Beyond excellent. ‘Last Chance U’: How Laney College is handling newfound fame

Last week I read the following article in the Chronicle about the Netflix documentary Last Chance U.

The current season details the story of Oakland’s Laney College football team’s 2019 season led by its almost larger than life coach John Beam.

It is alternately riveting, inspirational and at times a sad and depressing story of young American athletes coping with 21st century life. Last Chance U is both a sports documentary and a socialogical study.

Everyone should watch it.

Excerpted from San Francisco Chronicle 8.7.2020

Over the past week, while juggling numerous media obligations, Laney College football coach John Beam learned that the Wi-Fi at his Oakland house wasn’t strong enough to accommodate his new needs as well as those of his therapist wife Cindi.

“We’re getting a new internet provider this weekend,” said Beam, whose recent star turn on the fifth season of Netflix’s “Last Chance U” — a documentary series about the grind of junior college football — has vaulted him from local legend to a national story. “Our current Wi-Fi just hasn’t had the bandwidth for everything we need right now.”

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Last year, when Beam agreed to give a 30-person film crew access behind the scenes, he knew the show would bring attention to a commuter school in downtown Oakland that doesn’t offer student-athletes scholarships or even on-campus housing. What Beam hadn’t foreseen was the scope of Netflix’s audience.

Within the first week of Season 5’s release, Laney’s athletics site boasted more than 250,000 visitors spanning nearly 30 countries. Hundreds of aspiring college football players contacted the school, asking for a chance with the Eagles. Given that Laney doesn’t have a sports information director, Beam has relied on assistant Sakai Metcalf and Netflix’s PR team to sift through dozens of media requests.

After accompanying Cindi on a walk each morning, Beam, Laney’s athletic director since 2006, does nearly a half-dozen phone interviews. The rest of his day is spent replying to fan emails; reminding prospective recruits that joining the Eagles means paying exorbitant Bay Area rents; mapping out the school’s contingency plans for the coronavirus pandemic; and preparing for a football season that has been pushed back to spring.

“The interest we’ve gotten lately has been overwhelming,” said Beam, who has helped more than 100 players land Division I scholarships — including 20-plus who reached the NFL — during his 40 years coaching in Oakland. “But at the end of the day, it’s nice to know people are seeing we are a great avenue. We can help you transition to the next part of your life.”

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Junior college football is ripe for compelling storytelling. At each of the three schools it has followed, “Last Chance U” painted portraits of disadvantaged teenagers who saw a Division I scholarship as a shot at the NFL and ultimately a better life for their families. Coaches had to balance a desire to win with the need to get impressive game film for their sophomores.

But compared to many of the challenges players and coaches navigated in the first four seasons, the obstacles at Laney are particularly daunting. Folks at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Miss., (Seasons 1 and 2) and Independence Community College in Independence, Kan., (Seasons 3 and 4) at least didn’t worry about going hungry or finding a place to sleep.

At Laney, student-athletes often commute from their parents’ homes throughout the Bay Area and work part-time jobs to afford tuition. The struggles some team members face are so immense that the cash-strapped school hired social worker Carlisa Harris last year to help players apply for food stamps, find low-income housing near campus and set up therapy to deal with childhood traumas.

Season 5’s most memorable scenes came away from the field, where camera crews offered viewers intimate looks at the lengths student-athletes went to keep long-shot NFL dreams alive.