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The Real Stories Behind 7 Famous Sports Movies – History

Sometimes Hollywood gets portrayals of real-life characters and events right. But movie makers often spin a story for their benefit at the box office. Here are seven famous sports movies and the real stories behind each. 

1. Raging Bull | 1980

Hollywood’s spin: In the film, based on the autobiography of former middleweight boxing champ Jake La Motta, the Bronx Bull’s younger brother, Joey, is a central character. He appears as La Motta’s fast-talking manager, trusted adviser and training partner.

The real story: The character of Joey is actually a composite, mostly based on Pete Savage (born Petrella), La Motta’s friend and autobiography co-author. According to ESPN, most of the scenes with Joey La Motta, who was a boxer himself, really took place between La Motta and Savage, including their split and eventual reconciliation. It was reported in 1980 that Joey La Motta was planning to sue for defamation, but no suit was filed.

Academy Award honors: The film was a nominee for eight awards. Robert De Niro, who played the lead character, won an Oscar for best actor in a leading role.

2. Chariots of Fire | 1981

Eric Liddell, the Scottish missionary who won a gold medal in the 400 meters at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. 

Eric Liddell, the Scottish missionary who won a gold medal in the 400 meters at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. 

Hollywood’s spin: The Academy Award-winning story centers on sprinters Harold Abrahams, an English Jew, and Eric Liddell, a Scottish Christian, who make headlines competing for Britain at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. When the religious Liddell learns his 100-meter dash heat is scheduled for a Sunday as he boards a ship to travel to the Games, he refuses to run the race. Later, teammate Lord Andrew Lindsay offers Liddell his spot in the 400, and he goes on to win a gold medal.

The real story: While it’s true Liddell refused to run on the Sabbath, it wasn’t a last-minute decision. According to Time, the schedule of events had been published months in advance, and Liddell let his decision be known early on. Additionally, in the movie, Lindsay offered his spot in the race to Liddell right before the race, but Liddell had plenty of time to train for the 400 because of the released schedule. Lindsay, incidentally, is fictional but based on Lord David Bughley, who won gold in the hurdles at the 1924 Games.

Academy Award honors: The film was a nominee for seven Academy Awards. It earned four Oscars, one for best picture.

READ MORE: The Olympic Games

3. Heart Like a Wheel | 1983

Hollywood’s spin: The biopic about Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, who came to be known as the “First Lady of Drag Racing,” chronicles her rise to fame as she deals with skepticism, misogyny and personal and professional relationships. Much of the film is focused on her connection to funny car driver Connie Kalitta, with whom she becomes romantically involved before the two split and become rivals.

The real story: Muldowney, a consultant on the movie, had issues with its factuality. In an interview with MotorTrend, she even derides the movie’s poster: “They even got the color of my eyes wrong,” she told the magazine. “Look at all those patches. Pepsi? Budweiser? They weren’t even my sponsors. No, the movie did not capture my life very well at all, but more importantly, I thought the movie was very, very good for the sport. I had 800 of those posters and we burned them. Do you know what we could sell them for today?”

Academy Award honors: The film was an Academy Award nominee, but it did not win an Oscar.

4. A League of Their Own | 1992

Members of the All-American Girl's Professional Baseball League's Rockford Peaches gather with their coach, Eddie Stumpf, during practice in May 1944.

Manager Eddie Stumpf and the Rockford Peaches in May 1944.

Hollywood’s spin: The movie is about the players and manager of the Rockford Peaches during the first season of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League that lasted from 1943-1954. It follows sisters Dottie Hinson and Kit Keller, and their manager, Jimmy Dugan, a hard-drinking, washed-up baseball star.

The real story: While the league and the Rockford Peaches were real, the beloved movie characters were fictionalized. Dottie Hinson, the catcher in the film who plays one season, is said to be based on Dottie Kamenshek, who was in the league 10 seasons and played first base and was a hitting star for the Peaches. Jimmy Dugan, meanwhile, was a composite of former major leaguers Jimmie Foxx and Hack Wilson. And league founder Walter Harvey, a candy magnate, was based on Philip K. Wrigley of chewing gum fame. 

Academy Award honors: The film was not a nominee.

5. Rudy | 1993

Hollywood’s spin: With the final Notre Dame football game of the season looming, teammates of 5-foot-6 walk-on Rudy Ruettiger drop their jerseys one by one on the desk of Dan Devine, defiantly imploring the head coach to let him suit up and play.

The real story: Yes, Ruettiger played in the final 17 seconds of Notre Dame’s 1975 game against Georgia Tech. And, yes, he sacked the quarterback. But the emotional jersey scene? “Completely false,” Devine told The New York Times. “There’s not an iota of truth in it,” he told the newspaper. “Anybody who knows me knows if any kid came in and put his jersey on my desk, he’d never see it again.”

Pro Football Hall of Famer Joe Montana, who was on the team, told ESPN the scene was made up.  Also fictionalized: Ruettiger worked in a power plant, not a steel mill, and his angry older brother, Frank, in the movie was invented by screenwriter Angelo Pizzo.

Academy Award honors: The film was not a nominee.

6. Seabiscuit | 2003

Hollywood’s spin: Seemingly days before the “race of the century” pitting Seabiscuit against War Admiral, jockey Red Pollard shatters a leg in a riding accident, leading to George Woolf riding the horse in his place. A few months later, after Seabiscuit is also injured, Pollard and the horse heal in the nick of time to race—and win—the Santa Anita Handicap.

The real story: According to the Washington Post, the movie based on the best-selling book, Seasbiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, changed up the racing timeline for dramatic effect. In truth, Pollard’s injury took place months before the big race, and he later raced Seasbiscuit three times before the Santa Anita Handicap. The newspaper also notes that the Santa Anita event didn’t bear “even a faint resemblance to the way the race was run,” and calls out a fictional, “preposterous” mid-race conversation between Pollard and rival jockey George Woolf.

Academy Award honors: The film was a nominee for seven awards, including best picture, but it did not win.

7. The Blind Side | 2009

Michael Oher finished his NFL career with the Carolina Panthers in 2016.

Michael Oher finished his NFL career with the Carolina Panthers in 2016.

Hollywood’s spin: In the film adaptation of the 2006 book The Blind Side: Evolution of the Game, Michael Oher’s life is followed—from homeless teen to college football All-American. Adopted by the wealthy, white Tuohy family, the Black athlete learns to play football from his new mom, Leigh Anne Tuohy. One key scene shows her teaching him how to block during a practice.

The real story: Oher’s adoptive father, Sean Tuohy, called the film accurate. But Oher, in his 2014 autobiography, I Beat the Odds, disagreed. Said the former NFL player, who played for the Baltimore Ravens, Tennessee Titans and Carolina Panthers over eight seasons: 

“I felt like it portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it,. Quinton Aaron did a great job acting the part, but I could not figure out why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football. … I watched those scenes thinking, ‘No, that’s not me at all! I’ve been studying—really studying—the game since I was a kid!'”

Oher, who played collegiately at the University of Mississippi, retired from pro football following the 2016 season.

Academy Award honors: The film was a nominee for two awards. Sandra Bullock earned an Oscar for best performance by an actor in a leading role for her portrayal of Leigh Ann Tuohy.