by Keith Aksel
Sometimes a movie is released at precisely the right moment that you forever associate it with being at a certain stage of life. For me, Remember the Titans was that film. It was released in 2000, when I was in eighth grade at Gahanna Middle School East, in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. My life focus at that time was simple: playing and watching sports. And Remember the Titans scratched me right where I itched.
The film is set in during a football season in 1970s Alexandria, Virginia at the back end of Jim Crow. TC Williams High School is experiencing growing pains as two separate black and white schools had to integrate into a single institution. Although the two schools that merged to create TC Williams were already stocked with football talent on their own, combining both schools gave the new Titans football team firepower at all positions.
The film’s central conflict lay in the struggles of whites and blacks to get along on the same team. At preseason camp, head coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) finds ways to integrate his team in spite of their individual inclinations. An overly-strenuous camp, and an early-morning visit to Gettysburg, gave the players common ground on which to build relationships. Since both black and white struggled together on the football field, they made bonds that overcame their racial biases.
In one pivotal camp scene, black defensive lineman Julius Campbell and white linebacker Gerry Bertier, bring an intrasquad scrimmage to a stop when Gerry congratulates Julius on a big hit with the now-famous “left side-strong side” routine. As Gerry and Julius alternate shoving each other in defensive solidarity, the rest of the squad looks on in wonder. Gerry and Julius’ celebration signaled to the rest of the squad that the Titans had officially moved beyond race issues to become a singular unit, one whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They would from then on begin to play football with a purpose.
However, when the team arrives home from camp, the townspeople try to pull the Titans apart through racially-motivated violence and intimidation. At one point, Coach Boone’s front window at his house is shattered by a brick thrown from a passing car. While the citizens continue to live segregated, the football team begins its own process of integrating the town through their play on the field. With each win, the city of Alexandria starts to identify more with the football squad and less along racial lines. The team’s success is the city’s success, and slowly the racism gave way to civic pride.
The TC Williams squad slowly found their rhythm as the season went along. At certain positions, the Titans needed to adjust their personnel to stay competitive. Most memorably, assistant coach Bill Yoast subbed in speedy Petey for a slower defensive back, a pre-heartthrob Ryan Gosling (seriously ladies, who wanted Gosling back then? I betcha money and fame have NOTHING to do with that one). Once the Titans coalesced, they were unstoppable. They played tough all the way to the Virginia State Championship Game where a new obstacle arose.
Before the final, Gerry is hurt in a car crash that knocked him out of the title game. His leadership, which was key to forging the Titans’ identity during preseason camp, would be absent from the title game’s sidelines. But, with the chemistry fostered by Boone and Yoast, the Titans overcome the loss of Gerry to win the title 10-7 (thanks to an absurd Hollywood scoop-and-score sequence). The Titans carried their city through the wilderness of racial tension to find a common identity as “Titans.” Team chemistry and love for one another trumped broader negative pressures the team experienced that season.
Remember the Titans mattered firstly to me in a superficial way; every one of those actors are forever associated in my mind first by their roles in Titans. But, the movie also planted in me an appreciation for the intangible values of sports. It taught me that sports are much more important than the whole winning/losing dualism, and my own experiences at the time reinforced that idea.
As a member of my school’s wrestling team, I was a part of a tight-knit group that shared some of the same chemistry the players in the film did. My brothers in the wrestling room and I had a bond where we found satisfaction in one another’s success on the mat. Like the players in the film, we were champions, winning every competition we entered. However, the takeaway from that season was a bigger appreciation for enduring difficulty alongside others. Wrestling is a deeply demanding sport, even at the middle school level for those who take it seriously. As wrestling coaches are prone to do, ours loved instituting the torturous “one perfect pushup” as a way to end practice every day (an impossible task considering we were all gassed by then). Because we went through the trial of a physically exhausting and rewarding season, there was an unspoken acknowledgement that we did something together that few outside our bubble would understand. I always felt that the guys from Remember the Titans would get that.
High school split most of us up. A number of the guys on that middle school team went to various private high schools, while others competed for the public school. Nevertheless, I never found that same bond with my later teams. Our individual high school wrestling careers saw different levels of success (one of us won a state title in Ohio…certainly wasn’t me), and we worked exponentially harder on the mat than we did in middle school. Still, it is safe to say that the middle school comradery was tough to replicate, even for successful high school squads. Was our bond a result of our success, or was the success a result of our bond? I never figured that out. But, I imagine that the Titans who walked victoriously down Main Street after a big win felt like we did when celebrating our latest dual victory at the McDonald’s on Hamilton Road. We were a kind of family, and to this day my mind has the tendency to remember those guys as they were then.
For some historians obsessed with minutiae, Remember the Titans is probably somehow a flawed depiction of race relations and/or Disneyifying such-and-such big societal problem. Even so, my honest response to the film is a totally personal one, transporting me back to a time that really mattered in my development. Even writing this now makes me realize at once how special and trivial reflecting on a middle school wrestling season is for a married professional man with a dog and a house. I would never want to go back to that moment in my life, but reflecting on its significance is no sin. In a way, Remember the Titans makes me ponder if on some small scale, we were titans, too.
 But for real, this sucked- we weren’t allowed to end practice until all 50 of us executed a perfect pushup simultaneously…after a two hour practice.
 This remains true. Wrestlers have a bit of an unspoken brotherhood, even if you never competed together. You just know that the sport takes over your entire life, and few understand it.