Before he heard the story of the Mighty Mites, Ty Roberts wasn’t interested in making a sports movie.
“The tropes of the sports genre are so similar,” Roberts, who directed the new film “12 Mighty Orphans” (in theaters June 18) told The Post. “You have the motivational speeches at halftime, the coach that comes in to turn around an underdog team … the standout player who isn’t beloved at first.”
But the West Texas native had to admit there was something special about the story he eventually came to tell — a true tale of a Depression-era orphanage football team in Forth Worth.
The team — eventually nicknamed the “Mighty Mites” — shocked their gridiron-obsessed home state in the early 1930s with their scrappy play, innovative passing offense and physical toughness, and even caught the eye of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who became a fan. They’re the subject of a 2008 book called “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football” by sportswriter Jim Dent. The movie is based on the book and stitches together significant events and characters to portray a “miracle” inaugural season where the underdogs reach the state finals.
“This isn’t your standard [sports] story,” said Roberts.
Both versions center on legendary coach Rusty Russell, a WWI veteran played by Dallas native Luke Wilson, who gave up a cushy coaching job to start a team at the orphanage. When Russell, his teacher wife Juanita and their young daughter Betty arrived at the bleak Masonic home — which housed orphans of freemasons and emphasized labor over education — he found nothing but a crew of shoeless, undersized boys who never played football.
But Russell trained them, and then lobbied to get his team into the top-tier league, playing against schools with much larger student populations. With the help of the school physician Doc Hall (Martin Sheen) he taught the ragtag group the fundamentals of the sport, transforming the school, and the orphans’ collective morale, in the process.
“He was a West Texan, tried and true, kind of wiry tough guy who had been in the war and probably had PTSD and almost went blind,” said Roberts. “He was a fighter and figured out how to survive in his daily life.”
That fighting spirit helped him change the program, after the small squad was physically overmatched and suffered a bruising defeat. Russell adapted, devising new formations like the Wing T — where the quarterback lines up behind the center— and a spread offense, which forces the defense to cover a wider swath of the field. His offensive schemes emphasized speed over size and relied on passing.
The new strategies stumped opponents and brought a new level of notoriety and media attention to the Mighty Mites.
Russell’s inventiveness secured him a place in real-life football lore, luring in other students of the game, including Dutch Meyer who was then the head coach at Texas Christian University and is often credited with using the spread offense. “There’s some evidence that Dutch watched Rusty and admired him. Apparently even Vince Lombardi called Rusty one of the greatest passing coaches of all time,” said Roberts.
Some of the players went on to make a mark, too.
Hardy Brown, a linebacker and running back for the Mites, went on to play in the NFL for the 49ers and gained a reputation as one of the hardest hitters in the game. In fact, it was Brown who inadvertently helped spark the idea for the book.
Dent saw a documentary on Brown where he talked about “the home.” “Dent was like, ‘What is the home?’ Lo and behold it was in Forth Worth. He dug in, did his due diligence,” said Roberts.
Dent himself would be worth his own feature film. The author is currently serving a long stint in prison after being convicted of his 10th DWI in 2015.
“He is a real talented man with a lot of demons, but so many great artists are,” said Roberts, who wasn’t able to speak to Dent directly but communicated with him through a pastor and a relative. “He sent us a few notes and he was really grateful and felt [the story] turned around his outlook at the time. That was really meaningful to me.”
The home closed in 2005, and most involved in that transformative era have passed away. But Russell’s daughter Betty is still alive and living in a nursing home. Her son was a consultant on the film.
Next week, Betty is hosting a screening with 80 of her friends. She has already seen the finished product and gave it the ultimate approval.
“Betty saw it and was in tears,” said Roberts. “She said ‘I can’t believe how much they got daddy and mom and that apartment looked so real. It looked just like I remembered it.’ It was from the heart, so it was good,” said Roberts, adding, “For me, It was a real big deal to validate [the work]. It was a relief.”
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