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Billy Bob’s Revenge: The History of the Last Play in “Varsity Blues”

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Bill Bob cries, because Billy Bob cries. Or something like that.

So over the past two nights I’ve found myself watching “Varsity Blues,” the James Van Der Beek-driven 1999 football classic.

In case you’re unfamiliar, or wise enough to forget, the film starred Dawson, along with Jon Voight, the late Paul Walker, Scott Caan, Amy Smart and—most important—Ron Lester. I say “most important” because a very strong argument can be made that “Varsity Blues” closed a long-and-storied cinematic history of bestowing unnatural athletic superhero powers upon the obese. You know what I mean—there’s always a “Tubs” or a “Bacon” or a “Fats” or “Chubs” who sheds 12 tacklers at a time, or can hit a ball 700 feet, or somehow soars through the air for that unexpected dunk at the end of a game. He never gets laid, struggles in school, cracks goofy one-liners, drinks too much and eats donuts by the box. The future? Eh, not so bright.

In “Varsity Blues,” the story of a small-town Texas high school football team coached by a Nazi-like far-right tyrant (played, in a stretch, by a Nazi-like far-right tyrant, Voight), quarterbacks Wilson and Van Der Beek get the girls (there’s a memorable snippet in which the actress Ali Larter—naked but for some precisely placed whipped cream—offers herself to Van Der Beek), but not the film’s biggest scene.

Nope. That belongs to Lester, who (masterfully, it should be noted) plays “Billy Bob,” the oafish fat offensive lineman.

It’s the big game. The team has banished Voight (aka: Coach Kilmer) after he insists the requisite black running back (played by Eliel Swinton, a former Stanford safety with quite a heartbreaking backstory) take some sort of ridiculously large needle into his knee. Walker (aka Lance Harbor) is the former golden boy quarterback whose future was ruined by injury. So now, with Voight packing his belongings into cardboard boxes, the shelved QB takes over as Coyotes coach. It’s the fourth quarter. His team trails 17-14 with precious seconds left. But they have a strong-armed signal caller (Van Der Beek as the speaks-with-a-Texas-accent-every-17th-word Jonathan Moxon) and some fast receivers. So naturally, because music is playing and fans are standing and director Brian Robbins knows nothing about sports, Harbor calls the ol’ hook and ladder—to Billy Bob.

It must be stated at this point that:

A. Billy Bob is gimantic.

B. Billy Bob is already playing with a concussion.

C. Billy Bob is painfully unskilled.

But … OK. Let’s run the ol’ hook and ladder to Billy Bob. Because nobody on the other team will expect the fat guy to sprint 20 yards down the field. It’s actually a funny thing about America’s worst sports movies. Yes, athleticism is important. And, yes, coaching is important. But nothing—absolutely nothing—can trump the element of preposterous surprise. Think of manager Billy Heywood in “Little Big League,” owning the Majors with hidden ball tricks. Think of Henry Rowengartner in “Rookie of the Year,” striking out Heddo with a 28 mph Eephus. It’s what we do in order to grab the audience and make them buy the magic.

Or something like that.

Anyhow, Harbor wants the hook and ladder. And Billy Bob can’t believe it. In fact, he’s the smartest guy on the field, because everyone else seems to think the best way to score from the 20 is have your least capable obese player handle the ball. He flashes that look back to Fox—the ol’ should-have-been-trademarked-by-Chubby-in-Teen Wolf, “You can’t be serious” face. Here, take a look …

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Alas, Mox is serious. And as they head toward the line of scrimmage 99.99999 percent of viewers know exactly how this dreadful film will end. The fat guy will get the ball, run 20 yards, shed a bunch of tacklers and emerge as the never-to-be-laid, this-will-go-down-as-the-best-moment-of-my-existence hero.

In the stands, people are praying …

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And more people are praying …

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Mox drops back …

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And then …

And then …

And then …

It happens.

He hits the team’s leading wide receiver, the vastly underrated “Tweeter” played by Scott Caan. Now, a mere 28 years earlier Caan’s father, the great James Caan, portrayed Brian Piccolo in the unforgettable “Brian’s Song.” And, if one pays close attention, he can see how Scott Caan and James Caan both wear helmets in football films—the biggest similarity in their performances.

I digress. Tweeter catches the ball, and as he’s being tackled laterals it to “Billy Bob.”

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Now, this is where shit gets funky. For a reason I’ll never understand, Tweeter doesn’t merely flip the ball to Billy Bob. No, he launches it high in the air, almost like a free throw. Again, I’m not sure what Robbins was thinking here, but I do believe “Varsity Blues” could have been helped in enormous ways by the presence of a couple of ex-NFL players to serve as consultants. Many moons ago I had a conversation with former Marlins outfielder Scott Pose on his work with the film “For Love of the Game,” and he made it clear to me Kevin Costner had some holes in his baseball mojo. The same goes for Robbins, who probably could have flipped Mark Gastineau or Lynn Cain or Mike Pagel a couple of bucks a day to hang around set, eat the leftover sandwich scraps and provide constructive criticism like, say, “That lateral looks all sorts of stupid.”

Alas, the lateral remained. And while the height was inane, Billy Bob’s reaction was even worse. On a field filled with 11 opponents desperately trying to snag the ball and rip some heads off, Billy Bob just stands there, staring up at the football.

He stands …

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And stands …

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And stands …

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Were “Varsity Blues” guided by realism, either the ball is picked off and returned 80 yards or Billy Bob is splattered to the ground, and we’re left with “Varsity Blues II: Billy Bob is a Quadriplegic.” But here … magic happens. Billy Bob catches the ball. He stands still for another eternity, as the viewing audience is all but baited into yelling, “Run, Billy Bob! Run!” Then he takes off, and this kick-ass progression occurs …

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IMG_1428 IMG_1429 IMG_1430 IMG_1431Yes!

Yes!

Yes!

Despite every imaginable obstacle, Billy Bob somehow overcomes every obstacles to help the Coyotes steal a last-second 20-17 triumph. The crowd goes wild. The players can’t believe it. Fox kisses his girlfriend. Ali Larter looks on knowingly, her warm grin saying, “In the end, I’m glad I maintained my dignity and didn’t fuck Mox while covered in whipped cream.”

The world is saved, God is happy, football rules …

And, beneath the pile, Billy Bob Stevens, age 18, is plotting his future at MIT, followed by a 40-year NASA career.

Because he was fooling everyone all along.

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