Ed Note: The following appears courtesy our friends at the National Sports Journalism Center.
Sportswriters usually don’t get any closer to Hollywood than paying $9 to see a movie.
So for Neil Hayes, a former sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times, being part of a movie premiere was remarkable in its own right. However, how he got there is a story straight out of Hollywood — as in so implausible that it only have been concocted by a movie script writer.
“When The Game Stands Tall” hits the theaters Friday. Starring Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis and Laura Dern, the movie is based on Hayes’ book about the historic 151-game football winning streak by De La Salle, a high school in Concord, Calif.
Hayes, while working for the Contra Costa Times, wrote the book about that great program in 2003. Then he filed an epilogue for the paperback version when the streak got broken in 2004 following the tragic murder of a star player and the coach suffering a heart attack.
The book was the subject of an ESPN documentary. Hayes tried to shop it around as a movie, but the project didn’t go anywhere with an independent producer.
Here’s where the Hollywood part comes in.
In 2009, David Zelon, the head of production for Mandalay, was serving as a voluntary strength-and-conditioning coach for his son’s high school football team. Zelon was involved in cleaning up the office of the coach who was recently fired. He found a gift that hadn’t been opened under the file cabinet. It was Hayes’ book, which had been a gift from the booster club.
Zelon tore off the wrapping paper and read the book in one night. He called Hayes the next day, inviting him to California for a meeting.
“He said, ‘I love the book, but how do you compress (the streak) into a movie?’” Hayes said.
Hayes asked him which version Zelon read, hardback or paperback? Zelon replied hardback, which didn’t include the dramatic events of tragedy and redemption in 2004. When Hayes informed Zelon of those elements, they said, “There’s the movie.”
If Zelon never finds that unopened gift, the movie never happens. Looking back, Hayes says the whole thing is surreal.
“When people ask how do you get a book made into a movie, I say, ‘You’ve got to get extremely lucky,” Hayes said.
The experience of being involved in the movie also was surreal for Hayes. He recalls Zelon told him, “Don’t count on a movie (happening) until you see people unloading cameras.”
Last year, when Hayes and his son went to New Orleans for the filming, they drove up to signs that read “WGST,” short for the title, in a compound. “That’s when it hit us this is happening,” he said.
Hayes read every version of the script. He was on the set as a daily consultant. He felt a sense of responsibility to the real-life people portrayed in the movie. He wanted to make sure everything was accurate as possible.
“It was emotional,” Hayes said. “There were frustrating days and days when I was angry. It’s something that you have control over for so long and then you lose that control. You have to be OK with that.”
Ultimately, Hayes had to develop a sense of trust with the process.
“I realized some of my anger was due to my naivety,” Hayes said. “There was one scene that when I read the script, I really thought it didn’t make sense. I was upset. But when I was standing there, watching the actors play it out, it was great. I was completely wrong. Sometimes you have to see it to really see it.”
Finally, the moment of truth came for Hayes. He saw a rough cut of the movie.
“As soon as the lights came on, four people from the studio were around me, saying ‘What do you think?’” Hayes said. “I was tongue-tied. I couldn’t say anything.”
Since then, Hayes watches the movie from a different perspective. He is paying more attention to how the audience responds to different elements. Did someone laugh at a certain line or were they moved during a key element?
“Their opinions are more valuable than mine,” Hayes said.
The early response has been very favorable. Hayes believes “the message of the film comes through loud and clear to the audience.”
While Hayes is looking forward to the movie reaching a mass audience, he already is at work on his next project. He left his job at the Sun-Times so he could be part of the filming of “When The Game Stands Tall.”
Hayes now has the movie bug. He is working on his first screen play based on a football team from the 1920s and ‘30s.
“I’d like to see where this takes me,” Hayes said.
Why not? He now share emails on regular basis with the stars in his movie. And the pay isn’t bad. Without disclosing the amount, Hayes said he received “a nice check.”
Hayes has ample motivation to continue his journey. With one movie under his belt, his next trip to Hollywood won’t be as implausible as the first.