Sports films are some of the most poignant and emotionally driven works in Hollywood; they can inspire, frustrate, and move audiences all at the same time. When done right, these movies can serve as a moving representation of what football is truly all about: perseverance, confidence, hope, and the utmost importance of teamwork. A good sports film teaches audiences these lessons and inspires them along the way, utilizing the tension, comebacks, and glory of sports games to highlight the human experience.

While the debate continues as to whether Americans should even play football (due to the concussive, problematic danger of the sport), the NFL nonetheless continues to be the most-watched sports league in the country, with the 2021 Super Bowl being watched by 96.4 million viewers, which is actually the lowest viewership the game has had since 2007.

While there have been a plethora of great documentaries about football exploring both its danger and its glory, Hollywood has also enjoyed telling stories about the game, dating back to Harold Lloyd's 1925 classic comedy The Freshman, and viewers still can’t seem to get enough. With many films to choose from, not all titles have the staying power to become a football fan favorite; the NFL has changed its rules so many times that football movies can become technically outdated. Outside of documentaries, these are the best American football movies to grace the big screen.

Update September 14, 2023: In honor of the kick-off of football season, this article has been updated by Darren Gigool with even more great football films.

North Dallas Forty (1979)

Nick Nolte in North Dallas Forty (1979)
Paramount Pictures

Framed within the unpredictable realm of professional football, the movie mainly probes the sport's concealed shady side. Beneath the roaring applause exists a world steeped in complexity, ardor, and the trials that define these players.

Related: The 25 Most Underrated Sports Movies Ever Made

Most films glorify athlete existence, yet North Dallas Forty courageously exposes its murky depths. Addressing unsettling matters like substance abuse, physical strains, and the stark contrast of public praise against personal anguish, the movie dismantles the footballer's shimmering image. The film boasts gripping match sequences that display the sport's sheer brutality, both physical and mental, weaving a touching tale that lingers after the credits roll.

The Express (2008)

Rob Brown in The Express (2008)
Universal Pictures

The Express epitomizes the triumphant saga of Ernie Davis, a man earning the distinction of being the premier African-American Heisman Trophy recipient, Davis's story transcends mere gameplay; it signifies shattering conventional norms and breaking down traditional barriers.

The film brims with defining junctures that led Davis to achieve monumental feats, with a nuanced realism that connects the audience with his struggles and victories. The movie emblemizes defiance in the face of racial bigotry. Davis's road to prominence, littered with hurdles, reflects the broader societal clashes of his era. Yet, his zeal extended beyond touchdowns, illuminating a path for countless others, making this movie an intense and inspirational spectacle to watch.

Draft Day (2014)

Kevin Costner and Denis Leary in Draft Day (2014)

Vibrant in its setting, Draft Day captures the NFL Draft's challenges. It showcases how the Cleveland Browns general manager grapples with hurdles. Intertwining are his personal and professional lives, with the tricky decisions arising from the draft. Intriguing in its portrayal, the movie unveils football management's intricacies. It delves beyond mere player selection.

Pivotal are the decisions, immense is the legacy's pressure, and the need to balance human elements with the business-oriented nature of the game. Dynamic in execution, the draft trades invigorate the storyline. Revealing deeper layers and revelations that unveil the manager's core emotions, leaving audiences contemplative and thrilled by the narrative of this high-pressure sports movie.

Invincible (2006)

Mark Wahlberg in Invincible (2006)
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Remarkable in its origin, Invincible narrates Vince Papale's extraordinary journey. A bartender who morphs into a Philadelphia Eagles player. Amidst prevailing doubt, Vince's saga stands as an enduring tribute to the human spirit. Transcending mere gridiron tales, the narrative embodies the American dream. Each pass, every score encapsulates a nation's pulse. Cheering for the underdog, embracing resilience, and defying adversities are sentiments that resonate with viewers. All these elements make it a tale of grit and perseverance that is definitely worth a watch.

We Are Marshall (2006)

A scene from We Are Marshall (2006)
Warner Bros. Pictures

Heart-wrenching in its premise, We Are Marshall dives into a 1970 aviation tragedy. A crash extinguished 75 lives, predominantly those of Marshall University's football team and coaching staff. Grief engulfs both the town and its academic institution, casting an overwhelming shadow.

Surpassing a mere historical account, the film becomes a heartwarming spirit-filled odyssey to bounce back from the tragedy. It elevates beyond a melancholic retelling. Illuminating human endurance, We Are Marshall emerges as a beacon for hope. Demonstrating the profound impact of sports on community ties, especially that of football.

Rudy (1993)

Sean Astin in Rudy (1993)
TriStar Pictures

Based on the life of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, David Anspaugh’s Rudy is one of the ultimate underdog stories and remains one of football’s greatest feel-good films. Long before Lord of the Rings, Sean Astin starred as the titular Rudy, a young man on the journey of playing football at the University of Notre Dame, despite numerous obstacles thrown his way.

The film is famous for its mixed-bag response: viewers either love it for its heartfelt message or think its football story is muddled by all the sometimes sappy sentimentalism. Regardless, since its release in 1993, Rudy has been featured on numerous football film lists and was ranked the 54th-most inspiring film of all time in the American Film Institute’s “100 Years” series.

Gridiron Gang (2006)

A scene from Gridiron Gang (2006)
Sony Pictures Releasing

Gridiron Gang is a sports drama that loosely depicts the story of the Kilpatrick Mustangs during the 1990 season, a team that is based out of a juvenile detention camp. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as coach Sean Porter, who works at the center as a probation officer and decides to create a football team so the kids can have a purpose and direction. The film is an uplifting story that sheds light on troubled youths while delivering a moving performance from Johnson. Gridiron Gang is a perfect fit for the star, who himself played college football at the University of Miami.

