.
6. Pony Excess
Who doesn’t like a good story on college recruits getting paid? The 1980s SMU story is hard to top, and the details in the “30 for 30” documentary are amazing in retrospect. The inside story of the last team to get the so-called death penalty from the NCAA is shocking (and, to be honest, pretty fun).
5. L.T.: The Life & Times
There aren’t many more compelling figures through NFL history than Lawrence Taylor. A lot has been written, produced and said about Taylor, but the Showtime documentary is the best of the lot. The final line alone is worth the watch.
4. Elway to Marino
Thank goodness agent Marvin Demoff kept notes before the 1983 draft. You wouldn’t think that a “30 for 30” documentary about a draft could be so enthralling, but there are some incredible stories and what ifs that were revealed, mostly thanks to Demoff keeping track of all the various moves before and during one of the most famous drafts ever.
3. The Timeline: Rebirth in New Orleans
The NFL Network’s “Timeline” series has produced some fine episodes, but the one focused on Hurricane Katrina and the Saints’ first game at the Superdome afterward is easily the best. The emotion of that night comes through through great interviews and footage. The “Timeline” episode on the Fog Bowl is a solid runner-up in the series.
2. The Best That Never Was
Marcus Dupree’s story wasn’t known to everyone, though he was one of the most hyped high-school recruits ever. “The Courting of Marcus Dupree” is one of the best sports books ever written. The story of Dupree’s rise, fall, missteps and comeback was remarkably done. It’s one of the best episodes under ESPN’s “30 for 30” umbrella, and that’s saying something.
There are challenges with presenting a documentary on Lawrence Taylor or Dan Marino, players everyone knows. It’s a totally different challenge to get us to care about subjects we’ve never heard of before. In Netflix’s “Undefeated,” we hear about the tough environment for the players of Manassas High School in Memphis. It doesn’t take long for us to be heavily invested in the lives of O.C., Money, Chavis and Coach Bill Courtney. It won an Oscar for best documentary. Well deserved.
Honorable mention: “Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League,” “You Don’t Know Bo,” “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” “Four Falls of Buffalo,” “Seau,” “A Game of Honor,” “Michigan vs. Ohio State: The Rivalry,” “America’s Game, Missing Rings: 1998 Minnesota Vikings,” “Deion’s Double Play”
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