The film opens on a large clock. We see the second hand move to 12. Then the camera focuses on a large crowd of people in a football stadium, who are waiting silently. All of the sudden, the band begins to play. The crowd begins to cheer riotously. We then see Carter “the Bullet” Rutherford (John Krasinski) running across the field to make a game winning touchdown for his university. The crowd goes wild. Carter’s teammates pick him up and carry him out of the stadium. A notation on the screen reads “College Football, 1925.”
Next, we see Carter exiting the stadium with some reporters clad in suits. We learn from the reporters that Carter has one more year left of college. Earlier, he had taken some time away from school to fight against the Germans in World War I and was somewhat of a war hero. The reporters ask him what he will do after he graduates. Carter informs them that he will probably go out and get a job. “After this, what else is there?” Carter asks. One of the reporters responds “Pro Football.” At this point all of the reporters and Carter begin laughing uproariously.
We are now on a muddy field in Minnesota. A group of rag tag football players run past a cow before tackling one another in the mud. Unlike the college game, fans here are few and far between. The field is unkempt. The uniforms are cheap and mismatched. Here we meet Jimmy “Dodge” Connelly (George Clooney), captain of the Duluth Bulldogs. The Duluth Bulldogs are winning a very disorganized “no holds barred” game of football.
Dodge speaks with a young boy in the stands, telling him to make sure the latter watches after the football, as “it’s the only one we got.” Later in the game, the young boy absconds with the football unseen. A referee approaches Dodge and tells him that his team must forfeit, as they are without a football. Dodge argues with the referee, but the latter is unmoved, stating that these are the “rules” of the game. Dodge exclaims that there are no “rules” in football.
The team packs up and leaves the field. Dodge pairs up with Suds (Stephen Root), the alcoholic field reporter for the Bulldogs, and dictates what will be Suds’ next article about the team. It becomes apparent that it is always Dodge, and never Suds, who comes up with the content of these articles. Dodge says that although the Bulldogs played a great game, they lost due to the scourge of football that is “rules.” A notation on the screen reads “Pro Football, 1925.”
We are now in the offices of the Chicago Tribune. Here, we meet reporter Lexie Littleton (Renee Zellwegger). It is apparent from the opening scene that the office atmosphere is quite a boys club, but Lexie is a talented reporter and holds her own. She goes to speak with Editor and Chief Harvey (Jack Thompson), who has an assignment for her. Hurley is in the office with the uniformed Lieutenant Mack Steiner (Max Casella, a.k.a. Vinnie Delpino on Doogie Howser!). He was a WWI vet. Harvey shows Lexie a series of advertisements for various products featuring as their spokesperson none other than Carter Rutherford.
According to “legend”, during WWI, Carter was able to get an entire crew of Germans to surrender at a battle in France without lifting a weapon. He even received a medal for his bravery. Harvey explains that, due to Carter’s excellent football performance in college and his war hero status, Carter is quite the local celebrity. He even has his own promoter CC Frazier (Jonathan Price) which would explain his appearance in all of the advertisements. Lieutenant Steiner announces that he was in Carter’s platoon and the story of Carter’s heroism in battle is a lie. Harvey would like Lexie to expose Carter as a fraud. Lexie agrees to get the scoop on Carter if Harvey promises her the Assistant Editor and Chief position at the Tribune upon her story’s publication. The two strike a deal and Lexie is on her way.
Back in Minnesota, despite the introduction of a new team member, the massive high school student, Big Gus (Keith Loneker), the Duluth Bulldogs are in bad shape. According to team coach Frank Ferguson (Wayne Duvall), they have lost their sponsor, are officially broke, and will have to disband. Dodge notes that most of these men don’t have any other skills aside from playing football and will be relegated to mine workers and day laborers. In a montage, we see all of the former football players engaged in jobs like Dodge described.
Later, Dodge goes to a restaurant and overhears a radio broadcast about Carter Rutherford’s college team winning a game in Chicago. The broadcaster notes that 40,000 fans appeared to see Carter play. Dodge decides that he will go to Chicago to convince Carter to play for the Bulldogs in order to put some money back into the team and allow them to keep playing.
