In the opening scene of Go Tigers!, Ken Carlson's fascinating documentary about high school football in Massillon, Ohio, which opens on Sept. 21, booster club president Todd Schumacher is shown welcoming a newborn baby boy by placing a toy football in the child's crib and saying that "he would make a good wide receiver" someday. The plastic-pigskin ritual, carried out every time a male is born at the city's hospitals, is creepy to watch, like a Saturday Night Live skit about overzealous football recruiters come to life. However, as the next hour and a half of Go Tigers! proves, it's nothing out of the ordinary in Massillon (pop. 31,007), a blue-collar town that draws its identity and life-blood from the mighty Massillon High Tigers, winners of 22 state titles in 106 years.
Presented in a linear, no-frills fashion, the film follows the Tigers' 1999 season and focuses on their tri-captains, quarterback Dave Irwin, defensive end Ellery Moore and linebacker Danny Studer, as they try to lead Massillon back from a disappointing 4-6 record in '98 and rally support for a tax levy that would provide sorely needed school funding. (Above, backup quarterback Brett Marshall leans out of the bus in a scene from the movie.) Along the way Go Tigers! provides an unblinking look at the power of sports and the priorities of a town where players are routinely "redshirted" in their eighth-grade year so they'll be stronger in high school, and where students make do in overcrowded classrooms while the football team plays in a college-quality stadium. "Some of it is bizarre and some of it is obsessive behavior, but there's also a sense of beauty and community," says Carlson, 37, who spent three of his teenage years in Massillon (though he attended suburban Jackson High) and went on to play linebacker at Brown.
To make Go Tigers! Carlson and his five-man crew shot 300 hours of film in locker rooms, coaches' meetings, school hallways and players' parties. The charismatic Moore becomes the central character, not least because of his background: At age 13 he was incarcerated for 15 months for rape, a crime he denies committing. Moore, a freshman defensive lineman at Kentucky, echoes the views of many in town when he says, "Ain't a day goes by that I'm not grateful to God for putting Massillon football in my life."