Sportsflicks: Mad About You (Because You're A Girl Who Wants To Be Quarterback)

The trials and tribulations of the girl who would be quarterback, and who is also Helen Hunt.
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In hindsight, the early 1980s feel like a low point in the struggle for women’s rights. The Equal Rights Amendment failed to pass, and Rush Limbaugh was starting a decade-long quest to find a suitably zippy portmanteau of “feminist” and “Nazi.” The song “I’ve Never Been To Me” suggested that a life spent at home was somehow freer than a life lived independently, although at least Charlene tried to put it nicely. The whole culture seemed stuck in feathered, offhandedly regressive materialism.

In the midst of this profound malaise, however, one high schooler by the name of Tami Maida bucked the trend. When the Maida family moved from British Columbia to Oregon in 1981, Tami tried out for and earned a spot at quarterback for the Philomath High School junior varsity team; she won her school’s Homecoming Princess title the same year.

1983’s Quarterback Princess is a nice dramatization of Tami Maida’s story, with Helen Hunt as the title character. Years before Helen Hunt delighted TV audiences, wowed moviegoers and eventually receded into Dependably Good But No Longer Especially Busy Actress mode, she was a child star and TV movie staple; it’s to her vast credit that she did not allow her career to be defined by this angel dust freakout in an After School Special. Hunt was a Hollywood veteran by the time Quarterback Princess was released, and handled the strictly down-the-middle the material well; the phrase “makes all the plays” comes to mind. Hunt also has a great supporting cast to work with, including Don Murray and Barbara Babcock as her parents, and a bevy of “I know that person!”-level actors from the era, including Severn Darden and Nancy Parsons.

Quarterback Princess hews closely to the real-life story of Tami Maida, but there are a few interesting differences.  Although the film’s events took place in Philomath, Quarterback Princess was shot further north, in McMinnville, Oregon, known in the movie as Minnville. The movie also hints that Maida is a sophomore or a junior; she was just fourteen and a freshman when the events in the movie took place, but having the characters be a little older allows for a more seasoned array of actors play the students.

It also makes the comparisons (in size) to former USC and L.A. Rams quarterback Pat Haden slightly more plausible. Tim Robbins, who plays a lineman (!), was in his mid-twenties when Quarterback Princess was made, but passes plausibly enough for 16 or 17. He definitely could not pass for 14 or 15, although of course as a lineman, was ineligible to pass at all.

Seemingly every sports movie I write about features someone who appeared in The Shawshank Redemption, up to and including nefarious gold shill Bob Gunton. That I thought I was in the clear with Quarterback Princess without realizing Tim Robbins was in both films shows you how familiar I am with what some people consider to be the greatest film of all time. (I am also not too familiar with The Shawshank Redemption.) If David Proval has a lousy sports film that he wants to see given a respectful-ish re-reviewing in this space, please, David, let me know. I’m on Twitter.

Quarterback Princess also has Princess Vespa herself, Daphne Zuniga, making an early appearance as Tami’s half-embarrassed and half-jealous sister. Don Murray, who co-starred with Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop, plays the Maida family patriarch, while Barbara Babcock (Hill Street Blues; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman) plays the mother. Carmen Argenziano coaches the Grizzlies under extreme pressure from the boosters, while John Wesley, the principal from Superhuman Samurai Syber-Squad, cameos as an assistant coach.

The town is at first cold to Tami’s dream of playing football. Chief among the haters is one Mr. Caine, played by The Bald Guy From MacGyver, Dana Elcar. Of course, he warms up to the thought of a girl leading the football team to victory, because there is nothing sadder than a sexist junior varsity booster, and also because his son, the team’s center, doesn’t seem phased in the least by having Tami’s hands down there. Minnville wins seven out of their eight games, including a vague championship of some sort. Their only loss comes to the Wolverines, who are not seen and which we can only assume consisted of half the cast of Red Dawn. Presumed opponents also include the team from Dwight Twilley’s “Girls” video, and whoever the hell Toni Basil was cheering for.

Tami, in real life and in the film, is elected homecoming princess, and her successes on and off the field are framed as a success story in navigating male and female gender roles to create one’s own positive identity. After moving back to Canada, Tami Maida continued playing football through high school, and eventually replaced her father as a counselor at the College of New Caledonia. While there are understandably a lot of things that were written into the script for dramatic effect, usually glaringly so, there are quite a few scenes that exist in an uncomfortably hazy space -- so over-the-top that they could not possibly have happened and yet, given how blatantly asinine the culture was at that moment, also kind of jarringly plausible. Given that, then as now, we need more choreographed supermarket ambushes in our lives, it’s hard not to bring some wishful thinking to it.

Quarterback Princess is a good TV movie about a good Canadian-born female quarterback, a film both Mark and Angela Rypien can watch with pride. While many parents, for very reasonable reasons, won’t let their sons -- much less their daughters -- play football these days, Quarterback Princess is, in its artifact-y way, a reminder of how far we’ve come in developing sexist arguments beyond “She’s a GIRL!!!” Which is to say it’s also a reminder how far we have to go when it comes to just about everything else.

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