Mighty Mites Make it Big

Erich Baker

Despite premiering June 11 to a limited release, 12 Mighty Orphans carries a RottenTomatoes Audience Score of better than 95 percent and was popular among summer viewers. The film tells the true story of the Mighty Mites, the Great Depression-era football teams from the Masonic Home and School of Texas. It is based upon Jim Dent’s 2007 bestseller Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football. Dallas native Luke Wilson and Golden Globe winner Martin Sheen lead the cast.

The film carries a special significance for one of Baylor’s former leaders. Former Baylor Law School dean and the University’s 10th president Judge Abner Vernon McCall, J.D. ’38, B.A. ’42, was one of the Mighty Mites.

McCall and his three siblings were placed in the care of the Masonic Home and School in 1919 after the death of their father during the 1918 influenza pandemic. With the children on the verge of starvation and their mother too ill to maintain their family farm, the four McCall children were taken in by the Masonic Home.

H.N. “Rusty” Russell — portrayed by Wilson — and his 16-year career as the football head coach at the Home is the film’s focus. The team won the 1931 Class B state title, despite having no uniforms, no pads, six helmets, limited cleats and no football (a Clabber Girl baking powder can was used as an inadequate but necessary substitute).

McCall eulogized Russell in 1983, describing him as an offensive genius. McCall’s brother Scott was the team’s quarterback, while Abner was the backup. The judge, whose skills were more academic than athletic, described himself as a “115-pound skinny, awkward boy; not particularly quick, fast or strong.”

Russell later coached at Dallas’ Highland Park High School before a seven-year stint at Southern Methodist University. He was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 1981. The coach significantly influenced McCall. 

“The genius of Rusty Russell was in his ability to make every boy a giant in his own eyes,” McCall said in eulogizing his former coach. “Because of Coach Russell, all my life I have carried with me the philosophy that I could confront and conquer any problem which came my way. The reason I loved him was because he made me believe in myself.”

McCall remained forever grateful to Russell and to the Masons. The judge’s remarkable path from nearing starvation and being orphaned to becoming a Supreme Court of Texas justice and Baylor president was possible, in part, because of the remarkable story depicted in 12 Mighty Orphans. The film is available for streaming on various platforms, including Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Vudu and YouTube.