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Volume 22 No. 23
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Going to the movies

Whether from the locker room or the lockup, the war room or the board room, films focused on pro football have given audiences a fresh way to experience the game
“Brian’s Song” was so popular as a TV movie that it was released in theaters in 1971.
Photo: getty images

In a world that loves football almost as much as it loves Hollywood, one man can be called upon to explain the enduring connection between the sport and the silver screen. A bartender, who became a wide receiver, who became an inspiration.

“It’s going through life’s ups and downs and how it all comes together in the end.”

So sayeth Vince Papale, whose improbable story of becoming an NFL player with the Philadelphia Eagles at age 30 in 1976 was turned into the 2006 movie “Invincible.”

“It’s when the audience understands that at a certain point, we’re not just superheroes or Marvel characters,” Papale said. “I was an outlier, trying to break into the establishment. Maybe I was trying to break down a force field, but I can look at that movie now 13 years later and see a character, that happens to be me, who goes deeper than a football player.”

Indeed, the best football films break free of the sports-movie genre and do more than just tackle standard box-office genres of drama or comedy. They examine personal relationships, the lure of competition, the influence of money and the price of power. They mirror society’s concerns about fairness, justice and truth.

They even allow us to suspend our imagination and wonder if a team owner can be reincarnated as a quarterback and lead his team to victory in the Super Bowl.

In 1974, Burt Reynolds, an ex-college running back, starred in “The Longest Yard” as an ex-NFL QB.
Photo: getty images

“Sports movies — especially football movies — have taken the place of the old Westerns, where you can pull for the white hat or the dark hat and get the opportunity to look inside a man’s heart and find out what he’s made of,” said Mark Ellis, a director and scene coordinator involved in making the action in “Invincible” look as authentic as possible, which he also did for “Jerry Maguire,” “The Longest Yard” remake, “Any Given Sunday” and “The Replacements.”

“It’s conflict resolution,” he adds. “It’s comebacks, and triumphs against all odds. But football is the natural platform because they play for their team, putting their teammates in front of their own desires of fame. With the NFL, there’s no bigger stage, and 100 years from now, we’ll look back and see how they were the modern-day gladiators of this time.”

Those gladiators first showed up at cinemas in 1939, when Warner Brothers released the comedy “The Cowboy Quarterback.” Seven years later, the Cleveland Rams’ move to Los Angeles brought the NFL to Hollywood’s doorstep, making the sport a viable storytelling vehicle and even making it easy to recruit players to moonlight as actors. Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman and Bob Waterfield played themselves in the Columbia Pictures’ 1948 drama “Triple Threat,” which focused on two college rivals from the Rose Bowl game, Don Whitney (Richard Crane) and Joe Nolan (Pat Phelan), who end up as teammates with the Rams.

In 1953, Republic Pictures released a biopic about Rams running back Elroy Hirsch that used his popular nickname “Crazylegs” as its title. Hirsch played himself, and the film also included his teammates Paul “Tank” Younger, “Deacon” Dan Towler, Dick “Night Train” Lane and Woodley Lewis.

Slide show: Where do I know him from?

Throughout the 1960s — despite Jim Brown starring in films such as “The Dirty Dozen” after his Hall of Fame career with the Cleveland Browns had ended — football movies were an afterthought. But as pro football’s significance on television exploded, it may have been appropriate that the sport’s cinematic breakthrough took place on the small screen.

In November 1971, an ABC “Movie of the Week” called “Brian’s Song” aired, focusing on the friendship of Chicago Bears running backs Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers that starred James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, respectively. It was just one year after Piccolo died at age 26 of cancer. TV producer Screen Gems could turn a story around quicker and cheaper than a movie studio, and the story of friendship and race relations became a massive hit, drawing a 48 rating on ABC and earning four Emmy Awards. 

The film proved so popular that it was released briefly in theaters at Christmastime in Chicago and Los Angeles through Columbia Pictures. The Hollywood Reporter called it the first NFL “guy cry” flick, writing that it was “about life and wonderful relationships.”

“The first and most memorable football movie I ever saw was ‘Brian’s Song,’” said NFL Network reporter Andrea Kremer. “My parents had gone out to dinner and when they came home that night, they found me in tears because the movie just ended.”

Amy Trask, who spent more than 15 years as CEO of the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders, admits: “I can’t make it through three bars of the theme music to ‘Brian’s Song’ without dissolving into full-blown sobs.”

Warren Beatty starred in “Heaven Can Wait,” which proved to have more realistic elements than expected for a movie about reincarnation.
Photo: getty images

The remainder of that decade brought about a slew of films with NFL-related stories still considered some of the best sports movies ever made: “The Longest Yard,” released in 1974, starred Burt Reynolds as a former player doing time and was remade in 2005; “Heaven Can Wait,” which came out in 1978 and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture; and “North Dallas Forty,” a 1979 film starring Nick Nolte that was based on the bestselling novel by former Cowboys wide receiver Peter Gent.

“I’m not a big movie guy,” admits broadcaster Al Michaels, who has called 10 Super Bowls and was included in the 1996 film “Jerry Maguire” to help give it an authentic feel. “But remember how that Rams-Titans Super Bowl in 2000 ended, when [the Titans’] Kevin Dyson catches the pass and gets hit by [Rams linebacker] Mike Jones and he’s stretching to get the ball over the goal line and maybe tie up the game? I said on the broadcast: ‘Dyson … can he get in? No, he cannot.’ Then I added: ‘Do you remember the movie ‘The Longest Yard’? That’s your sequel.”

