The Will to Win

Elisabeth Shue and her brother Andrew had a dream to honor their brother’s memory with a film about family and soccer. They didn’t trust Hollywood to get it right, so they financed and filmed it here at home.

At a soccer game at Cameron Field in South Orange, a sobbingnine-year-old is telling the coach why she won’t let go of her father’s hand and get back into the action. The year is 1973. She isn’t afraid to be the only girl on the field, and she sure doesn’t think the game is too fast. She’s furious, actually, because the boys had refused to pass her the ball, instead taunting her that girls don’t play soccer. Maybe they were afraid to find out how good she was. The coach, Gene Chyzowych, waits for her to settle down, then walks her back to the boys.

“I’m taking the ball away from you,” he tells them, glaring. “You’ll never see it again unless Lisa plays with you, you pass the ball to her, and you accept her.”

Mister C, as he is known, returns to the sidelines. The whistle blows, and young Lisa Shue proceeds to run the boys ragged.

Now 43 years old, Lisa Shue has lost none of her determination and energy, not to mention her darting athleticism and fine-edged beauty. Since graduating from South Orange’s Columbia High School in 1981, she’s simply been funneling her talent and intelligence in other directions—like graduating  cum laude from Harvard (BS, government) in 2000. While she is still Lisa to her friends and family, to the rest of the world she is actress Elisabeth Shue.

Yes, that Elisabeth Shue—the adorable ingenue of The Karate Kid (1984) and Adventures in Babysitting (1987); the Oscar-nominated heroine of the harrowing Leaving Las Vegas (1995), one of the most wrenching stories of doomed love ever filmed. And, yes, the sister of the equally talented, athletic, and good-looking Andrew Shue (Columbia class of ’82), the Melrose Placeheartthrob, Dartmouth grad, and former pro soccer player for the Los Angeles Galaxy.

So much brains, beauty, and athleticism in one family. Yet Andrew and Lisa will tell you they can’t hold a candle to the true superstar of the family: Will, the protective older brother they lost in 1988 to a freak accident at the family’s vacation house in Maine.

Every family has its hallowed memories and its what-ifs. But few get to turn them into a full-length feature film as the Shues have done with Gracie, which was released last month. They shot the movie in South Orange and Maplewood, where the story is set, even filming inside their alma mater, Columbia High School.

For the Shues, South Orange in the ’70s and early ’80s was the golden age. “It was a wonderful town for teenagers because it’s small and relatively safe,” Lisa says. “It’s where we met our friends, where we felt our first moments of independence. We roamed. The entire town was our backyard. We’d play capture the flag in the dark, at 10, 11 o’clock at night, hiding in people’s garages. You can’t imagine that world today.”

In anyone’s book, except perhaps her own, Elisabeth Shue is a big-time Hollywood star. Encouraged by a friend, she capitalized on her smashing looks and started acting in commercials while still in high school. It seemed a lot less tomboyish than soccer. But what if she had not sidetracked her passion for soccer—which, by the way, she has never lost? She and Andrew have often talked about the possibility of dramatizing her scrappy, suburban tomboy years. Part of the dream was also to show a glimmer of their adoration of Will.

Davis Guggenheim, Elizabeth’s husband, listened to these discussions for years and was inevitably drawn into them. There was a lot of firepower in the room. Guggenheim directed, among other things, Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

He was the obvious choice to direct Gracie. The Shues’ younger brother, John, a graduate of Harvard Business School and a financial adviser who lives outside Boston, pitched in on money issues. Andrew produced (with Lisa and Lemore Sylvan) and plays a coach based on the venerated Mister C, who happens to be second among U.S. high school soccer coaches in wins, with 666. Elisabeth plays Gracie’s mother, and Dermot Mulroney plays her father.

Making Gracie, says Guggenheim, has given the family “that sense of incredible transcendence—where you’re able to look outside yourself and outside your family and then project yourself in once more.”

“You know,” Andrew says, “it’s the world’s most expensive home movie.” The $9 million budget is peanuts by Hollywood standards, but hardly chicken feed in the  underdog world of independent film (see “Gooooal!,” p. 59).

