Last Chance U is a six-episode docuseries, produced by Netflix, which follows junior college powerhouse, Eastern Mississippi Community College (EMCC). That name is likely familiar. It was the school featured in a 2014 GQ article of the same name as the Netflix series. If you haven’t read the Drew Jubera piece from 2014, I strongly recommend that you remedy that deficiency. Anyone that pays attention to the JUCO world probably recognizes the school because it has won three NJCAA National Championships in the last five years (2011, 2013, and 2014). If you own a television, you’ve probably seen EMCC because of the national news the school made in 2015 when the entire football team got into a brawl with Mississippi Delta Community College. If you’re a Hokie fan, you probably recognize the school as the institution that former Virginia Tech Hokie DB, C.J. Reavis, transferred to after he was removed from VPI during the summer of 2015.
The entire world of football, from professional all the way down to high school, is becoming more and more mainstream. The NFL Draft is a prime time event and the scouting combine is nationally televised. The draft process at the professional level is national news, and fans naturally become more interested in where colleges are accumulating their talent. The high school recruiting system is now also firmly in the mainstream. For college football fans national signing day is just as important as the NFL Draft, and often more dramatic. The focus of recruiting is predominately directed at the high school level, but more and more the junior college scene is becoming a point of interest for college recruiting.
Carolina Panthers quarterback, Cam Newton, sparked the modern discussion and attention to JUCO recruiting. Newton was a top high school recruit who enrolled at the University of Florida in 2007. He was expected to assume the Gators' QB mantle after the departure of National Championship winning QB, Tim Tebow, but in 2008 Newton was arrested on felony theft charges after relieving a rightful owner of their laptop. Cam found himself at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas. He led Blinn to a NJCAA National Championship in 2009 and was the highest rated QB recruit in the country, in JUCO or High School. After signing with Auburn, Cam Newton led the Tigers to a BCS National Championship. Oh… he also won the Maxwell Award… and the Heisman…
Cam isn’t the only NFL player to build the foundation of his NFL career at a JUCO. Here are a just a few JUCO players that you may have heard of at some point.
Aaron Rodgers, Butte College
Keyshawn Johnson, West LA College
LeGarrette Blount, East Mississippi Community College
Jason Pierre-Paul, Fort Scott Community College
Virginia Tech is certainly no stranger to JUCO transfers. The Hokies were able recruit the No. 1 JUCO quarterback in Jerod Evans. The four star, 6’4", 225 lbs. athlete is the overall No. 10 JUCO recruit, and is currently competing for the starting QB job in Coach Fuente’s offense during his inaugural year as VT’s head coach.
The JUCO recruiting world is big business and big media. Last Chance U captures the stark reality facing these young men. This is what really sets Last Chance U apart. It isn’t simply a narration of the JUCO industry. The focus is truly on the players and the agents of change around them. Watching the documentary has taught me a lot about collegiate athletics, about my fandom, and exposed a dearth of understanding I had concerning what motivates and affects these young men.
Former Virginia Tech defensive back, C.J. Reavis, features prominently during the series. His image, draped in Virginia Tech clothing, is featured in the opening 90 seconds of the initial episode. In the second episode, near the 11-minute mark, you will find Reavis playing Madden and sharing the hopes of his future. He discusses an offer from the West Virginia Mountaineers and how LSU is his dream offer. In episode three the audience is exposed to C.J. for quite some time. Initially he is featured talking to defensive lineman, Ronald Ollie, at the cafeteria after a heartbreaking loss to a rival. The audience is treated to the intensity that earned C.J. the eye of the Hokies as Reavis discusses how he was present in every defensive and special teams play of the game against the Co-Lin Wolves. C.J. states, "From now on, I’m playing angry."
Later in the episode the viewer is exposed to C.J.’s leadership abilities. The EMCC squad is struggling against an 0-3 team and head coach, Buddy Stephens, has just read the team the riot act during halftime. The cameras focus on C.J., clearly a leader on the defense, talking to the secondary, and preparing the team for the next half.
It is educational watching the series and seeing the talent and ability present in the JUCO world. Transfer players like John Franklin III, a young man who is now expected to compete for the starting QB job at Auburn, turn heads with the athletic talent they showcase, which can often be head and shoulders above their competition.
One of the most interesting gentlemen on the team is defensive lineman, Ronald Ollie. Ronald’s story is a fantastic chronicle of the struggles facing these young men. Ollie is an orphan that grew up in a small, rural southern town. He is a child orphaned by violence when his father shot his mother during a murder-suicide when he was five years old. Ollie is, more or less, the main character of the show. He is an illustration of what you will find on a JUCO team. A young man with FBS talent and ability who has a disadvantage, whether self induced or not, striving to either return or get to the highest level of collegiate play.
This brings us to the real star of the series, Brittany Wagner. Wagner is the EMCC academic adviser and serves as a guiding figure and moral compass for the young men on the football team. The genuine concern and effort that Brittany demonstrates, regarding the current efforts and future endeavors of the student athletes, is truly inspiring. After watching the series, I cannot argue that there is any other singular individual that is more instrumental in assisting in the construction of these young men’s pursuit of playing on a FBS team. Miss Wagner fills the incredibly important role of communicating the subtlety of context and consequence to the players of EMCC. There are a lot of athletes and coaches and egos throughout, but she, she is the real star. Brittany Wagner is an incredible diagram of the unsung hero, a map of the people that work behind the curtain who make dreams happen through an inexplicable dedication to another person’s hopes. On behalf of everyone who has no idea what you, and people like you, have done Ms. Wagner, thank you. We have a name and a face for this particular life changer, but she represents all of them… the people that aren’t always seen, but are the linchpin of success.
Wagner provides a very poignant observation concerning these young men that I had never realized or considered. It is easy for someone to sit back and comment on how opportunity is wasted. How simple it seems. Armchair quarterbacks the world ‘round lament, "how could someone waste such talent?" Miss Wagner explains in a simple but crippling way when she communicates that some of these young men simply aren’t conditioned to go to college.
Consider their environment, their history, and the advantage other people have taken because of their ability. Not only does Last Chance U illustrate the struggle of an athlete trying to get to the highest level of collegiate competition, it shows why they aren’t there right now. It shows what contributed to the reality of why they aren’t at Alabama or Florida State or Virginia Tech. If for no other reason, watch Last Chance U to understand how these young men are working to recover, despite some significant disadvantages, in hopes of making it to the professional level.
Last Chance U educates the audience on the challenges and realities faced by a junior college's staff and football players. It's not an excuse or an apology for why these young men find themselves outside of the FBS, but it is an explanation of the reasons. I found myself desperately rooting for these young men, as much as would ever pull for the Hokies. Last Chance U is a beautifully crafted and sobering exploration of the junior college system. It is a production that any sports fan, Hokie or not, will find worthy of their time.
Last Chance U is currently available on Netflix.