‘People need to see a good movie’: Behind Fort Worth’s love for ‘12 Mighty Orphans’

·4 min read

It’s Fort Worth’s little art-house film with big dreams.

But the first thing you have to remember about “12 Mighty Orphans” is that it’s only a movie.

If you start trying to nitpick the whens and wheres of Fort Worth in the 1930s, then you won’t enjoy a charming tale about how a fraternal lodge children’s home on the city’s east side fielded one of the dominant teams in segregation-era Texas high school football.

OK, so maybe the Masonic Home Mighty Mites’ decade-long stardom was compressed into one season, and maybe the timing is off about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role.

Just enjoy a great story from the oil-boom era when Fort Worth ran the world, back when Star-Telegram Publisher Amon G. Carter could call up the president to talk about this little home for Texas Masons’ abandoned “orphans” and the underweight, under-equipped but tough-as-nails team.

For America, the movie tells a classic underdog story about throwaway Depression-era kids and how they found hope, strength and love.

For Fort Worth, the movie is also a chance to see the city’s digitally recreated 1930s skyline from then-new Farrington Field, and to relive the days when the old Fort Worth Press evening newspaper dominated sports reporting in a city and state fascinated with college and high school football.

It was an era when the city produced celebrities like movie star Ginger Rogers and golf’s Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, and when Broadway producer Billy Rose staged an outdoor musical at a festival celebrating Texas’ centennial, and when Carter went on every national broadcast and buttonholed every elected official to promote Fort Worth.

A VIP crowd watches the “12 Mighty Orphans” premiere June 7, 2021, in the restored New Isis theater in the Stockyards. (For a few moments, the house lights weren’t dimmed.)
A VIP crowd watches the “12 Mighty Orphans” premiere June 7, 2021, in the restored New Isis theater in the Stockyards. (For a few moments, the house lights weren’t dimmed.)

And it was also the age of the Mighty Mites.

The movie telescopes the 1928-1940 seasons into one shorter story, with clever Coach H.N. “Rusty” Russell (Dallas actor Luke Wilson) turning brawling, abandoned little boys into big winners.

Yes, Roosevelt really asked about the Mites. Yes, a birth certificate snafu really landed the Mites in trouble with state officials. Yes, the Mites produced players like San Francisco 49ers linebacker Hardy Brown and New York Giants lineman DeWitt Coulter.

Yes, they carried on a vivid rivalry with then-football powerhouse Poly High School and coach Luther T. Scarborough, although Scarborough was far from the city-slicker villain portrayed by Austin co-writer and actor Lane Garrison.

Opal Lord, 91, of Dallas is a Masonic Home graduate who came to Fort Worth June 9, 2021, to see herself depicted on screen as an injued player’s girlfriend in the movie “12 Mighty Orphans.”
Opal Lord, 91, of Dallas is a Masonic Home graduate who came to Fort Worth June 9, 2021, to see herself depicted on screen as an injued player’s girlfriend in the movie “12 Mighty Orphans.”

“It was a movie, but it was not the same as it was at the Home,” said Opal Lord, 91, of Dallas, widow of injured Mites player Doug Lord and one of the last Masonic Home alumni around to tell the story.

Then she brightened up.

“It was a good movie,” she said. “I enjoyed it. ... Doug would have enjoyed it so much more.”

All the Mighty Mites of that era are gone, and the Home has been remodeled and partially developed.

All we have left are the beautiful landmarks used as sets in the movie, such as Farrington, the castle-like Texas Pythian Home in Weatherford adapted as the orphanage, the handsome Yellow Jacket Stadium in Cleburne carved from Paluxy River limestone, and the old-world gentility of the Woman’s Club, shown as the White House.

The last players died hoping to see the movie come to life. Former Star-Telegram sportswriter Jim Dent’s bestselling 2008 historical novel, “Twelve Mighty Orphans,” went to California and came back twice before drawing the right combination of producers, actors and financing.

“I think the timing is right because of the theaters opening,” Opal Lord said, “and because people need to see a good movie about these children.”

Actor Luke Wilson as high school football coach Rusty Russell in “12 Mighty Orphans.”
Actor Luke Wilson as high school football coach Rusty Russell in “12 Mighty Orphans.”

Wilson nailed Russell’s quiet resolve and determination to raise boys to men, and the coaching talent that led him on to a job at SMU and victories at Ohio State and Notre Dame in a career that did not end until late 1963, days after President Kennedy’s assassination.

Volunteer coach and sidekick “Doc” Hall is a strong role for Martin Sheen, 80. But the scene-stealer is former “Seinfeld” TV villain Wayne Knight, turned loose with a paddle as a sadistic principal.

Actor Wayne Knight, known for his role on TV’s “Seinfeld,” plays a sadistic principal in “12 Mighty Orphans.”
Actor Wayne Knight, known for his role on TV’s “Seinfeld,” plays a sadistic principal in “12 Mighty Orphans.”

Garrison, 31, known for “Prison Break,” said he based the arrogant Poly coach, Scarborough, on the way Dent described the Masonic Home-Poly rivalry. After all, Poly’s domination was challenged by a bright coach with a live-in, year-round team.

But Russell later became good friends with Scarborough, also a Mason.

“I was pleased to find out what Luther was really like,” Garrison said.

“It’s a movie, and this is an exaggeration of the character to create more drama and intensity.”

A grandson, Kyle Scarborough, hadn’t seen the movie yet but generally accepted that “We know this is the movie — it’s the kind of caricature you would put in a movie.”

Don’t go to critique “Orphans.”

Go to enjoy it.

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