The toughest role to cast was that of Gracie herself. They looked at soccer players who could act and at actresses who were athletically inclined. More than 2,000 young women submitted audition tapes, and in the end the winner was an athletic, sixteen-year-old actress, Carly Schroeder, who had extensive credits in soap operas (General Hospital), series TV (Lizzie Maguire), and independent film (2004’s Mean Creek, a winner at the Independent Spirit Awards). The Indiana native had the emotional fire and courage that Lisa herself was known for. “Andrew was obsessive about making the soccer realistic, and Carly trained for three months,” Lisa says. “She’s a gifted actress and athlete with an innately fierce spirit.”

Gracie compresses and simplifies—and takes plenty of dramatic license. When Gracie Bowen’s big brother Johnny, the captain of Columbia’s championship soccer team, is killed in an auto accident, she embarks on a quixotic quest to take his place and become the first girl to play on the boys’ varsity squad.

Gracie, like Lisa, grows up with soccer in her blood. Lisa’s father, James Shue, captained  his Harvard soccer team, and he passed on his passion for the game to his four children. Lisa, the only girl, asked for and gave no quarter.

The Shue’s house on Turrell Road was the arena where she first had to prove herself. The house had a floodlit backyard with a makeshift goal.

“Every neighborhood everywhere has one or two houses that are a congregating point for kids,” says Jack Weber, a high school economics teacher in Montclair who played soccer alongside Will Shue from boyhood through high school. “Growing up, the Shues’ house became that place where everyone pulled together before a game or just kicked back afterwards.” 

Lisa starred as a midfielder—the most versatile position on the field—from fifth through eighth grade. In the Cougar SC youth program—essentially the four-decades-old feeding system for Chyzowych’s Columbia teams—she played nearly year-round. In sixth grade, she wrote a composition describing her ambitions: “When I grow up, I would like to play soccer. Many girls are afraid to play sports with boys. But after you score a few goals you feel a lot better.”

Soccer became the glue that held the Shue children together when their parents divorced before they had reached their teens. Faced with the need to get a job after the divorce, their mother, Anne, a Wellesley graduate, entered an executive training program at Chemical Bank in New York City and commuted daily from South Orange. James moved to another New Jersey town about an hour away but continued to show up to root for his kids on the sidelines.

Big brother Will stepped into a new role after the divorce. “Will was an exceptional person,” says Lisa. “He was incredibly loving and very protective of us. I think because our parents were divorced, it was tough on all of us as we tried to find a safe haven. At times, Will would take the place of our parents and he would be our friend. He never stopped looking out for us.”

Will was the kid everyone wanted to be near. He was a Boy Scout and an all-state soccer player who scored the winning goal in the state finals. He played varsity soccer at Dartmouth University while carrying a heavy premed academic load. He had just graduated from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and was preparing for his internship when he died.

“Will was our hero,” Andrew says. “He didn’t care what other people thought. He always followed his heart and he always seemed to know what the right thing to do was. I remember that even his teammates got on him because he was a Boy Scout, but it never bothered him. He helped anyone in need and stuck up for everyone he felt was being treated unfairly.”

“He was really otherworldly in a lot of ways,” his sister says. “I really believe it’s true that sometimes people who die young have already learned lessons that the rest of us haven’t grasped yet.”

One of the important differences between Gracie and real life is that Lisa was already 25 and a successful actress when her brother died. In the movie, Gracie is just behind Johnny in high school when he is killed. Gracie strives to earn Johnny’s number 7 jersey. (That number, by the way, was originally worn by James Shue, and later by all his children.)

Lisa became a fierce competitor who  “gave it everything she had, and bordered on being fearless,” says one of her youth coaches, Jay Gavitt, now principal of Shepard High School in Morristown. But in high school Lisa switched from soccer to gymnastics. Thanks to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, Lisa could have tried out for the Cougars’ boys soccer team.

“I know that Mister C would have given me a fair chance,” she says. “And I honestly think I could have made the team, but I might have been more afraid of making it than I was of trying out.”

