“Give me a year in the 80s.”
Jim Caviezel doesn’t come across as a know-it-all. Soft-spoken and reserved, he’s best known on the big screen as the actor who portrayed Jesus in Mel Gibson‘s The Passion of the Christ.
But deep down, he’s a sports junkie, a side most casual fans may not know.
“Throw out a year,” he continues.
How about 1986?
“Louisville won the national championship, beat Duke University. Purvis Ellison.
“Give me another year,” Caviezel presses on, trying to prove his point.
1982? “I believe North Carolina beat Georgetown. Maybe Michael Jordan with the game-winner.”
1983? “North Carolina State Wolfpack.”
1980? “Louisville beat UCLA.”
Caviezel could go all day. But he stops after making his point—his passion for sports runs deep. All it takes is watching him leave a hotel for lunch. Caviezel cranes his neck before walking out the door to get an extra glimpse of World Cup soccer action (Columbia was beating Côte d’Ivoire, 1-0).
In many ways, growing up in a sports-crazed household (his father played for John Wooden at UCLA) may have uniquely qualified him to play the role of Bob Ladoucer, the legendary De La Salle (Calif.) football coach who led his teams to a record 151-game winning streak.
“I grew up for 17 years playing basketball every day,” Caviezel said.
But the star of When the Game Stands Tall, opening in theaters nationwide August 22, says it’s his Christian faith that helped guide him in some of the most critical scenes.
“Speaking for me, my faith journey is, in my work, looking for stuff with redemption in it,” Caviezel said. “I like looking for a redemptive character.”
And that’s what he found in When the Game Stands Tall. While coach Ladoucer (Lad) spends most of the film avoiding the reality of being a lousy husband and father, it’s the murder of a star player (Terrance Kelly), the same year “The Streak” was broken, that proved to be the biggest emotional and spiritual challenge.
“It’s as if life has taken more than it gives, and I don’t know if I can handle it,” Caviezel cries out at Kelly’s funeral. “Lord, I’m struggling. I don’t understand why. Why Terrance? Why now?
“But I know if we are to call ourselves Christians, we cannot ask these questions because to ask these questions is to question your benevolence and divine wisdom.”
The lessons portrayed in When the Game Stands Tall are many, but they all strike a similar chord. It’s about character, brotherhood, commitment and redemption.
“(Coach Lad) gets them off the streak,” Caviezel said. “He doesn’t care about all of that. He just cares about turning these boys to men.”
Caviezel sees many real-life correlations to what he sees in Scripture.
“He works with them like a group of apostles, a group that doesn’t have a shepherd,” he said. “The game becomes more than that; it becomes the game of life.”
A man of few words, Coach Lad doesn’t just challenge his players on their commitment to each other, but also to God. During one scene, he leads a Bible study and asks thought-provoking questions, which his players ponder and dissect.
“Luke 6:38 says ‘Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you,” coach Lad reads to the young men.
“Anyone else think that if you give to others the blessing will be returned in equal measures?”
Similar to roles of John Reese in Person of Interest and Jesus in Passion, Caviezel chooses his words judiciously in When the Game Stands Tall, something he picked up from extensive prep work, including following coach Lad around the De La Salle football complex with a video camera.
“His presence is felt in very few words,” Caviezel said. “The thing I see when I’m around him is how much those boys love him. Their eyes are glossy because their hearts are hot. They’re burning.”
Caviezel pauses for a moment and makes a quick analogy to the role he played in Passion.
“Seems like there’s a character in the Bible that’s like that,” he said. “Why don’t we recognize Him more in our hearts?”
Caviezel and Billy Graham
Basketball wasn’t the only thing that inspired Caviezel as a teenager. He recalls a pivotal night in his faith journey, watching a Billy Graham Crusade on television and being moved by Mr. Graham’s message and the number of people going forward to accept Christ.
“It gave me hope,” Caviezel recalled. “This is the truth. It’s one-on-one now. I had to answer that.”
In 2004, Caviezel spoke at the Greater Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade at the Rose Bowl, shortly after he met Mr. Graham for the first time at a private screening along with Mel Gibson for Passion of the Christ.
Mr. Graham talked about being moved to tears watching the film: “I doubt if there has ever been a more graphic and moving presentation of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I feel as if I have actually been there.”
Caviezel remembers the day fondly.
“I sat with him when we watched passion of the Christ. I loved meeting him,” he said. “He’s a wonderful man. He is a living example of his faith. And what I love about him is how humble he is.”