NEW YORK -- It's not uncommon for football teams to play as if their lives depended on it.
For the Long Beach Poly Jackrabbits, their lives really do.
"4th and Forever" tells the tale. An absorbing new docu-series on Current TV, it chronicles the high-stakes 2010 football season of California's Long Beach Polytechnic High School, where life is tough but the football team is tougher. Or better be. (It premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. EDT.)
"What the heck is going on? Fighting is not football!" moans coach Raul Lara when an on-field brawl erupts during a preseason scrimmage with rival St. John Bosco High School.
He's right, up to a point. But preserving the glorious legacy of Long Beach Poly is a fight. So is each furious day for the players off the gridiron.
Their simple, shimmering dream: to land a college football scholarship and break loose from this disadvantaged, gang-ridden world.
"If I don't break this tackle, then my son won't be able to eat," says Jeremiah Hollowell with not too much exaggeration. The senior running back is already a single father and he's fighting to get out.
In the past, many have crossed this transcendent goal line, and they serve the current squad as tantalizing role models. Poly has been recognized for the past five years as one of the nation's Top Athletic Schools by Sports Illustrated, and it has sent more players to the National Football League than any other high school. (Graduates include Philadelphia Eagles' wide receiver DeSean Jackson and offensive lineman Winston Justice, the Arizona Cardinals' linebacker Pago Togafau, Washington Redskins' safety Omar Stoutmire and the Houston Texans' linebacker Darnell Bing.)
Raul Lara has recorded 100 wins in his nine seasons as Poly's head coach -- while holding down his full-time job on the graveyard shift as a probation officer.
But Poly is coming off of a disappointing 6-and-6 season the previous year. It was their worst season in 15 years. They lost to local rival Lakewood for the first time in more than a quarter-century.
Lara feels the pressure. If the Jackrabbits can't get back on top, he says bluntly, "I'm out of here."
This is where "4th and Forever" begins, and through its one-hour premiere and subsequent eight half-hours, it documents the fate last season of the team as well as several key players.
-- Dabness Atkins, a brainy senior defensive back and team captain who has his sights set on Harvard University, as he excels in academics as well as athletics with no parental support. He and his stepfather don't get along. He lives with the Poly team manager.
-- Devin Jackson, a senior defensive lineman who takes on an added chore besides school and football: With both parents out of work, he helps support his family by selling kitchen knives door-to-door.
"My family is the most important part of my life," he says. "I want to make them proud and create a better life for them. And to do that, I got to get out of Long Beach."
-- There's also Emmanuel Lara, the soft-spoken junior quarterback who is in an awkward spot as he fights for the starting slot: His father is the coach.
-- Chaiyse Hales, another junior quarterback, is in competition with the coach's son to be the starter. He comes from a single-parent home and has not seen his father in more than five years.
-- And then there's Jeremiah, whose mother, a single parent of four, is the driving force in his life.
Jeremiah hurts his shoulder in a preseason practice. He rates the pain he's feeling as a 7-out-of-10.
"Man, this can't be happening," he says. "I got way too much on the line. This is not the way I want to start my season. Plus, my mama's going to kill me."
She doesn't kill him, but, with fierce if loving insistence, she gives him a good talking to.
In the future, she declares, "you going to bring it. 'Cause if you don't, your mama's getting on the field with you."
These young men seem to be playing an all-or-nothing game, the likes of which few people of any age ever confront. Their school and its athletic program could be a gateway to almost unfathomable success -- that is, if bad luck, a lapse in spirit, or distractions and temptations don't hold them back.
It's a real-life "Friday Night Lights," but with the stakes raised even higher.
"You going to be history or you'll make history -- I guess it's that simple," says Devin Jackson.
And for viewers -- surely most of them -- who don't know how the Jackrabbits fared in that do-or-die 2010 season, "4th and Forever" bristles with suspense from the first episode and first game. Dealing with much more than football, it's a series that has game.