I knew nothing about Last Chance U before I binge-watched all six episodes in one day. I decided to watch it because I love sports documentaries, and the description sounded interesting. A lot of people tend not to like sports and I understand that they are not for everyone. But, believe me when I say this docuseries is both inspiring and hilarious; at the same time, it is also infuriating and heartbreaking in so many ways. I truly believe that this series can be for everyone.
Last Chance U follows a group of football players at East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) during their 2015 season. Going into this season, this team has won three National Junior College Athletic Association championships over the last five years. During the first episode, the team was on a 24-game winning streak.
While most people have not heard of the EMCC Lions, the program has become a phenomenon in junior college (JUCO) sports, attracting elite athletes that have not gone on to college, for the most part, because they have been held back by poor academic performance or behavioral issues. Under Head Coach Buddy Stephens, who has been with the Lions since 2007, EMCC has graduated more than 20 players per year into football scholarships at four-year universities. Currently, nine of Stephens’ former players play in the NFL. The average Division-1 school has less than seven players in the NFL, so EMCC has a very accomplished program.
EMCC is located in the town of Scooba, Mississippi, where the population is only 732. As journalist Drew Jubera, who wrote the GQ article on which the Netflix series is based, remarks in the first episode, “The one thing that’s operating is a Coke machine on the sidewalk, and that really kind of tells you all you need to know about the place.” Scooba is also the last place these young players want to be. More than one player has an app on his phone that counts down the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until he can leave. But they also know that playing in Scooba, under Coach Stephens, is their last chance to access their dreams: a spot on a Division 1 (“D1”) college football team and hopefully the opportunity to play in the NFL.
The reason I love this series so much is because of the characters. (SN: I hate calling them characters as these are real-life people who are just living their everyday lives. But, since I don’t know what else to call them, I will refer to them as characters for the purpose of this review).
Head Coach Buddy Stephens is the opposite of the fictional head coach Eric Taylor, for anyone familiar with Friday Night Lights; he is volatile, hypocritical, and relentlessly loud. He is intent on maintaining the Lions’ dominant, winning streak and as a result is rarely distracted from what is unfolding on the field. He has to whip players into shape without crushing their spirits, but at the same time, he will not put up with their shit either. The thing that I love about Coach Stephens is that in brief moments throughout the series, he can be a cuddly teddy bear, showing viewers that he is not actually heartless and truly does care about these players.
Brittany Wagner, the academic coordinator for the university’s student-athletes, is my favorite person in this entire series. More sweet-natured in her approach to her work, she works to ensure that the players have high enough grades to continue playing the game that they love. She, too, is always compared to another character from Friday Night Lights: Tami Taylor, the guidance counselor, and Coach Taylor’s wife. While she is not married to Coach Stephens, I do see the resemblance, otherwise, between Mrs. Taylor and Wagner. However, I think Wagner far exceeds Taylor (as much as I love her). Here is why:
Wagner emerges as the primary source of support for the players. The players use Wagner’s office as a place for them to hangout during their downtime throughout the day. She goes above and beyond for every single player, caring about them like they are her own kids. She will track them down, in person, when they ignore her calls and will text them about their upcoming assignments. She tries to teach them life lessons such as when she tells John Franklin III that women are not just body parts. When D.J. Law continues to skip class, Wagner physically drags him into her office and tries to make him understand how important it is for his future that he graduate on time. Her relationship with Ronald Ollie eventually becomes the heartbeat of the episodes. She, too, is under pressure in her own role. As the person whom college recruiters contact about players’ academic standings, she understands how crucial her role is in making sure the players don’t miss out due to one bad grade.
Speaking of the players, you find yourself becoming completely attached to these players throughout the series. You’ll find yourself cheering for these players when they make a big play and screaming at them when they let opportunities pass them by. The series primarily tells the stories of four athletes from the team. Running back D.J. Law is the superstar of EMCC’s football team. He struggles academically as he somehow cannot manage to get to class or do his homework. But, at the same time, his academic struggles keep him from seeing his baby son and moving on to a D1 school. Defensive lineman Ronald Ollie faces similar struggles in the classroom. But, I grow to love Ollie because you see his growth as a player and a person more than any other player over the course of the season. You really root for him to do well and get out of Scooba.
The last two main players that the series focuses on, John Franklin III and Wyatt Roberts, are competing for the starting quarterback position. Franklin is the charming, cocky high-school football star that transferred from Florida State, where he competed for game time with four other high-profile quarterbacks. He is definitely the more natural athlete, but at the same time, he lacks the diligence and dependability that Roberts, the good-humored local boy that steals the scene every time for me, has.
Overall, I think even people who never turn on a football game (which is totally me) will enjoy this series. It delivers authenticity in its story that is more about a group of young men that are struggling to find their way into adulthood than it is about football. Football is merely their way out.
Something like this really doesn’t come around too often. Invest the time and watch it. You won’t be disappointed.
Last Chance U was renewed for Season 2 in August and will likely to be released on Netflix sometime in 2017.