It was the middle of the semester, and if D.J. Law missed another class his chances of graduating from East Mississippi Community College would plummet. Which meant that his second chance at a Division I college scholarship was hanging in the balance. His chance to not go back to his hometown — where he was likely to end up dead or in jail — was on the line, as was any chance to maybe go to the NFL someday.
So when Brittany Wagner realized he wasn’t in class, she bolted out of her office and watched Law walk out into the quad. She reached for her cell phone and began dialing.
“Where are you?” she demanded. “Where are you? You’re not in class and you came in and got a pencil and you left. And you were 30 minutes late.”
Law hung up.
“Don’t hang up on me,” she warned another player who gave her a hug.
Into our never-ending search to find the next “Friday Night Lights” and the real-life Tammy Taylor comes Netflix’s summer breakout series, “Last Chance U.” It’s the story of East Mississippi Community College, a place that revamped its football program by spending a surprising amount of money to become on of the premier junior college programs in the country. Big names who disappear from major Division I-A programs because of problems with grades, behavior or playing time of end up there; one of the stars of the series, John Franklin III, began his career at Florida State before leaving to seek more playing time.
The next Mrs. Taylor is the breakout star of the series, Wagner, whose office is a hub for tears, hugs, tense talks — and for players to get extra pencils before class. She’s the one who is shown talking players out of giving up and going home. And she’s also the person who gives at least one player a talk about respecting women after he has what seems to be a one-night stand with a classmate.
The program’s claim to fame is that it has as many alumni in the NFL as an average SEC program. And that list that could keep growing: several of the players featured in the first season already made it to bigger schools.
“I think they’re good kids who have unfortunate circumstances that have happened to them in their life,” Wagner says in one of the opening scenes of the docu-series. “I think everyone deserves the opportunity to get an education. I think everyone deserves a second chance.”
After watching the series, which follows the players’ triumphs, struggles and the headline-making, season-ending brawl, it’s hard to not agree. Especially after watching scenes where the players are revealed as the young college students they are in Wagner’s office – where they often deal with the toughest times in their lives while cameras document their every move. And the series’ ability to turn the players and the college staff into people you can relate to makes it easy to become invested. That’s why the show was such a success – and will be back for a second season.
During the week, there were three different camera crews posted in on campus: Wagner’s office, the football offices and the hallways of the main classroom buildings.
“I don’t think they ever forgot the cameras were there,” director Greg Whiteley said. “I’ve seen movies where the subjects don’t know [there are cameras] at all and that always leaves me feeling a little bit creepy. There’s also a voyeuristic feeling to those that lack the type of warmth we’re going for. So it’s really important to us that the subject never forgets the camera are there and they’re always conscious at some level but they’re allowing it and agreeing to it. And that’s where the warmth comes from.”
As much as Wagner is the team mom, she also has a very specific job that nods to the underlying conflict of college athletics: Keeping kids eligible, often seemingly against their will. In one of the earliest scenes, she is seen laying out the ground rules.
“How many absences before you’re dropped?” she asks.
The answer? Four. “You get four unexcused, on the fifth, you’re dropped. Do not miss class.”
“Now here’s the deal,” she adds later. “You make straight ‘C’s, what’s your GPA?”
The answer is 2.0 – which is below the GPA required to be eligible.
“For every class you make a C in, you’re going to have to have an A. So when I tell you this is your ‘A’ class, I mean it,” she said.
Wagner was working at Mississippi State, which is where she got her Masters degree, when she got the job at East Mississippi. In the series, she mentions that if she knew she was going to be in such a small town for the seven years that she had been there, she would have never believed it. So with the dozens of players that have flopped down on her couch or grabbed a pencil from her office in the time she’s been there, is her phone constantly buzzing with former players checking in?
“I wish!” she said. “You know it’s one of those things, and I think it’s one of the reasons I cry at the end of every semester, because it is an out of sight out of mind relationship. If we think about it as adults, how many teachers that were influential in our lives do we keep in touch with? Not very many.”
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t keep an eye on them.
Law didn’t graduate by the end of the semester shown in the Netflix series. But shortly after she spoke to For The Win, Wagner tweeted out some good news.
“Thrilled to report that DJ Law has graduated from EMCC and is headed to UAB now!,” she wrote.
Source: USA Today Fan Sports Poll