Most sports documentaries center around a championship team, an underdog squad or an athlete looking for redemption.
But not “We Are: The Brooklyn Saints.” The new Netflix docuseries, which premieres Friday, follows a youth football program (ages 7 to 13) in East New York, Brooklyn, through their 2019 season, and shows the softer side of football.
“Prior to starting production, I met up with a producer, who shall remain nameless, but it’s someone I really respect,” director Rudy Valdez told The Post. “I was like, ‘I am about to start this series about this football team.’ And the producer said to me, ‘That’s amazing. It’s just too bad that unless your team goes undefeated and wins a national championship, you don’t really have a story.’ ”
Valdez dug in his heels. “That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said.
Indeed, the Brooklyn Saints had an unremarkable season, with no trophy to hoist in the air. But Valdez — who won an Emmy for his HBO documentary “The Sentence” — found magic in the touchingly human storylines that play out within the framework of the gridiron. “We Are: The Brooklyn Saints” offers a soulful meditation on boyhood, fatherhood and perseverance.
For instance, one of the team dads, Dave, had to move his family of four 50 miles north of the city so that he could help out his mother. Every morning, he wakes up at 4:30 to drive his sons, Aiden, 8, and high-school student Dave Jr. to their schools back in Brooklyn. They don’t come home until nighttime, after Aiden finishes practice with the Saints, where Dave also volunteers.
“We only sleep upstate. We still live in Brooklyn,” he says in the first episode. Aiden, the Saints’ resident philosopher and scene-stealer, adds, “Upstate is like my vacation. And Brooklyn is just all business about football and school.”
Valdez said he was inspired to follow the Brooklyn Saints after reading Albert Samaha’s 2018 book, “Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing Inner City,” about a now-defunct youth football program in Brooklyn. “It really delved into the lives of the characters and became a football book that wasn’t a football book,” said Valdez. The holdovers from that team went on to found the Saints.
Valdez also focuses his lens on Kenan, an eighth-grader and quarterback for the oldest squad. He’s an aspiring engineer who spends just as much time competing in robotics as he does football, but his family hopes that pigskin will help pay his college tab, like it did for his older brothers.
Then there is Coach Gawuala, who is a resident hype man and an atom bomb of human energy. He invented the program’s signature three-tap handshake, and its mantra of “ADD” which means “Any Darn Day.”
“We teach the kids fundamentals of football. We teach them how to be young men . . . They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, the Brooklyn Saints is that village,” says Gawuala in the series.
Another trope of inner-city documentaries that Valdez ditched: the idea of the absentee father. In fact, the Saints run on the fumes of dads, who coach and inhabit the sidelines for both practices and games.
“It was refreshing that there was an abundance of fatherhood and male role models. I wanted to honor that,” said Valdez, who didn’t shy away from uncomfortable moments, either.
Dalontai, or “D-Lo,” is both the captain and quarterback of the Under 9 squad. In one scene, his father, Coach Vick, gets stopped by the police and needs to go to the station to resolve a legal issue. He misses the game, something he pledged he’d never do. During a powerful heart to heart, he takes accountability, and explains to D-Lo that he didn’t show enough personal discipline.
“The lesson is learned,” he says.
The fathers and coaches are also demonstrative, dishing out hugs and expressions of love as they do advice on form and fundamentals.
“These men show their vulnerability and love and affection, hugging these kids and letting them know it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to cry,” Valdez said. “The toughest and most important part of coaching and mentoring is teaching the players to get up and fight again and understand that you learn from failure.”
Or as D-Lo puts it in the show, “Be respectful, have fun and don’t think about the past.”