Varsity Blues (1999)

A scene from Varsity Blues (1999)
Paramount Pictures

The coming-of-age drama Varsity Blues features an impressive cast, including James Van Der Beek (at the height of his Dawson’s Creek fame), Paul Walker, Jon Voight, and Scott Caan. The premise follows a small-town high school football team through a troubling season as the players navigate the pressures of adolescence both on the field and off. Van Der Beek delivers a strong performance as the soft-spoken quarterback who goes toe-to-toe with his volatile and downright mean head coach (Voight). Though filled with some cliches, the talented cast and honest representation of the hope football brings in a small town truly hit the mark.

Any Given Sunday (1999)

A scene from Any Given Sunday (1999)
Warner Bros.

With an all-star cast including big names like Al Pacino, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, and Dennis Quaid, Any Given Sunday is partly based on NFL defensive end Pat Toomay’s 1984 novel On Any Given Sunday. The Oliver Stone film follows Pacino as the Miami Sharks' head coach, who has devoted his life to the team and sport via untraditional methods.

The is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the life of a football coach and the players he helps mold, and is a good fit for Stone's typically bombastic and epic direction. Jamie Foxx showed off his skills on the field, having once passed over 1,000 yards during a single season in his high school days.

The Waterboy (1998)

A scene from The Waterboy (1998)
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

1998’s hilarious sports comedy The Waterboy stars Adam Sandler as Bobby Boucher Jr., a socially inept water boy for the South Central Louisiana State University Mud Dogs. After being bullied by the team’s quarterback, Bobby knocks the player out and is subsequently hired as a soon-to-be-feared linebacker despite his mother’s wishes.

Related: 16 Best Sports Biopics of All Time, Ranked

Kathy Bates co-stars as Bobby’s Mama Helen in a surprising and bizarre but amusing performance. The Waterboy has garnered a cult following and is a great example of comedy tackling the sports’ genre and running with it. Sandler’s hilarious and good-natured portrayal really helps propel this funny football flick.

The Longest Yard (1974)

A scene from The Longest Yard (1974)
Paramount Pictures

Classic sports comedy The Longest Yard was a massive hit upon its release in 1974, following an imprisoned former NFL player as he recruits a group of fellow prisoners to play football against the guards. Starring Burt Reynolds as former pro quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, the film is so popular that it has been remade three times, most recently in 2005 starring Adam Sandler with Reynolds returning. The Longest Yard also featured real-life football players, including Green Bay Packers legend Ray Nitschke. The humorous and down-and-dirty flick is a beloved favorite and staple among football fans.

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty
Paramount Pictures

Heaven Can Wait stars Warren Beaty as Joe Pendleton, a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who is about to have his big break to lead a team to the Super Bowl when he accidentally is mistaken to die and brought to heaven. When the mixup is discovered, he finds he cannot return to Earth as his body has been cremated and instead placed in the body of a multimillionaire who was drugged by his wife and business associate. When Joe takes control of the body, he buys his old football team and becomes the starting quarterback.

Heaven Can Wait is the perfect mix of high-concept comedy and the general adult-oriented filmmaking of the 1970s; while reading the premise does not sound like football plays a major role, it has a huge impact on the story. It not only leads to one of the funniest scenes where Joe relates business practices to being on a football team, but also the film's climax sees the Superbowl take place and Joe put in the body of a young player who is set to die, and by taking over while ensure Joe doesn't remember anything about his past life. It is emotionally moving and one of the best movies about football ever.

Brian’s Song (1971)

James Caan and Billy Dee Williams in Brian's Song (1971)

The deeply moving and tear-jerking Brian’s Song is a TV movie that depicts the life of Brian Piccolo, a Chicago Bears football player diagnosed with terminal cancer after making it to the pros in 1965. It is told through his friendship with Bears teammate Gale Sayers and displays their differing temperaments and racial backgrounds as the pair became the first interracial roommates in NFL history. Starring James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers, Brian’s Song is an uplifting and enriching story that truly stays with audiences and is considered one of the greatest, most emotional television films ever made.

Remember the Titans (2000)

A scene from Remember the Titans (2000)
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

Based on the true story of coach Herman Boone, Remember the Titans follows the football coach as he attempts to integrate T.C. Williams High School football team in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1971. Despite racial prejudice running ragged, Boone’s leadership never falters, and he inspires his players to be the best that they can be. The legendary Denzel Washington beautifully portrays Boone, and his performance is both profound and moving. With an impressive supporting cast including Will Patton, Ryan Hurst, and Ryan Gosling, the film truly packs an emotional punch, making Remember the Titans revered as one of the greatest football films of all time.

Friday Night Lights (2004)

Billy Bob Thornton in Friday Night Lights (2004)
Universal Pictures

The film that would inspire an equally great television series, Friday Night Lights, is based on the 1990 H.G. Bissinger book and depicts the football coach and team of Odessa, Texas. It stars Billy Bob Thornton as real-life football coach Gary Gaines, who strives to help a group of Texas teens navigate their lives both within the football world and outside of it. The movie perfectly portrays the football-obsessed mentality of many small towns and contains some of the most inspirational monologues in cinematic history. Both Friday Night Lights and the subsequent series are the most outstanding representations of football in film and television.