Fans of television's "Friday Night Lights" will hear echoes of Dillon High in the compelling new football documentary "Gridiron Heroes" -- and not just because Taylor Kitsch (Tim Riggins) serves as narrator.

The documentary, like the TV series, blends a loving ode to football with a cautionary tale about the game's dark side. Only this time, the triumphs, tragedies, thrills and heartbreaks are real. And good luck making it through the 53-minute film with clear eyes.

"Gridiron Heroes" uses the story of Chris Canales, a promising Texas high school player paralyzed from the shoulders down, to launch a larger discussion about the issues of brain damage and spinal cord injuries in football.

But in contrast to the grim recent news reports about the NFL's concussion crisis, the film strikes a hopeful tone by offering a solution to what co-director Seth Camillo calls: "the biggest sports issue of our generation." Even noted tough guys such as Deacon Jones and Mike Ditka make a plea for a smarter approach to tackling -- from the youth level on up.

"The people who have seen the film so far all say, 'Every high school coach and player and their family members need to see this movie,' " Camillo said in a phone interview. "And that's my favorite reaction."

Canales suffered a broken neck on an otherwise routine play in a Texas high school game in 2001. The teenager struggled with depression for the next year or so until his dad, in an attempt to lift his spirits, took him to the 3A championship football game in Dallas. That's where they watched a defensive back named Corey Fulbright crumple to the turf with an injury that would leave him paralyzed.

Instead of recoiling, however, Canales reached out. He turned to his father, Eddie, and said, "I want to help him. I know what he's going through. And you know what the family is going through" That reaction became the birth of Gridiron Heroes Spinal Cord Injury Foundation (gridironheroes.org), a non-profit support network for high school football players who sustain catastrophic injuries.

The documentary can be gut-wrenching at times, with slow-motion footage of teenage players getting their heads snapped back before lying motionless on the field. Harder to watch are the shots of glassy-eyed kids in neck braces describing their injuries while helpless parents fight back tears.

Such emotion is why Camillo and co-director Andy Lauer couldn't walk away from what was supposed to be a small-scale, four-month project. The original 25-minute film was produced by "Friday Night Lights" developer Peter Berg, as an internal document crafted to convince the NFL to embrace a tackle training method for youth players called Heads Up Football.

The film worked (the NFL now has a national ad campaign for Heads Up Football) but Lauer and Camillo realized they still had more to say. They invested two more years in the project, interviewing everyone from families, to players to concussion experts such as Dr. Robert Cantu.

They also enlisted the help of "Friday Night Lights" friends Kitsch, Kyle Chandler (who plays Coach Eric Taylor) and Brad Leland (Buddy Garrity).

The result is this full-length "Gridiron Heroes" documentary.

"It's important because it's important," Camillo said. "A lot of people are suffering and we want to do our part to make sure that doesn't continue.

While the first half of the film focuses mostly on Canales, the second half zeroes in on the future of the Heads Up Tackling program created by former defensive back Bobby Hosea.

Hosea's mission to teach players to tackle with their head up. USA Football, the governing body of Pop Warner, hired Hosea as a tackling consultant and placed videos of his technique on his web site.

"No matter what grouping of solutions you put together -- whether it's rules, equipment, whatever -- Heads Up Tackling has to be at the core because it just makes sense," Camillo said. "You don't lead with your head. I don't see how it's even a debate that this should be occurring."

Even Deacon Jones, the ferocious Hall of Fame defensive end, agreed. He acknowledges in the film that his playing philosophy was: "I come to try to tear your damn head off. That is why I'm reluctant about advising anybody to play this game. . . . I'd put you in the hospital in a minute and didn't care nothing about it."

But Jones also said this: "I ain't ever hit nobody with my head. I'm not putting my head in there. That's what you should teach the kids."

The address to watch "Gridiron Heroes" is www.gridironheroesmovie.com. All profits go to the Gridiron Heroes.