Review: Coach Jake (2017)

Coach Jake (2017)

With his bald head and authoritative, gnarly New York accent, I sometimes thought I was watching famous US soccer coach Bob Bradley. But no, this film is about Martin Jacobson, an American high school soccer coach who is, in many ways, much more successful.

Coach Jake, as he is known, is the winningest high school coach in New York City. In the 2014-205 season, Writer-Director Ian Phillips follows the Martin Luther King High School soccer team as it pursues a 16th high school championship.

But it is not just the trophies that make Coach Jake a winner in life. The film shows how he has thrived despite a past heroin addiction that resulted in 30 years of hepatitis C. He recovered from his addictions through sports, positive thinking, and avoiding the many poisons of life.

Coaching provides him endorphins and saves him, so he pays it forward by saving students. He teaches his survival tools to his players through deed, discipline, and more motivational mouthfuls than Tony Robbins. Says Jake,

“You can never win enough. There’s no such thing as winning enough. It’s like saying I can’t strive to be better.”

His team doesn’t have a field, but they have a dynasty. If you are a coach looking for ways to reach your players, watch this movie for an armful of examples.

If you are not into soccer

In addition to addiction, this film is also about immigrant issues and Jake’s sense of mortality. Knowing his life is shortened by his disease, he keeps working toward burnishing his future obituary. The chance to play soccer is how he outreaches to recent immigrants. Many of his players get recruited by colleges, and he has an astonishingly high graduation rate. As Jake tells a player,

“Nobody in my teams of 20 years has ever been disappointed with my trying to help them in life”.

As far as soccer, the film captures a number of the team’s goals during the season. But it doesn’t really capture enough of the play for me to understand how the team is so good and so dominant.

Writer-Director Ian Phillips

This was Ian Phillips’ first feature-length film, but he has done a lot of work as a film editor, and that shows. This film flows so quickly and is over before you know it. Very well done. He was kind enough to respond to my inquiries. 

Ian Phillips and Coach Jake at MLK's 18th Championship win
Ian Phillips and Coach Jake at MLK’s 18th Championship win

I always wonder how stories like this get made, because such documentaries are a labor of love that take at least 4 years to complete. As a film student, Phillips first read about Coach Jake in 2007 and was drawn to the story of Jake’s recovery as well as his father-like relationships with his players.

Phillips also noted to me that just a few days ago, Coach Jake and MLK won their 18th championship. Here they are at the game. 

On Instagram, you can follow @ianewyork and see past film photos at @coachjakedoc.

Issues not covered in the film

This is not to say that Coach Jake is a saint sans controversy. I wondered why the film so often showed Jake handing out Metro transit cards to his players. In my research, I found out that after initially winning 3 consecutive championships, Jake was suspended from coaching for several months while irregularities were investigated.*

It turns out that MLK’s ESL program enables Jake to recruit players from neighborhoods more than an hour away. I found an article where Jake said he gave his business cards to cab drivers, asking them to share with fellow immigrants. Back in 1999, rival and similarly beloved coach Howard Ranzer complained that his boys were playing against men at MLK. 

As documented in Sebastian Abbot’s book “The Away Game”, age cheating is common in Africa, where many of Jake’s players originate. It has also been a problem in the Caribbean (another large source of NYC immigrants), as in the 2001 Little League case of Danny Almonte

In addition, maybe Jake is not the greatest role model for fatherhood. Although Jake’s warm relationships with his daughter and her 2 sons are included in the film, it has been reported that Martin Jacobson has had 6 children by 5 women.

The film of course does not cover these last 2 topics, which I guess is appropriate for a story about redemption and social good. There are several other documentaries where players seem to become surrogates for a coach’s family (see also The Anderson Monarchs, In the Game, and The Other Kids).

I will say that in my personal life, I have been afflicted by this as well. One night, our small but dedicated referee group got together and it turned out all but one of us was getting divorced! Sometimes soccer obsession can do that to people, because when you put so much effort into one part of your life, the other parts will suffer. For a funny example of how such soccer team obsession can take a parent down a rabbit hole, watch the comedy Bad Parents.

In English

8 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 8

 *An article I read said Jake was suspended for 2 years, but Director Phillips informed me the suspension was only for a few months.