I have always been a sucker for a good sports story–even though as a Mennonite farm girl I was not allowed to play competitive sports myself. One Saturday afternoon in the mid 1960’s, while I was performing one of my weekly chores–vacuuming my parents’ bedroom–I tuned the radio dial to the local station hoping to find the top 100 pop song countdown. Instead, sportscasters were calling the play-by-play of the annual “War of the Roses” football game between McCaskey High School in Lancaster and York High School in York, PA. I knew next to nothing about football and had no personal connection to either one of the schools competing against each other, yet I found myself totally absorbed in the story. When the crowd roared and the speaker’s voice erupted in amazement, I felt a tear slip down my cheek. What moved me then and moves me now is the potential for human beings to rise above limits, whether those are in the mind or on the field.

The Blind Side and Invictus, two films now in theaters, follow the heroic narrative of  players transcending mental and physical obstacles. They also happen to be “based on a true story” –and therefore belong in our category “memoir and film.” I highly recommend both of them. The key to a good sports story is making the familiar plot–overcoming obstacles on the path to victory–new again.

The trick to doing so, whether in a memoir or a movie “based on a true story” lies in the rendering of detail. In Invictus, the details have to do with the the many ways in which Nelson Mandela’s decisions to take a personal interest in the Springboks, the  national rugby team, transform a nation divided between black and white, into a nation united for the first time.

In The Blind Side, football plays the role of the transformation in the life of Michael Oher, a real-life left tackle for the Baltimore Ravens, and in the lives of the Sean and Leigh Ann Tuohy family who befriend him and later legally adopt him.

Both of these films fit the Christmas season themes of hope and love. They are packed with action (although the rugby game goes on a bit long, especially if you know nothing about the sport), great acting (Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, and Sandra Bullock, especially), and social significance. You will think about them for a long time, and you just might find a tear sliding down your cheek as you watch.

Shirley Showalter

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