We all love a good redemption story — those stories of someone falling from grace and then making some life-changing alterations that propel them from out of the pits of despair. I would hate to think what my own life would be had I not been given second, and even third, chances at redemption. As the English reformer John Bradford is credited with saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I.”
The first season of the Netflix documentary “Last Chance U” successfully mixed the redemption story with junior college football. The series was based on an article written in “GQ” about the football program at East Mississippi Community College and its explosive coach, Buddy Stephens. The school won back-to-back national championships in 2013 and 2014.
The program is well-known for taking players with discipline and life problems and turning them into Division I contenders — players like Bo Wallace (Ole Miss), Chad Kelly (Ole Miss) and Jaran Reed (Alabama). The school’s main campus is in Scooba, which is midway between Columbus and Meridian. Believe me — as someone who has taken U.S. 45 numerous times to get to the Coast, I definitely know the distance from Columbus to Scooba. It was a designated “pee break” stop for us.
I was pretty excited about season one of “Last Chance U” when it made its debut on Netflix last year. Having worked in Columbus, I’ve had dealings with Stephens, and the school’s former president, Rick Young, was a buddy of mine. The first season chronicled the team’s 2015 run at a third title. The Lions came up short after a bench-clearing melee at Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorhead ended their season. The Lions were up 48-0 at the time of the brawl. My friend and former colleague Scott Walters of the Commercial Dispatch was covering the game when the fight happened.
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The second season of the Netflix series debuted July 21. According to the series trailer, the second season deals with Stephens trying to make some changes, for both himself and the team. In episode one, Stephens said “he wasn’t happy with the man he saw while watching season one.” He’s a pretty volatile coach, quick to anger and even quicker to drop “f-bombs” without repercussion. I have no issue with this. Stephens is a grown man and he can speak however he wishes. As far as how he talks to his players, he has to live with his decisions. I don’t. If he can sleep at night, more power to him.
However, it was about five minutes into episode two when I realized that Stephens had no real plans to change and be a “better man.” It was during the beginning of the second episode that we are introduced to former Florida State quarterback Deandre Johnson. Johnson was mentioned and shown on camera in episode one, but the name didn’t register with me. Until it did. Johnson was booted from FSU after a video surfaced of him punching a woman in the face in a bar. He was arrested. The Tallahassee Democrat reported Johnson pleaded guilty to misdemeanor battery. 247 Sports reports that he has transferred from EMCC and will be joining Lane Kiffin at Florida Atlantic.
After Johnson’s introduction in episode two, which included the video of the incident, and Stephens’ mutterings on why he allowed Johnson to play for the Lions — something along the lines of “we need to do what’s best for him so we can get the most out of him” — I knew I would not be watching any more of “Last Chance U.” I’m not going to support violence against women and fuel the fire of turning Johnson into a “reality TV star.” Yes, I realize that everyone deserves a second chance. But sometimes that second chance should mean more than returning to football and being the subject of a reality TV show.
I later learned that show’s breakout star and protagonist Brittany Wagner left EMCC after the filming of season two. Wagner was the academic advisor for the Lions, a role she seemed to genuinely enjoy. USA Today reports Wagner left the school after she said she was “tired of working against Stephens.” She was a caring, compassionate single mother who wants the best for the school’s student athletes. It’s a role that will not easily be filled.
Stephens’ “win at all cost” mentality will keep the Lions with more wins than losses. The team went 11-1 in 2016, and that’s great. I’m sure the show will be a huge success and it will keep rolling with multiple seasons. But at some point, you run out of second chances — at least with the man in the mirror.