4 Stars - Inspiring

“Forever Strong” isn’t just another story about how a sports team builds character and makes men out of boys, but it does follow the same life-affirming pattern.  This true story gives a strong pitch for fathers to step up to the plate and love their sons into adulthood.

Rick Penning (Sean Faris) is the star high school rugby player on a team coached by his father, Richard Penning (Neal McDonough).  Blest with great looks and amazing skill, Rick Penning is living a life that treats him as a royal prince without responsibility.  When he goes out drinking and driving one night after a game, he crashes his car and nearly kills his girlfriend.  Since this is his second DUI, the judge assigns him to the humiliating experience of a year in the Juvenile Authority Lockdown Facility.

Not only is he off the team as its Captain, but he has fallen off the pedestal that his dad built for him.  This loss of status in the eyes of his teammates is made even more painful went his father stops talking to him for disgracing his family and letting his team down.  Rick, now facing the fact that he can’t sweet-talk his way out of every situation, is angry and arrogant.

Rick is faced with a humbling dilemma.  He can wait out the year in the Youth Authority, or he can play Rugby for Highland High which is the rival team that is unbeaten by his father’s team.  His first reaction is predictably negative, but he is slowly won over by Marcus (Sean Astin), a Youth Guidance Counselor who is willing to give him a break in his sentence if he will commit to behaving in a redemptive manner.

The transformative process of building Rick’s character from a cocky individualist to a man committed to his fellow teammates is the heart of the story.  The soul of this true story, though, goes to Highland Coach Larry Gelwix (Gary Cole) who has built Highland into a legendary winning team through his commitment to building the character of his players.  In his words, “The greatest victories are born in the heart.”

Through a series of growth-inducing relationships with his teammates, and the beautiful sister of one of Highland’s star players, Rick begins to understand what a loving commitment is all about.  It is in the midst of this revelation that Rick has to come to grips with the underlying source of his arrogant anger, namely that his father doesn’t love him unconditionally like his new teammates and coach have done.

The ultimate test in Rick’s young life comes went he is released early for good behavior two weeks before the State Rugby Finals.  Returning home, his father’s only response is to badger him for details from the Highland team playbook wanting to know how they keep on winning?   When he refuses to tell his father or his former teammates any Highland secrets, they turn on him and set out to undermine his credibility.

Unjustly framed by his former teammates, Rick is sent back to the Youth Authority.  Rather than being defeated, he chooses to rejoin the Highland team and to try to take them to the State Championship.

The hidden ingredient that leads Highland to succeed is the gentle, loving, and unconditionally supportive way that Coach Gelwix makes the character of each player his primary objective.  The game comes second.  The not-so-secret revelation in the story is that Rick’s father had once been on the Highland team and had walked away when the going got tough.  It was his own anger that drove him to have a “take no prisoners” approach to coaching young men – a choice that built self-centered adolescents rather than life-giving adults.  This anger was now being passed on to the next generation.

Rick Penning’s redemption came from his decision to forgive his own father.  In so doing, he was instrumental in his dad experiencing a wave of release from his own past as he found the grace to forgive himself.  This mutual forgiveness is appropriate for life at every level. It is impossible to view such a truth without being moved to tears ourselves.


Discussion for those who have seen the film:

In your own development to adulthood how were you impacted by the adults who were your coaches, teachers, pastors and friends?
The unresolved issues of our childhoods often cause us to harm our children.  How have you found this to be true in your own relationship with your parents? If you have children, is it true in your relationship with your own children?
The power of unconditional love is universally proven.  Why is it that so often we don’t love in that manner?

Posted on August 4, 2013 and filed under 4 STARS, INSPIRING.