12 Mighty Orphans

Fort Worth has been in the Hollywood spotlight of late with the Robert Redford film The Old Man and the Gun filming here, along with several other projects.

But few of the films have been stories that originated here. That’s not the case with the latest film announcement. The feature film 12 Mighty Orphans starring Luke Wilson is set to begin filming this fall in Fort Worth.

The movie – to be directed by Ty Roberts, a Texas native – is based on the true story of the Mighty Mites football team at the Masonic Home. The team would often play and defeat teams with much bigger players (hence the nickname Mites) and they became the pride of Fort Worth in the dark days of the depression. With the help of Coach H.N. “Rusty” Russell, they became one of the greatest football teams out of Texas.

Russell is to be played by Dallas’ own Luke Wilson.

Wilson is known for such films as Idiocracy (by Fort Worth’s own Mike Judge) Old School, Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenenbaums and Legally Blonde. He is the younger brother of actors Andrew Wilson and Owen Wilson and the son of Laura Wilson, a well-known photographer.

Roberts co-wrote the script with actor and writer Lane Garrison. The movie is adapted from an acclaimed book of the same name written by Jim Dent. Many times, when the Mites took the field, they only had 12 players who could suit up. Even then, they took down teams with more players and greater size.

If the names Roberts and Garrison sound familiar, (particularly if you read this column), they were also behind a Texas film that premiered here, The Iron Orchard, which I've mentioned a time or two. Roberts was the director of that film and Garrison, who is best known for his role as David 'Tweener' Apolskis on Prison Break, starred as the troubled chaser of oil dreams, Jim McNeely.

When I interviewed Roberts about The Iron Orchard, he said his next project would be set in Fort Worth about the Mighty Mites. But attempts to put that story on celluloid have fallen by the wayside time and again. As recently as 2011, Texas-based Presidio Pictures announced it had plans to begin filming the story that year. But plans seem firm this time with Wilson secured and producers in pocket.

It’s easy to see the allure of the story. The Masonic Home, an orphanage perched atop a hill on Fort Worth’s east side, had no football team until Coach Russell turned a scrawny band of 12 underdogs that left their better-equipped opponents bewildered and battered – and more importantly – beaten. As Russell wrote in 1967, “I was supposed to be a teacher. There was no football program at the home when I arrived, but there was a desire for one and I was eager.”

According to a book called Sports Champions of Fort Worth, the Masonic Home team was voted into District 7 with Fort Worth city high schools in 1932 and took no prisoners. A city – and a nation – mired in the depression took note of the gritty spirit of the team and took it to heart. All in all, Russell’s Masonic Home teams produced a 127-30-12 record and, as the book says, “eight of the most exciting teams in the history of Fort Worth.”

How did he do it? Well, have you heard of the spread offense? Russell is considered to be the grandfather of the spread offense. Because his teams were so often undersized compared to the competition, he would deploy a spread offense to make up for the size differential. Obviously, if you look at his record, it often worked.

Another odd fact about Russell was that he almost coached against himself. Come again? In 1942, Russell began coaching at the Masonic Home on a part-time basis and worked at Highland Park High School on a special educational program. But then the Highland Park coach was called away to service, so he began coaching the Scotties. Highland Park won the district championship and the Masonic Home tied for theirs. Had they not lost the coin toss, Russell’s teams would have played each other for a championship. Maybe that will be the sequel to 12 Mighty Orphans.

Some other interesting notes about the Mighty Mites.

One of the players was Scott McCall, who Russell called “the greatest high school halfback I ever saw.” He went on to TCU but was hampered by injuries. He was the brother of Baylor University President Abner McCall.

Also playing on the Mighty Mites was Dewitt “Tex” Coulter. Unlike many of the other “Mites,” Tex and his brother, Ray, were not small. Both were 6-feet, eight inches tall and weighed in at 240 pounds – giants for the late 1930s. Tex went on to All-America fame at West Point and was an All-Pro in the National Football League with the New York Giants. While with the Giants, Coulter went to art school and began a second profession as a cartoonist. After 10 seasons in the NFL, Tex went to Montreal to take a job on a newspaper as a cartoonist but was lured back to football a couple of years later, playing four seasons in the Canadian league. Tackle/cartoonist? Maybe that’s another movie.

Obviously, there’s plenty of story to chew on in 12 Mighty Orphans.

“Shooting in Fort Worth provides a foundation for us to build our film and allows our team to source everything as it was – from references to historians to the real locations," Roberts said. “All of this is invaluable to a period movie.”

He said shooting where the events actually took place provides a greater sense of authenticity.

The Fort Worth Film Commission and Visit Fort Worth began working with producers in early 2018, pitching and scouting locations throughout Fort Worth and Weatherford, according to a press release.

“We are thrilled to welcome the 12 Mighty Orphans team to Fort Worth,” said Jessica Christopherson, film commissioner at Visit Fort Worth. “This is an important Fort Worth story and a fantastic opportunity for the local industry. We will be working with them throughout the process to assist with locations, permits and anything else that may be needed during filming.”

So if you see some small kids shuffling around Fort Worth in the next few months looking like they’ve stepped out of a Depression movie, don’t give them any guff. They’re Mighty Mites.

Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.

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