Netflix premiered its six-episode documentary “Last Chance U” July 29, and it showcases the other side of an issue we’re all familiar with. Along with talented high school stars who don’t have the grades for a big-time D-1 program, there are those who wash out, or worse, are thrown out of their respective schools. Whether it be for a dumb mistake, a rejection of authority, or failing grades, they end up here: East Mississippi Community College. Home to three JuCo national titles and nestled in a town where the population is 714, it’s the perfect place for an athlete looking to get back on track.
As much as that can sound like an exciting second chance and a challenge; for these athletes it’s often their last chance. Even though they all boast exceptional talent, the fact that they’re here means they already have a red-flag attached to their name. Whatever the issue, if they can’t stay out of trouble, and most crucially, stay academically eligible, they’re back in their hometowns, where much of their challenges stem from.
The film focuses on a trio of athletes during the Lions’ 2015 season: John Franklin III, Ronald Ollie and D.J. Law. Franklin, the FSU transfer, fights for the starting job with Wyatt Roberts as he looks to make his way back to the big time. Law had D-1 offers out of high school but had them withdrawn after it was discovered he signed multiple letters of intent. And the singular most fascinating character is Ollie. Whether he’s goofing off or making a bonehead decision, he’s always keeping your eyes glued to the screen.
What makes the docu-series so captivating are its nuances. The film crew did a terrific job capturing the game footage and behind-the-scenes, but the real action lies in the development of the personalities. You start to see how a defiance towards authority and schoolwork and a constant threat of quitting whenever the going gets tough makes sense given their backgrounds and life stories. In Ollie’s case, it was losing both parents in a murder-suicide at a young age.
And then you see subtler parts that don’t seem to have much consequence at first glance. A hometown ref on an opposing team who moves the chains when the ball is nearly three yards away from a first down. Buddy Stephens being told one of his players was “fixin’ to go to jail” after knocking over a trash can in a fit of rage. It’s impossible to see these things happen in the more fair and sane society we live in, but this is rural Mississippi, where simply being in an area can be cause for a very detrimental result.
As a corollary, the show puts at center stage why these athletes don’t feel protected and why they have an inclination to make rash decisions with little foresight. To them, they make sense, because no one is looking out for them. Enter academic adviser Brittany Wagner, who many have dubbed the glue holding the show together, and there is finally a voice of reason trying to will these football stars to the conclusion that others things have to become a focus if they want to succeed, like school.
At times, it is tough to watch. When Wagner does the rounds before classes to make sure the athletes are going, it’s shocking to see how unprepared they are. Often times the athlete Wagner is looking for is milling around the building, anywhere but their required class. Or the ones that are going (in one case Ollie), see nothing wrong with heading in without a pen or paper.
The academic side only gets more gut-wrenching and mind-numbing as the show goes on. Wagner is constantly telling them how many absences they have and if they’ve exhausted all of them in certain classes. Unsurprisingly most have in at least a few classes, making a passing mark, and better yet graduation all the more unlikely. But as much as an inner-city kid may be expected to give up in a situation where they need to achieve success in something they’ve never found success or been pushed in, it’s startling to see in real-time. Don’t they know this is their last chance? All they have to do is go to class. Even then they’ll put themselves in a better position. But as their fate starts slipping away and Wagner tells them how many classes they’ve missed, their only response is to miss more. That’s the truly infuriating part; she’s saying you can’t miss class anymore or you’ll have no shot of playing D-1 and ultimately in the NFL. As Wagner pokes and prods at them for the answer it becomes clear; it’s not that giving up and going back to poverty and no job prospects is a better option; they know it’s not. The fear of failure is something they’ve never been equipped to handle. Failure to achieve their dreams without putting forth effort they can tolerate, failure from giving it all they can’t.
The narrative has always been clear, that star athletes in less-than-stellar school systems are never pushed academically. Maybe it’s even clear that these kids had no one telling them to do their homework, or anyone making sure they kept up with their grades. As conversations give way to bizarre judgments and views of life very far from my own, you start to realize that not only was school not stressed, but it was never made apparent that they would have to do anything in the classroom to get to where they wanted to go. That your athletic talent can only take you so far in life. That if you can’t meet NCAA eligibility standards, no school will have you, no exceptions. It was as if the life lesson they learned was simply “If you put in the work on the field anything is possible” and everything else will take care of itself. Sadly, this leaves out the reality that you will have to go to class, graduate from high school, score high enough on the SAT’s, and maintain a certain GPA in college to play.
It seems puzzling to someone outside of that train of thought to never consider that your athletic exploits can give you opportunities to make it in something else. Whether you don’t really play or you get injured at some point, given you get to play at a four-year college, those are factors outside of your control. What is in your control is going to class and getting a degree. That’s something that you can do to help yourself out. Having no backup plan is a choice, not a prerequisite.
All of these thoughts run through your head because the documentary is so masterful at weaving the storyline through its twists and turns. You learn to love and care about the players. You understand why they behave the way they do, and why you might’ve run into the same problems if you had their upbringing and family life. What you really learn is that they’re just kids. Kids faced with challenging circumstances don’t always make the best choices. Kids need someone in their corner to truly rise to the occasion. No one was ever successful by themselves.
In the later episodes as grades slip and absences mount, you start wondering, is this really how it’s going to end? Another sad story of the talented but troubled youth that missed his last shot and ended up back on the street? Thankfully, this wasn’t one of those stories, at least for the stars. John Franklin III signed with Auburn after a breakout performance, while d-lineman Ollie and star running back Law both graduated, the latter having to stay an extra semester. Ollie will play at Nicholls State while Law signed with UAB.
After digesting this show, it won’t be hard to imagine the past repeating itself. They’re hardly better prepared to handle the academic rigors of college, but here’s to hoping for another degree.