What we see transpire is something guaranteed to stick with you for a lifetime. If “Undefeated” doesn’t make you cry, nothing ever will.

If you don’t believe football is more than a game, find a seat at your theater’s 50-yard line and take a gander at “Undefeated,” one of the best sports films I’ve ever seen. It has all the tools: speed, agility and a knack for always being at the right place at the right time. It also has the heart of a champion, as evidenced by its upset victory at the Super Bowl of motion pictures – the Oscars.


While everyone, including me, was predicting the best documentary trophy would go to its formidable foe, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (the riveting conclusion to the saga of the West Memphis Three), the winner turned out to be quietly lurking directly across the Mighty Mississip in North Memphis, home of the Manassas High School Tigers, the former laughing stock of Tennessee football. The school’s learned principal, Gloria Williams, sheepishly recalls times when the team went years without winning a game. And in the rare times in the school’s 110-year history when it did produce a winner, the team never scored a playoff victory.


Enter roly-poly Bill Courtney, the Billy Beane of Western Tennessee football. Like his famous counterpart with the Oakland A’s, Courtney took over a cash-strapped franchise where nobody wanted to play and methodically molded it into a contender by instituting his own form of “Moneyball” by vigorously recruiting boosters as well as players open to his evangelic sales pitch. But unlike Beane, Courtney did his bidding without being paid a single dime.


His reward came in the knowledge that his coaching abilities were making it possible for troubled teens to reverse their defeatist attitudes toward life via their accomplishments on the field. And in the five years since he took charge, his teams grew progressively better, leading up to the start of the 2009 season, when Manassas, and its highly recruited offensive tackle, O.C. Brown, were touted as a solid bet to make the playoffs.


That’s also the year that directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin fortuitously arrived on the scene to document the Tigers’ season, beginning in the burning heat of preseason camp and ending 10 months later on graduation day. It’s a short space in time, but what we see transpire during those tumultuous weeks is something guaranteed to stick with you for a lifetime.


The adjectives are as plentiful as Tigers victories in describing “Undefeated.” But the two that come immediately to mind are “moving” and “inspirational.” But the film’s most remarkable quality is how deeply it draws you into the lives of Coach Courtney, his top assistant, Mike Ray, and the three players the movie gets up close and personal with: O.C Brown, the can’t-miss prospect with academic woes; Montrail “Money” Brown, the undersized honor student with the Tedy Bruschi-like heart; and Chavis Daniels, the hot-headed juvenile offender always looking for a fight.


The trio of players couldn’t be more different, but what they share, besides their black skin, is a dysfunctional home life, where fathers and hope are nowhere to be found in a blighted, economically depressed neighborhood. Life, we’re told, hasn’t been the same in the once thriving area since the Firestone plant closed decades earlier. Yet, in the middle of all the burned-out, boarded-up shacks stands a gleaming new high school, the first of many intriguing ironies lurking within “Undefeated.”


The one that’s most obvious, though, is that Courtney and Ray are wealthy and white, while all of their players are poor and black. But, amazingly, race is never part of the equation, as the coaches move heaven and hell to keep their easily swayed charges on the proper path to manhood, and the possibility of a fruitful future. At every step, and through every potentially devastating setback, Lindsay and Martin put us right in the middle of it with a vérité style that never feels fake or intrusive.


Comparisons to “Friday Night Lights” and “The Blind Side” are inevitable, especially when Coach Ray brings hulking tackle O.C. Brown home to live with him so he can receive the tutoring in opulent East Memphis that he can’t in dodgy North Memphis. But “Undefeated” eventually stands on its own, largely because of the presence of Bill Courtney, a man who knows what it’s like to grow up without a father, but also a man who knows how to overcome hardship through determination and education, as evidenced by the hugely successful lumber company he built from scratch. Vince Lombardi has noting on this guy when it comes to breaking through barriers and getting inside the hard heads of his recalcitrant kids. If he were a general, you’d follow him into any battle, and if you died doing it, you’d die with a smile and an immense sense of pride.


And if you find yourself reaching for the Kleenex during the film’s final emotionally charged minutes, you most definitely won’t be alone, because if “Undefeated” doesn’t make you cry, nothing ever will.


UNDEFEATED (PG-13 for some language.) A documentary by Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin featuring coaches Bill Courtney and Mike Ray, and players O.C. Brown, Chavis Daniels and Montrail “Money” Brown. 4 stars out of 4.