ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Not everybody gets to celebrate Father’s Day by watching the story of their dad’s life on the silver screen.
But Betty Morton does.
And what a father he was, not just to Morton and her brother but to the many mostly fatherless boys he taught and coached to football glory in the 1930s.
He was Rusty Russell, a smart, stoic and kind man who transformed not just a ragtag team of orphans into champions but brought hope to the dark and Dickensian Masonic Home in Fort Worth, Texas, where the orphans were housed, and to a country reeling from the Great Depression.
His story and that of his intrepid football team are portrayed in the new film, “12 Mighty Orphans,” which opened this weekend in movie theaters. The film stars Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen and Robert Duvall and is directed by Ty Roberts and based on the 2008 bestseller of the same name by Jim Dent.
Betty Morton, who lives in Albuquerque, and family members are expected to attend a private showing of the film this Sunday at the Regal Winrock. Tickets for that specific showing may still be available through Sandia Presbyterian Church, of which Morton and her late husband, A.C., were charter members.
Sunday also happens to be Morton’s 95th birthday. To see her father’s story come to life on Father’s Day is quite a gift.
“I will be so happy to see the movie,” she said. “My father was such a good man, always admired for his success but really because he helped others.”
Like the book, the movie tells the story of how Russell and his wife, Juanita, came to the Masonic Home in 1927 to teach the orphaned children. Russell was also hired to coach football at a school with no ball, almost no equipment or uniforms, a practice field of rocks and cactus and barely enough boys, scrawny and emotionally scarred, to form a team.
The book describes how the boys used Juanita’s metal cans of Clabber Girl Baking Powder to practice throwing skills. Their first football was the game ball from the first game they played — and won.
The Mighty Mites, as they were called, surprised everybody, often defeating teams with much larger players and becoming a sensation around the country. Russell, who created plays to take advantage of his team’s speed and to compensate for their smaller size, coached the Mites until 1942 and left with a 127-30-12 record — an 81% win percentage.
Russell continued to coach at other high schools and colleges until 1963, but his heart remained with the Masonic boys.
“There will never be another squad like the Mighty Mites,” he said in a speech during his induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1971. “That was the team that I loved the most and I will never forget. … Those are the kids that I will never forget.”
Those kids never forgot Russell and his wife, either.
“We grew up with our grandparents always talking about their boys,” said Lucy Fennema, one of Morton’s four children. “They would get calls all the time from them. Pop would talk first, then Meemaw, and then she’d tell us, ‘Oh sweetie pie, we were talking to one of our boys.’”
Fennema, who lives in Albuquerque as does sister Carron Hardin, explained that while the movie is based in Texas, New Mexico figured prominently in her grandparents’ lives.
“Every summer, Meemaw and Pop spent time in Red River,” she said. “They loved it there. I remember as a child how everybody seemed to know Pop. They’d come up to him and say, ‘Hey coach!’ And at the time I didn’t know why.”
But she knew football played a big role in his life, and in her mother’s.
“It was always Mom with Pop, sitting at the kitchen table, talking football, talking plays, writing those Xs and Os on napkins,” she said.
Her mother taught Fennema’s brothers, Russ and Doug, how to play football, and both played for Eldorado High School in Albuquerque, where the family moved in 1973, she said.
“My grandmother taught my dad how to throw a football,” said Katherine Morton Marshall, Russ’ daughter from Texas. “And even in her 90s she can talk football strategy better than most sports people I know. It’s incredible. Never misses a Dallas Cowboys game on TV.”
Fennema said that some family members have already seen the movie. And they loved it. It opened last week in Texas and premiered last Monday at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Her mother, she said, has seen some first edits and has been amazed at how much actress Vinessa Shaw looks like Juanita, her mother, and how well actor Luke Wilson captures her father’s quiet strength and lanky look.
Morton — Betty Russell then — is portrayed by twins Lillie and Josie Fink, and here is where the film takes some artistic license, portraying her as a small child when the family arrives at Masonic Home. In fact, her mother was pregnant with her then. Brother Rusty Jr. came along three years later.
Rusty Russell passed away in 1983, but his legacy lives on in his family and the family of the boys he made into football players, men, sons.
“He was an amazing father,” Morton said through her daughter Fennema. “He was always popular with people and loving with people. The kids at the home loved him and even after they would leave and start their own lives they would always come back to see him and keep in touch. I am proud to be his daughter. He was always my good pal.”
Now, those who see the movie, will know why.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.