“Heaven Can Wait” — in which Warren Beatty starred as Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton — had its own life-imitating-art moment when the Rams actually faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, in Southern California, just a year after the film depicted an identical matchup. There was one notable distinction: In the real world, Pittsburgh won.

“I’ve probably watched that film 15 to 20 times, and I still can’t figure out how: How did we lose to a dead guy?” said Terry Bradshaw, the Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback from 1970-83 who took them to four actual Super Bowl titles and then acted in more than a dozen movies. “Even though ‘Heaven Can Wait’ is probably the coolest of all the football movies, there are times when I’m watching Warren Beatty as the Rams quarterback, when they show him at practice, rolling left and throwing right, and I just go, ‘Oh, man, that’s just horrible.’ Maybe that’s what makes it a great comedy for me.”

The next great pro football movie didn’t arrive until 1996, but it ushered in a trend in which the best football movies have been ones that married sports and business — and it did plenty of business itself. “Jerry Maguire” earned nearly $153 million in North America, plus $120 million internationally, on a $50 million budget, it made people sympathize with sports agents and Cuba Gooding Jr. won the Oscar for best supporting actor for playing loquacious Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell. The film’s famous catch phrase — Tidwell telling Tom Cruise’s title character to “Show me the money!” — had its origins in the NFL: It was used by Cardinals defensive back Tim McDonald, who had a cameo in the film.

Cuba Gooding Jr. and Tom Cruise were both nominated for Academy Awards for their roles in “Jerry Maguire.”
Photo: getty images

“I think ‘Jerry Maguire’ dove into the business of the NFL, but even then, it showed it is very much a ‘people business,’” said Beth Mowins, one of ESPN’s NFL broadcasters. “The significance of our relationships with other people and how we treat one another shines through. It also reinforces my belief that the best part of our successes in life is the enjoyment of sharing it with the people we love.”

“We were lucky in ‘Jerry Maguire’ that Cuba could actually act, and play,” Ellis said. “After that, we couldn’t do a movie without making sure the actor could be realistic enough to make the audience believe he was also an athlete.”

After Oliver Stone’s attempt to glorify the action in “Any Given Sunday” from 1999 came another story about the business side of football. “The Replacements,” released in 2000 starring Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves, told the story of a fictional pro league that goes on strike and is, thankfully, the closest football fans have come to watching replacement players in over 30 years.

This decade’s pro football movie offerings have similarly been focused more on the offices than the trenches. The toll put on a general manager of a team with the No. 1 pick who maneuvers through various landmines showed itself in Kevin Costner’s “Draft Day” in 2014, and the long-term effects of CTE research and one man’s battle against the league was the story in Will Smith’s “Concussion” in 2015.

“We never looked at ‘Draft Day’ as a football movie but rather as a story about character — about a guy who is trying to sort his life out on a day where his personal and professional lives are imploding, and that day just happened to be on the day of the draft, and that guy just happened to be the GM of the Cleveland Browns,” said Scott Rothman, who co-wrote the script with partner Rajiv Joseph.

“I always have thought the best sports movies are the ones that have characters going through problems that have nothing to do with sports. They tell a unique and intriguing personal story. Then the sports can serve as an immensely entertaining and colorful backdrop to the character’s plight.”

Trask, currently involved in CBS’s NFL coverage after her days with the Raiders, admits she enjoyed “Draft Day,” but …

“I am one who always spots inaccuracies in movies, and how liberties can be taken in hopes to appeal to and entertain an audience. So when you talk about a willing suspension of disbelief, I remember thinking as the movie was being promoted that it was indeed ‘very Hollywood’ and the Jennifer Garner character was advertised to be a smart football executive yet also a sexy love interest.”

As studios come to rely increasingly on international box-office revenue, will stories about superheroes in capes make it harder for pictures about underdogs in helmets to be greenlit?

“Invincible,” for instance, grossed $58 million worldwide, but less than 2% of that came from foreign distribution. Still, Mark Ciardi, whose Mayhem Pictures collaborated with the NFL and Disney to produce the film, doesn’t see an end to these kind of against-all-odds storylines making their way into U.S. theaters.

“The NFL is really more of a backdrop, a road that leads into the edges of what makes any good sports movie believable,” Ciardi said. “The NFL provides a lot of the emotional stakes and is a great canvas to tell those stories. Movies bring out the emotion best and has the most beats that structurally allow you to do that.”

In fact, Ciardi is now in the development stage of a movie about the lives of Shaquill and Shaquem Griffin, the twin brothers on the Seattle Seahawks. It is based on the new book “Inseparable: How Family and Sacrifice Forged a Path to the NFL,” and focuses further on how Shaquem, a linebacker who plays without a right hand that was amputated as a child, became the feel-good story of the 2018 NFL combine and draft coverage.

“You want the stories of the underdogs, like Papale, and the rookies whose journey is just about getting there and make that big play at the end,” Ciardi said. “Some of the best movies are about the small victories that sometimes barely get on anyone’s radar. But they really are remarkable and impactful and wonderful.”

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