We next see Dodge at a hotel looking for Carter’s promoter CC Frazier. While there, he notices Lexie and is obviously taken by her beauty and spunk. He sits next to her, pretending to read a newspaper. Lexie takes notice of Dodge and the two flirt with one another. Eventually, they are interrupted first by CC and later by Carter, who waves sweetly at the trio as he is swarmed by admirers seeking autographs. Lexie, Carter and CC prepare to leave for a lunch date, presumably to talk about Lexie’s interview with Carter for the Tribune. Dodge tries to schmooze his way into the meeting but CC initially won’t bite. As the group walks away, Dodge entices CC with $10,000 and, suddenly, Dodge has a date for lunch.
At lunch, Dodge makes his pitch. He knows that Carter loves playing football and suggests he take a temporary leave of college to play for the Bulldogs. Carter and Lexie excuse themselves from the table while Dodge and CC talk numbers. An agreement is reached. Carter will make $5,000 per game and CC will take 25% of ticket sales and all profits made by the team stemming from Carter’s notoriety.
On the way out of the hotel, both Dodge and Lexie make phone calls. Dodge calls the coach to let him know that Carter will be joining the team and that the Duluth Bulldogs are back in business. Lexie calls her editor and lets him know that she is going to Duluth with the Bulldogs, but not to worry, “in time [Carter] will cook his own goose and we will have our story.” Dodge overhears Lexie’s conversation and decides to use it to his advantage.
Next we see the Duluth Bulldogs leaving their day jobs and excitedly reuniting on the train, headed to their next away game. Lexie sits next to Carter and begins to chat him up. Dodge notices the two flirting and gets jealous. Later, we see Dodge searching the various sleeping cars until he finds Lexie’s. He hides in that room behind a curtained bed and startles Lexie when she returns to the sleeping car to disrobe. Lexie orders Dodge to leave, but he refuses, informing her that he knows about her plan to ruin Carter and intimating he will rat her out if she kicks him out of the sleeping car. Lexie allows Dodge to stay. The two are then interrupted by a knock on the door. It is CC. CC “suggests” to Lexie that if she knows what is good for her, she will write a nice story about Carter and not diminish his good name.
The next day, Dodge arrives at his old football field to find it empty. Apparently, Carter has moved the team’s practice to a local college field. This “new” field is covered with promotional pictures of Carter. The coach has been provided with plenty of new football equipment and lots of footballs to use (no longer just one!) Carter has already taken control of the team and begins showing them diagrams of plays he ran in college, claiming that these are “more effective” than the ones previously used by the Bulldogs.
At the following game, the bleachers are filled with Carter’s fans. Carter dominates the game scoring all of the team’s touchdowns with the help of a few nice passes from Dodge. We are allowed to read a few news paper headlines, from which we learn that Carter is virtually unstoppable, winning game after game and returning popularity and profits to the once bankrupt Bulldogs.
At a train station, Lexie convinces Carter to tell her what really happened at the battle in France. He explains to her that his platoon was in a foxhole late at night and the weather conditions were terribly muddy and rainy. His platoon was demoralized and nearly out of ammunition. Carter who never drinks had been drinking heavily. While waiting in the foxhole, the platoon concedes that it will probably lose this battle. Thus, in order to save their own hides, they should all learn how to say “I Surrender” in German.
The battle wears on and Carter falls into a drunken stupor. Unbeknownst to him, his comrades leave and the Germans enter the foxhole. Because visibility is so poor and Carter is covered in mud, the Germans do not notice him. When Carter awakens and sees the Germans in place of his comrades, he thinks he is behind enemy lines and the battle has been lost. He rises and yells out “I Surrender” in German. Thinking Carter is a German soldier and that THE GERMANS have lost the battle, the Germans drop their weapons and repeat Carter’s words of surrender to a confused American platoon upon the latter’s return to the foxhole. The platoon decides it best they not go public about what really happened that night in the foxhole. As time passed, stories of Carter’s heroism became exaggerated and no one in the platoon, least of all Carter, wished to deny them. Lexie appears sympathetic to Carter, but now she has a decision to make, should she rat him out to the paper?
