One of the greatest gifts any documentary can get is direct contribution from everyone involved in the story on display. “What Carter Lost,” the latest film in the ESPN “30 for 30” docuseries, gives a thorough look at a tumultuous few months in late 1989, as one Dallas high school ascended to the heights of Texas football – before some players lost nearly everything.
For casual or non-football fans, director Adam Hootnick sets up the on-field supremacy of the Carter High School squad. Lauded here by at least one NFL hall-of-famer as the greatest high school football team in history, this group of Carter students came to wider cultural attention when their 1989 playoff run collided head-on with Odessa Permian, the team profiled in “Friday Night Lights,” Buzz Bissinger’s book that begat the film and later TV series.
But the strength in “What Carter Lost” lies in how it relays the events that bookended those moments of on-field greatness. Before and after the team’s wins, standout player Gary Edwards was embroiled in an eligibility scandal that took on a far greater context than the math grades of one student.
Hootnick benefits greatly from having so many individuals from this chapter alive and willing to share their part of the story. From the coach and the players to the fathers and community members who placed their hope in the team’s chances, the archival footage from local news coverage and contemporary reflections give insightful parallel timelines tracking what unfolded.
Like many of these “30 for 30” installments, “What Carter Lost” pairs a consideration of these players with an examination of the media framework that helped them achieve notoriety. When one Carter player is shown signing a college letter of intent from the confines of a hot tub, it’s put forth as one person pushing the envelope for comedic effect. But when that footage comes up in another context towards the end of the film, it illustrates how important understanding the full picture is to these sports stories.
The fact that a series like “Last Chance U” exists, one that can embed itself within a high school community, makes this relatively momentary look feel like there’s more of this story to be explored. But within a feature-length framework, Hootnick does an effective job of balancing the team triumph and the downfall of a select few. In particular, the “Where are they now?” wrap-up is a beautifully executed closing sequence that highlights the divergent paths that many of these young men might have taken, even had something cataclysmic not happened for a handful of them.
Ultimately, the focus of “What Carter Lost” is more on understanding than blame. Hootnick makes a strong connection between changing demographics in Carter’s student body and the ignition of the controversy that preceded this playoff run. But when the worst of the firestorm surrounding the grades appeal subsides, as the film begins to document a fresh set of tragedies, there’s a common acknowledgment among perpetrators and victims that their actions can’t exist in an accountability vacuum. Their on-field popularity may have created an aura of invincibility in their younger days, but with decades of perspective, that reflection leads to a more rounded sense of both the opportunities and limitations faced by some Carter students.
When the film explores the education side of this saga, it shows how Carter as an institution was subject to stereotypes, the kind that usually fill the void when confusion reigns. As these players went from week to week not knowing whether or not they would be allowed to play, the changing reasons for that uncertainty speak to an ongoing problem that hasn’t faded in the nearly thirty years since.
Among the other points of interest for football novices and obsessives alike: Dale Hansen, who’s gained attention outside of Texas for his socially conscious sports commentary, gives important context to the story from his time in the news world. Sharp-eared viewers might catch that a certain Carter opponent’s son pops up later as a prominent member of the New York Giants team that one former Carter player now serves as a consultant for. And there’s also a momentary look at how the “Friday Night Lights” film may have taken some of the myths and misconceptions about Carter and tarnished public perception even further than had already been done.
Ultimately, that’s the biggest service that these “30 for 30” documentaries can do: help provide a new perspective on the world of sports, where figurative battle lines are drawn between two sides and it’s all too easy to paint one as the enemy and one as the hero. The real truth is that there are shades of gray in all sides and the more we can look at how sports can become symbols of something more, for better or for worse, the more we can understand how that power can have unintended consequences.
That full cooperation from everyone involved in the later part of the story helps to underline the value of this particular film. It’s not just a vehicle for image rehabilitation or settling vengeful scores, but a careful consideration of how extreme circumstances can bring about unexpected results.
“What Carter Lost” airs Thursday, August 24 on ESPN.