There's a moment in the first episode of "Last Chance U", Netflix's new documentary miniseries about East Mississippi Community College's powerhouse football program, where the viewer gets a sense at just how close up and real this experience is going to be. It comes during the first week of the Lions' season—a season in which the program expects to win its third consecutive junior college national championship—as head coach Buddy Stephens enters the locker room with his team hanging not to what is by their standards a slim 13-point lead over Southwest Mississippi CC (note: they'll eventually win the game by 49).
Before Stephens enters the room to inform the Lions that they are playing "like fuck" and must "bring the shit" in the second half, he contemptuously addresses the camera, glancing at before swatting in its direction.
"Y'all get out of the way; get the fuck out of the way, film crew."
The first game isn't even in the books and Stephens is already annoyed at the level of access director Greg Whiteley and his crew have been offered. That raw access, however, is what makes "Last Chance U" an incredibly engaging entry into a genre more recognized for its sheen. There aren't many highlight reels set to dramatic music or canned coach and player interviews, as that is absolutely no way to tell the story of Mississippi junior college football and the bizarre niche it occupies as a subculture of a subculture within the realm of Southern college football. This story, and the multiple stories that it consists of, isn't glamorous or sexy; it's rough, hardscrabble football for rough, hardscrabble people who, given a better alternative, wouldn't be within a hundred miles of Scooba, Miss.
While they're there, they figure, they might as well win some football games.
Ole Miss fans will recognize a few faces
East Mississippi is best known to Ole Miss fans as the proving ground for quarterbacks Chad Kelly, Bo Wallace, and Randall Mackey. Current starting Rebel defensive tackle D.J. Jones, as well as backup center Jacob Feeley also made their way to Oxford via Scooba. That EMCC has been a bit of a feeder program — a "farm system" even — for Ole Miss isn't lost on the viewer, particularly when Kelly's story is prominently featured as a part of the second episode. He is even interviewed for the series dressed in an off-white suite along the railing atop the southwest end zone concourse of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, a scene of remarkably stark contrast to the rest of the series' setting.
The most prominently featured almost-Rebel, however, is current UAB Blazer D.J. Law. Ole Miss fans may remember him as the "signee" who faxed in three different letters of intent on National Signing Day 2014 — one to Ole Miss, one to Utah, and one to EMCC. Poor grades sent him to Scooba and in front of the "Last Chance U" cameras, where his frustrations both as a student and as an athlete are on full display.
The most interesting stories, however, don't feature any Rebels
Much of the intrigue around the football team and the decisions of the EMCC coaches center on the quarterback battle between John Franklin III and Wyatt Roberts. Franklin is a former blue chip quarterback recruit out of Fort Lauderdale who signed with Florida State out of high school. After spending his short Seminole career as a backup, he left the program to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Roberts, however, was a very lightly recruited quarterback out of Louisville, Miss. who found himself at Scooba because it was the best opportunity for him to both play and win. He's competitive though, and good enough to create a quarterback controversy at the nation's top JUCO.
(Spoiler alert: John Franklin III signed with Auburn despite not really winning the starting job at a junior college. The guy who beat him out isn't even going to bother walking on at Mississippi State.)
The real hero of the show, if it can be said to have one, is academic counselor Brittany Wagner. She makes no qualms about what her job is, describing her work as doing whatever necessary to make sure EMCC's players finish their JUCO careers with DI eligibility. Her perspective is refreshingly spin-free; she's helping football players move on to a bigger football program. That's it. Make no mistake though, she absolutely cares deeply for these players and their well-being, and she desperately wants them to succeed (to the point that she's seen literally chasing them into classrooms to make sure they have pencils and paper to take notes). She realizes that many of them have made poor life decisions or come from unfair and rough circumstances (such as stubborn but infinitely lovable Ronald Ollie, who grew up an orphan in rural Wayne County, Miss.), and she sees it incumbent upon herself to not be another inordinate obstacle to their moving on to something better.
But her real virtue is putting up with a Mt. Everest's worth of bullshit from the very people she works long hours to help. Every other moment you share with her seems to be where she lectures some player on why he should actually attend class, take notes, read his assignments, and generally give a shit about what he's doing at a school that, to him, is a very frivolous means to an end. And it all seems so silly and pointless, because she knows that these players don't want to sit in some cinderblock-walled classroom on a spartan campus in some one stoplight town, and that they do not give one ounce of a damn about whatever is going on at this school, and that all of this is just another nearly impenetrable barrier to entry into what most of these football players actually want (HINT: an NFL contract), and that the entirety of this successful junior college apparatus - national championships and all - wouldn't exist in any sensical sports industry.
But, shit, here we are, and you're late to class again, and Miss Wagner's gonna let you know about it, and you're going to know that, in spite of every dumb thing you've ever said or done, she's pulling her hardest for you.
Okay, that's great (if not preachy), but what else is there?
There's a lot of footage from EMCC's sidelines and locker rooms during games, fun and entertaining interviews with many of the Lions players, and the greatest superfan in all of junior college sports.
Only two episodes in to Last Chance U, but this man is the undisputed star pic.twitter.com/XdG7VDeYFn— Bunkie Perkins (@BunkiePerkins) July 31, 2016
Oh, but a fight, isn't there a big fight?
Hell yes there is! And, no, I ain't spoiling any of that for anybody.
In short, you aren't going to find many sports documentaries, let alone college football documentaries, that are nearly as oddly fascinating as "Last Chance U" is over the course of just one episode. The program's legacy in Mississippi and its strong ties to Ole Miss make it a must-watch for any fan of the Rebels, and the deep albeit unintentional dive into the frustrating unnecessity of college football as a barrier of entry into professional football should make it required reading for anyone who wants to observe the undue burdens America's most popular sport places on its developing athletes.
Unfortunately, given its setting and accidental insistence that there is so, so much more to football than, well, football, I worry that it won't reach the audience it should.
Either way, its entertaining as hell and you don't have actual football to watch, so fire up your/your Mom's/your ex's Netflix account and give it a watch.
Our official rating:
(Four cups out of five!)