“…the film makes a vital contribution to the representation of disabled characters on screen since the actor Hayden Zaller is legally blind in real life, and in the special features Levi and Paquin observe that he brings a remarkable sense of empathy and unique wisdom to the role.”
By Nils Skudra
Recently I had the opportunity to watch the film American Underdog, a biographical film about football player Kurt Warner who overcame adversity to become a two-time NFL MVP, Super Bowl champion, and Hall of Fame quarterback after years of being told that he did not have what it took.
One of the profound elements of the story is that Kurt’s wife Brenda has a blind child named Zack who serves as an inspiration for Kurt to persevere in following his dreams. Since Zack faces many obstacles by virtue of his blindness, it was intriguing to watch how he had such a powerful influence on Kurt, and therefore I felt that this story merited a film review. The film delivers an inspirational message that a wide variety of viewers will find relatable.
The film opens with Kurt (Zachary Levi) narrating how he became obsessed with football at a young age. It is indicated that he comes from humble origins, raised by a single mother after his father left the family, and he has an ardent determination to become a Super Bowl and MVP quarterback, a goal which he devotes his life to.
Several years later, Kurt is playing his fifth year at the University of Iowa with coach Terry Allen, but his individualism gets him in trouble since he is threatened with being benched for not following team rules. This is one of the first examples of the adversity that Kurt faces in his football career, as his coaches repeatedly rebuke him for his attitude or for not being good enough to get drafted for the NFL.
Outside of football practice, Kurt becomes enamored with Brenda (Anna Paquin), a calendar model who is studying to be a nurse while raising two children and living on food stamps. Although she is initially resistant to his advances, she agrees to go out with Kurt. He learns that her eldest child, Zack (Hayden Zaller), is legally blind and suffers from severe head trauma after being accidentally dropped head-first on the ground by Brenda’s ex-husband.
In addition, Brenda is highly religious, stating that her relationship with God defines her sense of identity. As their relationship develops, Kurt develops a close bond with Brenda’s children, especially Zack, who looks up to Kurt and received support from him in virtually all his activities.
Kurt’s willingness to become involved with the mother of a blind child is a poignant element of the story at this point in the film. Most men typically do not have an interest in dating women who have children, and certainly few of them show an inclination to date a mother with a disabled child. However, Kurt’s bond with Zack is a testament to his compassion and empathy, and this bond proves to have important ramifications for his own journey over the course of the film.
As Kurt completes his final season of college football, he learns that he was not selected for the NFL draft, leading him to question why he has been given a dream that he cannot obtain.
Although he is given the opportunity to try out for Green Bay, his failure to follow the coach’s instructions result in Kurt being dropped from the team. He subsequently returns home and moves in with Brenda, taking a job at the local Hy-Vee store. While working a shift there, he discovers a cereal box with the image of a football player, prompting one of his coworkers to tell Kurt that his image could be on the box if he makes the effort. This helps Kurt learn an important lesson that true success is determined by the actions that a person takes in response to disappointments.
Things take a turn for Kurt when he is offered a chance to join the Iowa Barnstormers in Arena football, which is smaller and more fast-paced than NFL games. Through his involvement in the team, he gradually improves his playing, but it places a strain on his relationship with Brenda due to the long commute. She insists that she believes strongly in his determination to pursue his dream, but she cannot see them staying together since she fears he will not be able to keep his commitment to her family. This results in a breakup between them, but they resume their relationship after Brenda’s parents are killed by a tornado, and they soon marry. Zack takes a prominent role in the wedding celebration, singing together with Kurt and demonstrating their powerful bond for everyone to see.
Kurt is subsequently offered a chance to try out for the renowned St. Louis Rams, whose head coach Dick Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) expresses confidence in his potential despite the misgivings of the other coaches. Kurt quickly earns the enmity of the offensive coordinator, Mike Martz (Chance Kelly), who ruthlessly criticizes him for every mistake he makes at practice. Nonetheless, Coach Vermeil decides, after a heart-to-heart talk with Kurt, to give him a permanent placement on the team, resulting in Kurt becoming the starting quarterback. Before their upcoming game with the Baltimore Ravens, Kurt meets with Martz, who tells him flatly that he does not have what it takes since he is too old to be a rookie and lacks sufficient experience. Kurt then expresses himself freely, emphasizing that he has been preparing for this opportunity his whole life and that he will prove Martz wrong on the football field, finally convincing Martz to let him start the game.
Before the opening of the game, Brenda visits Kurt and gives him reassurance. She tells him how Zack has defied all expectations despite his blindness and how Kurt is an inspiration to him. This in turn gives Kurt the conviction that he can accomplish his goal of becoming a Super Bowl champion. Although he is roughly tackled by Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis several times early in the game, Kurt’s confidence is further bolstered by a call from Martz, who states that the reason he put so much pressure on him was that he needed to be certain Kurt could be a champion.
With this encouragement, Kurt perseveres and ultimately breaks the Ravens’ defense, leading the Rams to victory. The subsequent epilogue features footage of the real Kurt Warner, stating that he became a Super Bowl MVP and League MVP, becoming the first undrafted player to win either of those titles in NFL history.
American Underdog raises a variety of significant themes that strongly resonate with audiences, including perseverance in the face of adversity, the power of faith, and the importance of emotional support from family.
The character of Zack is highly representative of all these themes since his own struggle as a blind child gives Kurt the inspiration and endurance to succeed in his goal of becoming a Super Bowl champion. Furthermore, the film makes a vital contribution to the representation of disabled characters on screen since the actor Hayden Zaller is legally blind in real life, and in the special features Levi and Paquin observe that he brings a remarkable sense of empathy and unique wisdom to the role. Given that most disabled characters tend to be portrayed by able-bodied and neurotypical actors, Zaller’s depiction provides an authenticity that viewers in the disability community can appreciate. Hopefully it can help pave the way for further representation of disabled characters by disabled actors.
In summation, American Underdog is an inspirational film that all viewers can relate to, and its message of perseverance is something that particularly resonates in the present time due to the widespread sense of anxiety and depression many people have felt because of COVID-19.
By watching this film, viewers will hopefully gain a sense of hope and resolution in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, and its representation of Zack may inspire more members of the disability community to become involved in the film industry and have the opportunity to represent themselves authentically on screen.
I am an artist on the autism spectrum. I received an MA specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. I recently completed a secondary Master’s in Library and Information Sciences. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children. I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.