At first inspiring and heartfelt, Netflix’s Last Chance U docuseries closed its second season as a reflection of human disparity, frustration, and lost hopes.
Set to the backdrop of Scooba, Mississippi, a dilapidated Southern town (population 697), hothead coach Buddy Stephens lead the hyper-successful Lions football team at the junior college (JUCO) East Mississippi Community College (EMCC). The series gave an unadulterated look at the coaches, counselors, and players of that school as they attempt to win, get out of Scooba, and grow as people.
Now, I don’t watch college football because I can’t wrap my head around 19-year-olds being treated like untouchable Greek gods, but this gap in my knowledge made the situation at EMCC that much more bizarre (and binge-able).
EMCC Lions football, a seemingly insignificant JUCO, is at the top of the recruitment list for every Division 1 and SEC program in the country (aka the way young players eventually make it to the big stage and play for the NFL). Former EMCC players have gone on to be drafted by the Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Minnesota Vikings, Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Ravens.
The only caveat to EMCC? None of the players want to be there.
It’s a boot camp of sorts for troubled young men who have been arrested (drugs, robbery, assault), kicked out of their D1 college, never made it to the program they wanted, or are fresh from high school looking for a stepping stone to the college show. Adding to the fire, we’re given raw glimpses into the heartbreaking upbringings of these young men, which include foster homes and violent loss. You root for these young men and want to see them succeed, mature, and smile.
But, in this world, worth is measured by touchdowns and tackles.
These young men live to play football, and to a fault. A loss or injury on the field provokes a deep sense of inadequacy and apathy, making them ditch class, rebel against coaches, and simply stop trying. (We start the series with Coach Buddy having a three-year winning streak. Sure enough, losses ensue.) As viewers, we want to grab the TV and shout, “Skipping class doesn’t make it better!” Personal and football-related problems are taken out on school work and attendance — frustratingly, the things that will make the men eligible for graduation and a potential D1 offer.
Voyeuristically watching the bright, capable young gladiators of Last Chance U stumble into class without a pencil or paper and cuss-out their teacher for no apparent reason makes you bubble, but there’s Ms. Wagner to help us and help them. The heroine of Last Chance U and academic counselor for the entire football team, Brittany Wagner has every player’s cell number, ensures they have school supploes, lets them vent in her office, drives to their dorms for a heart-to-heart when they consider dropping out, and generally gives us hope in humanity. She is the heart and soul of Last Chance U — just wait for the scene where her and Ronald Ollie learn his final grade.
As a single mother living in Scooba, she devotes her life to ensuring these young men graduate and go on to programs suited both for their football aspirations and personalities/mental conflictions. However, in the last episode of season two, Ms. Wagner leaves EMCC.
In fact, the entire program seems to crumble in the second season. After season one aired, everyone was reflective on their bad behaviors, especially Coach Buddy, who seeks to stop cursing and be more empathetic to his players. A new crop of players take the field dreaming of success. There’s a bright glimmer of new hope. Then prospects of growth come crashing down as old habits and bad attitudes prevail.
Perhaps the hardest part of watching Last Chance U (although I definitely recommend it), is our inclination to Google the players and whether their triumphant acceptance into the D1 school of their dreams ended up successful. The headline you’ll find most often is about on player Isaiah Wright, who we followed in both seasons. Wright has been accused of murder of an 18-year-old man. Other players have been benched, and a few gave up football altogether.
A third season has been announced; it won’t take place in Scooba, but at a JUCO in Kansas. To be honest, we couldn’t watch another year at EMCC. This story only survives if there are physical and spiritual triumphs, and lately (however real) it’s been a tale of defeat.