The Fifth Down

The story of the most revolutionary experiment in American sports. A high school football coach in northern California empowers his team to vote for who plays.

Written by Richard Shepherd and Neil Amdur

One of my very favorite sports stories is the tale of the Jim Majors, George Davis, and the Willits High School football team – for me, this story is not only a great story of a brave young man and a revolutionary coach overcoming challenges, but is also one of important themes of democracy and empowerment set in a fascinating time of change at the end of the ‘60s. 

This story, for which there is an existing screenplay, is told through the eyes of one of the players, Jim Majors, a young man born with half a foot missing and no fingers.  Beyond his disability, Jim had a tumultuous family life, dislocated by his family's frequent moves for work, the divorce of his parents, and his father's death in a drunken argument (his mother, Versa, kept the secret from Jim that his father “was shot dead.  He drank a lot, he was mean, and he paid for it with his life.”)   When his strong, feisty mother moved Jim and his siblings to the struggling town of Willits, northern California, into his life at just the right time came two inspiring men.
 

One was his football hero, NFL player Tom Dempsey, who Jim saw on the TV kicking a long field goal, and realized they share the same physical handicap.  (Dempsey is still the co-record holder of the longest field goal in NFL history.)  This gave Jim the courage to try football, and stick with it, through the ridicule, the harassment, and the public failures.

The other was Coach George Davis, of whom college coach Steve Musseau said, “George Davis should be President of the United States.”  In a time when high school football coaches were described by A.J. Liebling as “a cross between a plantation overseer and a YMCA secretary,” the archetype was tough, desirous of instilling complete obedience.  On paper, George Davis seemed no different.  He played football at USC, playing in two Rose Bowls as a linebacker and center at only 180 pounds.  He also boxed, once entering a heavyweight-boxing match when the top contender couldn’t find a fight -- they carried the 240-pound opponent out of the ring, and dropped the boxing program.  But George Davis was an outlier; he smashed the mold.  He stated his view on old-fashioned coaching thus: “I think many people - and I’m not necessarily limiting this to football coaches - feel that the human animal is motivated better by fear than by your belief in him.  I think that’s wrong.”  He would rather a larger informed group decide who deserves to play, rather than, “some aging coach with fading eyesight and memory, bitter from his fading sex life.”
 
 In an era before the voting age was lowered to 18, when young men couldn’t vote but could go to Vietnam, and in a place where the young people needed empowering, Davis decided to try something revolutionary.  He let his players vote on who made the team, unheard of before or since.

In addition, Davis had coaching methods that shook up the status quo.  At each pre-season practice, he had players line up in the positions they wanted to play and the first person in line gets first crack at the position.  That way, they have to re-earn their position every time.  He prioritized practicing game situations, especially punting when big plays and weird things happen, so players got to use their imagination and spontaneity.  He encouraged good off-season fitness but also never had long practices, to avoid players pacing themselves and coasting too much.  However, he knew some players would always coast in practice to some extent in a non-game situation, and he wouldn’t penalize them for it if they performed in games.  This was a lot for players and everyone else to get used to.

The path of democracy does not run smooth; it is a learning process.  The team lost their first four games, some heavy defeats.  The players, the parents, the school, and the town were against George Davis and his ideas.  He received threatening letters and calls, was harassed, and even branded a “communist agitator.”  But slowly, as he let the team see the benefits as much as preaching them, some players, Jim Majors and other outcasts chief among them, defied their parents and the community and sided with Coach.  They learned to use the vote wisely, to vote for the most deserving and not for their friends, or along class or race lines, or however their parents pressured them to.  As results improved and more players ‘signed on’, the season culminated in their first ever league title.

This is a story about a young man overcoming great challenges with the help of his mother and his two groundbreaking male role models.  It is also about democracy in America, and about how when we use it wisely and freely it can produce this great diverse meritocracy.

Additional Information

For Screenplay inquiries please contact:

Richard Shepard - (213) 740-3308 - rich_shepherd@hotmail.com