Jim Caviezel didn't just play Bob Ladouceur in "When the Game Stands Tall." He totally bought into the man and his philosophy lock, stock and barrel.
"My dad played for John Wooden at UCLA," the actor says by phone from Los Angeles. "My dad introduced me to Coach Wooden when I was a kid. I went to his camps and knew him as an adult. Ladouceur is the same kind of apple from the same kind of tree."
Comparing the former head coach (and current assistant coach) of the record-breaking De La Salle football team to the man considered the greatest college basketball coach of all-time is no small thing, especially for someone like Caviezel -- who was a high school basketball star and played at Bellevue Community College in Washington State.
The actor, who went on to star in films such as "The Passion of the Christ," not only enjoyed getting to know Ladouceur while preparing for the role, but found it easy to do.
"I felt like I'd known the guy for years," Caviezel says. "People say he doesn't talk much. I say he doesn't talk much BS. I consider him a friend."
"When the Game Stands Tall" chronicles De La Salle's 2004 season, during which the Spartans lost for the first time in 12 years. The team faced other challenges as well, including the death of just-graduated star Terrence Kelly the night before he was headed to college, and Ladouceur's absence from the team after suffering a heart attack.
Caviezel, who currently stars in the CBS series "Person of Interest," has much in common with Ladouceur, including a sports background and his Catholic faith. But that isn't necessarily what drew him to the role.
"There's an image of me as a zealot, Bible-thumper in the media, but authenticity is important," Caviezel says. "Love is what my faith is about. And that's the same with Lad. It's why I wanted to play him. These guys (Ladouceur and assistant coach Terry Eidson, played in the movie by Michael Chiklis) are the real deal. And Lad, for him to sacrifice as much as he has ... there's a saying that some guys would rather score 50 and lose than score one and win. There are so many people out there like that. Not Lad. This is a person I want to know."
Caviezel tells a story about his teenage son, Bo, a gifted gymnast who nevertheless wanted to quit the sport because he wasn't enamored with practice. While researching the role, Caviezel took him to a De La Salle practice, one where the team wasn't giving its best effort.
"The coaches, they call them in and say, 'A lot of you seniors are a bunch of posers and are not getting it done,'" Caviezel says. "They get up and have this 1,000-yard stare in their eyes, and take off running. Lad put his arm around Bo and said, "See Bo? They don't like practicing, either. You gotta want it.' And (Bo) hung in for the rest of the year."
Caviezel admires Ladouceur declining a number of better-paying college jobs to stay somewhere he felt he could make a bigger difference in the lives of young men.
"If you're that great of a coach, why would you stay in high school?" Caviezel asks. "Why wouldn't you go make some money? That's one of the things I love about him. He had to sacrifice so much, and because of that these boys go on to become great men."
Caviezel, who says his favorite scene in the film is when they gather to pray before the championship game, also admires the way the Spartans go about their business with a certain humility.
"The warrior mentality of the De La Salle program is very authentic, as with Navy SEALs, who don't have to say they're tough" he says. "They love each other and they're not afraid to express it. It's not how hard you hit, it's how hard you're going to get hit and that you get up. It's like the military. If there's no heart in a kid, then that kid probably won't be part of that team very long."