Dismayed, Lexie goes to a speakeasy to drown her troubles. There, she is met by Dodge. The two slow dance and almost kiss, only to be interrupted by a raid on the speakeasy. Mad cap hilarity ensues, as Dodge and Lexie end up taking policemen’s clothes and jumping out of an apartment building in order to avoid arrest. Once safe, Lexie discusses Carter’s situation with Dodge, admitting she doesn’t know what to do about it. Dodge tries to get Lexie to forget her troubles and the two share a passionate kiss.
Meanwhile, CC is in the hotel lobby when he overhears the bellhop take a message for Lexie from Harvey about cooking Carter’s goose. He rushes to Carter’s hotel room to warn him not to expose his secrets to Lexie.
Later, Dodge and Lexie return to the hotel after a heavy make out session, resulting in Dodge being covered with Lexie’s lipstick. The pair encounter an obviously drunk Carter who confronts Lexie about her betrayal. Carter then notices that Lexie and Dodge have been kissing and picks a fight with Dodge. Annoyed with her battling suitors, Lexie returns to the Tribune to write her story. Before she leaves the hotel, however, CC warns her that if she chooses to publish the story, he will see to it that her journalism career is over.
Even later that night, Dodge arrives at Carter’s room and asks him outside so that they can resume beating each other up. Down by the train tracks, the two put up their dukes and begin to fight one another. Their battle is limited to each repeatedly punching the other in the face so as not to injure any of their football playing limbs. After the two have finished fighting, Carter admits to Dodge that he will now be playing for the Chicago team instead of Duluth. As this change is effective immediately and Chicago was the next game on the Bulldog’s roster, Carter and Dodge’s next football game will be against one another.
We later learn that Lexie published her story about Carter not being a true war hero. At a press conference attended by Lexie, CC claims Lexie’s story was a hoax and demands the tribune print a retraction. Backing up CC and Carter, surprisingly, is Lieutenant Steiner, who was Lexie’s only outside source for the story. At the press conference, it is also announced that a new Commissioner Pete Harkin (Peter Garety) has been elected to preside over the pro football league. Harkin claims that once he gets to the bottom of this scandal, it is his goal to revolutionize football and make it regimented and governed by strict rules.
At a speakeasy in Chicago that night, Dodge and his Bulldogs are getting drunk when they come across some uniformed war vets who are also avid Chicago football fans. The vets anger Dodge, by picking on a little boy for claiming to be a Duluth fan. Soon, the vets and the Bulldogs are engaged in a full on bar brawl. During the brawl, Dodge recognizes a guy HE fought in WWI with. The two get to talking and Dodge learns that the vets really want to see the Chicago- Duluth football game but have not had the chance to get tickets. Dodge tells his friend that he can get all of the vets front row seats to the game. However, his friend must do him a favor first . . .
The next morning, we see Lexie and Harvey as well as Carter and CC meeting at the office of the new football commissioner. Things are not going well for Lexie. The Tribune is being forced to print a retraction for her article and Lexie is planning on resigning from the paper. However, in comes Dodge, fresh from a long night of drinking to save the day! He announces to the Commissioner that he was able to round up all of Carter’s former war comrades who fought with him in France. Dodge points to the window of the Commissioner’s office. Outside in the rain is an army truck filled with uniformed men. Dodge states that these men just want to see Carter again and congratulate him on his heroism.
Thinking his comrades will expose him as a fraud to the Commissioner and tired of lying, Carter confesses the true story of his experiences during WWI. He is then forced to admit that CC bribed Lieutenant Steiner to confirm the original story. The Commissioner informs Carter that he will have to publicly come clean as to what he has done and turn 50% of his profits over to the foreign legion. Carter agrees to do so. The Commissioner also tells CC that, under the new rules of football, all promoters must be licensed. Therefore, CC is now out of a job.
