“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start” – John Bingham
Miracle is a word that is overused in sports journalism. We all remember the Miracle On Ice when the USA defeated the Russian hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Others include the Minneapolis Miracle, the Monday Night Miracle, the Miracle at the Meadowlands and of course my personal favorite, the Miracle on Manchester.
That being said, All In: Miracle at St. Bernard’s is not an overuse of the term. This finely crafted documentary tells the story of an undermanned high school football team and the battle to save the small Catholic High School that those football players played for. The school’s name perfectly fits the narrative of this documentary film. Bernard of Clairvaux, who is now known as St. Bernard was the co-founder of the Knights Templar.
St. Bernard’s is located in Fitchburg, MA, a city of less than 43,000 people. In 2018 the football team had less than 37 players on it. Many of them were having to play what’s known as “Ironman” football, meaning that players were playing both offense and defense. As they were making their way through the regular season and then the playoffs, the goal was to win the State Championship. That would be a miracle.
Another issue arose. Latin teacher Linda Anderson was hired as the new principal. Not long after she took the helm, the diocese told the school would be closing at the end of the year. That news did not sit well with Ms Anderson, a number of parents and some of the alumni. They held a meeting and came up with a plan to save the school. The plan was to make the school independent of the diocese. In order to pull off that miracle, they had to accomplish two objectives. One was to get at least 100 students enrolled for the upcoming year. The other was to raise enough money to put the new, independent school on a sound financial footing. Tall orders indeed. According to data compiled by the National Catholic Educational Association, enrollment in Catholic schools has been declining since 2001.
Director Gregory Backer intertwines the struggle of winning a state title with the work of the students, parents, administration and alumni to preserve a school that was coming up on its centennial anniversary. It was an integral part of the life of the community, and they would not give it up without the best fight they had in themselves.
Watching this film was pure pleasure. It may be the best high school documentary since 1994’s Hoop Dreams. Backer and writer/producer Evan Kanew bring even the smallest nuances of both stories to life on the screen. Maybe their backgrounds as high-level high-school athletes helped. Maybe it’s just talent and experience. They put the motivational skills of football coach Tom Bingham front and center. We see them in his talks with his team, his comments about his team and in how he conducts himself. We’re introduced to Linda Anderson, who had no experience in school administration before being appointed as the school principal. In fact, it may well be that her lack of experience enabled her to not see the battle to save the school as an unwinnable battle. In the words of the late Colin Powell, “perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.” This documentary is a winner.