Reflecting on Varsity Blues as a Teenager of the Millennium

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NFL.com published an oral history of Varsity Blues, MTV Films’ campy, smash-hit that employs every trope of the teen and sports genres, rolled in a quintessential turn-of-the-millennium package.

The football sequences are ridiculous and over-the-top. The sub-plots are absurd. The dialogue is corny. And I love it.

Varsity Blues is in a category of films for me that, as bad as I know them to be, I cannot help but watch at any point if I happen by them. Road House, Point Break and The Running Man also occupy this category, to give you some context. But Varsity Blues has far greater sentimental significance for me.

I still remember the first time I saw a trailer for Varsity Blues. My recollection of it is, in fact, alarmingly vivid considering it was half my life ago.

Appropriately enough, I was tuned into MTV when a stone-faced James Van Der Beek came on the screen. There was Dawson, banging out a repetition of push-ups, as a voice-over of his internal monologue asked existential questions about God, sex and society.

It spoke to me as the teenager who believed himself to be oh-so deep. I may bump Biggie Smalls on my Chevy Corsica’s factory speakers and I play sports, but I’m thoughtful, man! I read Candide!

I get it, Van Der Beek. I totally get it.

But more importantly: Football! Ali Larter! An R-rating!

Uh-oh; there was my firstpotential roadblock. I was less than two months removed from 16th birthday, thus barred from purchasing a ticket without parental supervision. But I had to see this movie, and certainly not with my parents. That proposition was completely out of the question.

Like a mid-push-up Van Der Beek, I was left with philosophical questions. Do I wait the nine or so months until Varsity Blues was released on video tape (remember, this is the 1990s)? Do I sneak into a screening, something I’d never before even considered, let alone attempted?

My quandary was settled when a few of my basketball teammates–all of whom were 17–invited me to join them for a viewing on opening weekend. And opening weekend was a three-day weekend.

MTV Films obviously new its target demographic. The three-day weekend is as precious as gold in a high schoolers’ life, thus not to be squandered. Seeing Varsity Blues on the Sunday night of a three-day weekend would be the standard by which all other three-day weekends were judged. And my teammates assured me getting in would be no problem.

“I’ll buy your ticket,” one insisted. “They’ll check my ID when I get the tickets and that’s it. I’ve done this before.”

He talked me off the proverbial ledge. The theater in my sleepy, mountain town was often under-staffed, and most of its employees were peers from one of the area’s local high schools.

But the town’s conservative side was evident in the theater’s preparation for Varsity Blues. Apparently hellbent on preventing anyone under 17 from viewing the film’s objectionable behavior–most of which is matched by any given episode of an ABC Family series today–the theater added shifts that weekend specifically to have employees checking IDs at Varsity Blues’ screen.

The usher checking ID was older and wore a suit instead of the usual theater garb. This wasn’t some fellow high schooler, but a manager. He seemed to stop entrants at random when asking for driver’s licenses, but my heart sank when he asked my teammate for his.

The usher inspected the license for a solid minute before reluctantly taking his ticket and allowing him inside.

Jeez. Were they serving beer in this theater, too?

I started to ponder my back-up plan if I was ID’d and denied, and I came to a horrible realization: I’d spend the next two hours at the neighboring Chuck-E-Cheese, alone.

Deep breath. I handed the usher my ticket. He gives me a long look that seemed to last a short eternity.

“How old are you?”

Despite my penchant for embellishment in my teenage years, I was a terrible liar. This was it. I was exchanging the Tweeder end-zone dance for losing Tekken battles to 8-year-olds at a pizza parlor.

“17,” I let out in what I can only imagine was a pathetic whimper.

The usher’s brow furrowed, but he took my ticket. I was inside. Never mind Jonathan Moxon and Billy Bob successfully executing the hook-and-lateral, I had scored on the best trick play of the night.

Nestled comfortably next to my teammate in the seat next to him, he leaned over.

“I can’t believe he didn’t ID you. This is bullshit,” he whispered. “Discrimination against short people.”

A back-up point guard, he stood 5-foot-5. I was 6-foot-3 at the time. Sometimes, it paid to be an awkward, gangly 16-year-old.

Varsity Blues was everything I hoped it would be from that first commercial, and more. From Jon Voight’s perfectly despicable performance as Bud Kilmer, to the lovable Billy Bob; from the delightfully composed, modern score to the whipped cream bikini; everything appealed to my 16-year-old sensibilities.

As evidenced by the NFL’s own website dedicating a five-part series to its production, Varsity Blues had profound cultural impact. Fifteen years after its release, I can reference any quote and just about anyone around my age will get it.

But for me personally, I can catch a few scenes on a seemingly daily re-airing via TBS or Cinemax and be reminded of a formative time in my life.

For various reasons, many of which were the result of my own insecurities, my high school years were a struggle. I saw that first commercial of Van Der Beek as Jonathan Moxon pondering life’s questions and related on a superficial level.

Now 31, married and just recently a father, I can look back at sneaking into that campy movie about Texas high school football and evaluate how I got here; how I learned from my teenage years and grew.

The above sounds better as a Mox voice-over, trust me.