 Why? “I was starting to develop into a woman in a number of ways and felt vulnerable. I didn’t want to stand out,” she says. “But when I look back, I wish I could have been as brave as Gracie. What I love about the story is that she carries on—she doesn’t give up. I do know in my heart that if Will had passed away when he was seventeen, I would have had the courage to do what Gracie did.”

With a sly grin, Lisa admits that in high school she was “not as engaged as I could have been. I guess my friends and I pushed the envelope as much as we could, in terms of right and wrong. And when I started doing commercials, I was independent enough to jump on the old Erie-Lackawanna train that rumbled into the city.”

In her senior year, a clear opportunity to return to soccer presented itself. “A girls’ team was getting started, but I was the captain of the gymnastics team and didn’t think it was right to leave them,” she says.

The premiere of Gracie at the Maplewood Theatre was attended by an emotional crowd who picked up on all the inside jokes and references sprinkled throughout the movie. Anne Shue, who now lives in New Hampshire, can briefly be seen singing in the church choir at Johnny’s funeral. James, who lives in Maine, makes a cameo appearance in a soccer-banquet scene.

One of the movie’s heroines, the school board president who sticks up for Gracie, is given the name Connie Bowsher. The real Connie Bowsher was a beloved teacher in the South Orange-Maplewood district. She was also the mother of one of Andrew’s teammates. While out jogging one day a few years ago, she was struck by a car and killed. A similar tribute is paid to Chris Colasanti, one of Andrew’s teammates and friends from both Columbia and Dartmouth. He died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In the movie, his name is given to the gruff head coach who finally lets Gracie play.

Andrew still has a problem with a scene in Gracie where Johnny misses the penalty kick that would have sent the state championship into overtime. “One thing that isn’t fair to Will is Johnny missing that crucial penalty kick,” he says. “It seemed like Will never missed. And the fact is, I am the one who did miss a big goal in a big game.”

Plenty of tears were shed during the premiere. Among the unabashed was none other than Mister C, the Ukrainian émigré who coached Columbia High School soccer teams for 42 years.

“I admit it, I was crying like a baby,” Chyzowych says. “Will was such a wonderful young man, and the Shue family means a lot to me over the years. This brings back a lot of memories.”

 “Wow,” said Andrew, when informed of the Kleenex moment. “I can’t believe I didn’t catch Mister C with a tear in his eye. That would have been a first.”

The Shues’ affinity for their coach is unwavering. Andrew, who lives near Princeton with his wife and their two children, returns to town each year for the alumni soccer game. During the six-week shoot in Maplewood and South Orange, Lisa and Davis brought their three children on location. Lisa made sure their son, nine-year-old Miles, played for Cougar SC so Mister C could check out the next Shue generation.

One tradition the legendary coach has maintained is handing out the Will Shue Award at the end of each season. It’s not for the best player; it’s for the player who best exemplifies the spirit of the game. Mister C also handed out some awards at a post-Gracie party—a soccer ball for Andrew, a massive bouquet for Lisa. Andrew gave  the ball to his sister.

“Ever since Will died, Lisa has been the leader of this family,” Andrew explains. “She has kept us together with a truthfulness and sincerity. She never gives up, and that’s why we have Gracie today.”

As Gracie’s final credits rolled, the sniffles crescendoed when old Shue home movies and snapshots appeared on-screen. The final image is of a smiling Will and his siblings striding across the soccer field. Will is wearing his letterman’s jacket—the same one Schroeder wears in the movie.

Gracie inspired Lisa to compete in a small pro tennis tour in California. “It’s great, but I have never really found a sport—since soccer—where I can push myself to where I’ve achieved what I set out to achieve.

“Soccer is like life,” Lisa says. “One of those rare games that is continuous, without a constant stopping and starting.  There’s a flow to it—and one ball going through the net is enough to win. For kids, there’s not a better sport. At five years old, they go kick a ball and feel what it’s like to score a goal. All you need is a ball.” And, perhaps, a family.

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