November 6, 2003


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“There’s no harm in caring for somebody, is there?”

In the case of Harold Jones, the character played by Ed Harris in Radio, an inquiry from his wife is more than just a question; it’s a phrase to live by.

Jones is the athletic director and football coach at Hanna High School, in the mid-1970s, presiding over a team with high expectations in northern South Carolina. Fall means football in South Carolina, and to Coach Jones, winning comes first. That is, until the day he discovers a mentally challenged young man (Cuba Gooding Jr.) tied up in an equipment shed — a sick joke played by several members of Jones’s team.

Infuriated and upset, Jones makes the nine offending players run wind sprints for hours after practice the next day. More importantly though, he strikes up a friendship with the young man, who refers to himself only as Radio.

Radio slowly becomes an important and valued member of the team. Though his disability prevents him from doing any effective football-related activities, he serves as sort of a mascot or good luck charm. Soon, he begins to break out of his self-induced shell. He moves rapidly from not talking at all to becoming a garrulous, outgoing person. And for the first time in his life, Radio makes friends.

But of course, there is the requisite villain. Local booster Frank Clay, the father of star player Johnny Clay, is displeased that Jones has brought Radio into contact with the team. Jones speculates that this is because Frank is unhappy that his son was punished for mistreating Radio. The elder Clay maintains that Radio is a distraction that caused the Hanna football team to only finish the season with a 5-5 record.

As the football season ends and the basketball season begins, Jones convinces Coach Honeycut, the basketball and assistant football coach, to take Radio on as a manager for the basketball season. Honeycut happily agrees. At the same time, Jones begins bringing Radio into his social studies classes during the day, and attempts to teach him how to write his name.

The troubles continue. Johnny Clay convinces Radio to sneak into the girls’ locker room, causing a significant stir among the school community. On Christmas Day, a young police officer arrests Radio because he thought Radio had stolen the gifts he was distributing to his neighbors’ porches. Shortly thereafter, Radio’s mother dies.

It is at this point that we begin to understand why Jones feels so strongly about taking Radio under his wing. Returning home from comforting Radio after his mother’s death, Jones relates to his daughter, Mary Helen, a story from his youth. For two years, Jones had a paper route. Along his route one day, Jones discovered a boy about his age who was imprisoned within a cage. And Jones did nothing about it. Evidently, his guilt from that prior experience is pushing him to care so much about Radio.

Ultimately, with Frank Clay pushing the school district to have Radio removed from Hanna, Jones decides to resign as football coach but continue to teach in the school. He cites his desire to spend more time with his family as his reason for departure. He explains that he has learned from Radio what everyone should: that Radio embodies the most basic needs an individual should have. He’s kind, caring, and only interested in the good in people. For example, Radio was completely unwilling to reveal who had convinced him to venture into the girls’ locker room, taking the blame that Johnny Clay deserved entirely upon himself.

Jones, meanwhile, embodies the local hero he is made out to be. Aside from his high local esteem as an excellent coach, he is quite simply a decent human being. He demonstrates this in his interactions with his wife and daughter, with his players and students, and especially with Radio.

As usual, both Harris and Gooding turn in stellar performances. Harris is extraordinarily convincing as the kindhearted and fatherly but tough football coach he plays. Gooding makes a great bid for an Oscar in portraying the mentally disabled Radio.

Director Michael Tollin is equally adept in converting this real-life story originally told by Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith in 1996 into a cinematic success. One can very easily forget that this story is true until the closing scene, an epilogue explaining Radio’s enduring place in the Hanna High football program — a place that exists to this day.

The best part of this story, though, has nothing to do with the film itself. Several weeks ago, Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly introduced readers to Ben Comen, the slowest cross country runner in the nation. Comen has cerebral palsy, but like Radio, he never gives up. The best part? Comen attends Hanna High School. Some things, it seems, are just meant to be.

Archived article by Owen Bochner