'First and 17': Film Review

First and 17 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of AFI Docs

First and 17 Still - H 2015

A well-made puff piece about a football star's college recruitment

A documentary profile on top football recruit Da'Shawn Hand and his commitment to Alabama.

The dipsy-doodle title of Brad Horn's football doc, First and 17, will puzzle rabid football fans. But the film is a straight-up-the-middle documentary which chronicles the college recruitment of super high-school footballer Da’Shawn Hand. Hand was ranked #1 by rivals.com, a respected ratings service for high-school athletes. Since he was 17 years old and the top prospect, that’s where the title kicks in.

A Washington Post presentation, the film progresses like a newspaper feature, chronological and factual. Although it may be a bit of an eye-opener for very casual fans or non-fans, its best venue is likely to remain here in Washington D.C., where it world premiered at the AFI DOCS Documentary Film Festival. That’s just a short drive up I-95 from Woodbridge, VA, where Hand played. 

First and 17 isn’t a sports doc that radiates with social topicality or political themes, as many do. This amiable chronicle is one that the beleaguered NCAA would like to tout since Hand is very much a student-athlete. Horn has drawn up an affectionate glimpse into the hectic, fantastic days of a smart high-school kid who is at the center of a lot of attention. In all, Hand received 94 college offers and narrowed his choices to three: Alabama, Michigan and Florida. The film takes us on those recruiting trips: the bands, the crowds, the cheerleaders and more. Amid all the hoopla, Hand handles the accolades with aplomb and engaging humility. Eventually, he selects football factory Alabama, where he will be a sophomore this upcoming season.

While Washington Post reporter Horn’s camera captures the chronology and excitement of Hand’s recruiting process, the newspaper’s venture into documentary filmmaking is rather tepid — in newspaper terms, a “puff piece." It illuminates nothing new about football recruiting, and will quickly bore serious football fans. Like a video of a wedding or a prom, it’s not likely to draw interest from anyone who doesn’t know the bride and groom or the high-schoolers involved.

There are funny, cut-back moments for knowledgeable football fans and those who don’t swallow the mantra of the NCAA’s scholar/athlete hokum: A short snip of Alabama coach Nick Saban expounding on his program’s commitment to “academics” (jock-world parlance for “getting an education”) will draw knowing snorts of laughter.  

Overall, First and 17 is a respectful, well-made personality profile of a remarkable young man. In addition, it captures the admirable professionalism of Hand’s rookie head coach, Karibi Dede. As a bonus for football fans, rivals.com’s football recruiting guru Mike Farrell draws up some smart insights.

A The Washington Post presentation

Director/cinematographer: Brad Horn

Producer/Editor: Jayne Orenstein

Executive producer: Jonathan Forsythe

No Rating, 96 minutes