When CC and Carter leave the office, they are encountered by the men in army uniform seen outside earlier. It turns out these were not Carter’s platoon mates at all. Rather, they were the Duluth Bulldogs in disguise. Carter walks past them, looking defeated. Inside the Commissioner’s office, Dodge is warned that he better play a clean game against Chicago or he is out of the league.
The next day, we find ourselves at a large crowd-packed Chicago stadium, awaiting the showdown between the Bulldogs and Chicago. Due to extremely muddy conditions, poor visibility and an overabundance of “rules” put in place by the new Commissioner the showdown between the Bulldogs and Chicago is not exactly action packed. Both team’s players are so mud packed it is hard to tell who is on which team. Furthermore, the field is so slippery, none of the players can do much in the way of offensive play. Chicago, however, does manage to score a field goal, making the score Chicago 3, Duluth 0 with about four minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
Dodge calls a time out and huddles with his team. Dodge has an idea for a new play to win the game. A play he calls Sergeant York. First, the team stages a few diversions to run down the clock. Dodge punches out one of his teammates, who has to be taken away on a stretcher. As a result, the Bulldogs are short a player and no longer allowed any time outs. Then one of the Bulldogs breaks right with the football and is quickly tackled by Chicago.
Now there is one minute left in play. Dodge, like everyone else on the field, is so covered in mud, it is impossible to see his jersey. Carter turns to his left and shouts a pass at a “team member” before the final play begins. That “team member” is none other than Dodge! He is pretending to be a member of the Chicago team and is so covered in mud that they cannot recognize him.
The Bulldogs have the ball and are moving toward their end zone. One Bulldog makes a pass to his teammate. The latter is just steps away from a touchdown with Chicago tight on his tail. However, just as the clock runs down to zero, the aforementioned pass is intercepted right at the Bulldogs’ end zone. The Chicago crowd begin to celebrate a presumed 3-0 win against Duluth. The Chicago team begins to rejoice, but Carter hangs back. Something is wrong. Up in the pressbox, Lexie looks equally confused “Where’s Dodge?”
Finally, the referees and the announcers figure out what happened, as Dodge, clutching the football in the end zone, reveals his Bulldog jersey. This was not an interception after all. It was a touch down by Bulldog Dodge Connelly. The Bulldogs beat Chicago 6-3! It is now the Bulldogs turn to celebrate. In the midst of the celebration, Carter respectfully approaches Dodge to shake his hand. “You know they are going to throw you out of the league for doing that,” Carter says. Dodge knows this, but it was all worth it to him.
After the game, outside the stadium, Dodge returns to his motorbike to find Lexie waiting for him. After some clever banter, the two ride off into the sunset together with Lexie driving and Dodge as her passenger. As they ride, they joke with one another about what their future together will be like. The audience gets a glimpse of that future through a photograph in the closing credits: it is Dodge and Lexie’s wedding photo.
*CUT TO THE CHASE*
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In the big game, the score is 3-0 Chicago. In their final possession, Dodge (George Clooney) punches out a Chicago player. The refs think its a Deluth player down, so Deluth is supposedly playing with one less man. All the players are covered in mud, so the refs, fans, and players themselves dont know whose on what side. Dodge takes advantage of this, and goes on Chicago's side. The Deluth QB sends the ball into the end zone. A player catches it, whose thought to be a Chicago player, and the play ruled an interception, and game over. However, once hosed down, its revealed to be Dodge, and Deluth wins.
After the game, Carter tells Dodge that he will come clean about the mostly fabricated war story that made him a national hero (Lilly Lexington (Rene Zelwegger) is a reporter who was assigned to debunk Carters story, which lead to a scandal and a huge court case). Dodge tells Carter not to, as America loves a hero, and the country is better off believing it.
Dodge and Lilly ride off into the sunset, and marry, as is revealed in photos while the credits role.
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