About three weeks ago, I got an email from an assistant football coach, Andrew Fritz, at Carmel high school from the city with the same name in Indiana. Being a sports enthusiast, I had heard the name Carmel, and recognized the school to be one of the powerhouse athletic institutions in the Midwest. Andrew called me because he had heard an interview I did on ESPN Radio about “Season of a Lifetime.” He was inspired and intrigued by the story and wanted to know where he could get a copy and show the film to some of the players on his team. He left his number, so I called back.
On the phone call, I informed Andrew that the film was not yet on DVD or for public consumption just yet. We had some individual charity screenings still to do and hopefully a festival tour to arrange in 2012. I thanked him for his interest and regretted that I could not send out the film.
Well, Andrew was not going to go quietly. He shared his personal connection to the story. One of Carmel’s favorite sons, Dave Clifford, a former defensive lineman on their first state championship football team in 1978, and the father of not one, but three former and current football players at Carmel was stricken with ALS. David was a leader in his community, a loving father and husband, a coach, and a superb human being. At one time, Dave was the beacon of health, 250 lbs of athleticism, an avid sportsman. Now Dave is slowly wasting away. He is 150 lbs, unable to walk more than a few feet at a time, and is losing his booming voice. “I wanted the boys to see how ALS does not prevent someone like Dave from living and inspiring,” he said.
Immediately, it hit me. “How about doing a screening in support of Dave Clifford’s at Carmel High School?” Andrew jumped all over the idea. He thought he would have no problem setting something up. The Touchdown Club and the community as well as the school officials would be overjoyed to have a special screening in their own backyard. The focus of course would be to show it to the entire football program and anyone else who wanted to share in the experience.
I asked Andrew what kind of assistant coach he was. He remarked, “I’m an assistant coach on the freshman team.” “The freshman team?” I jumped back. “You mean you’re not even a varsity coach?” I realized that I may have insulted Andrew but my point was made in the next sentence—“You better check with the varsity coach first before you sign checks your mouth can’t cash.” I said, half jokingly. Andrew laughed and said he would get back to me after discussing it with Head Coach Kevin Wright.
In the next few weeks, after several of my messages went unanswered, Andrew finally called me back. The response was overwhelming. Not only was Coach Wright all over the idea, but the school and the Touchdown Club were going to support the screening as well. Their idea was to enforce a mandatory sale of 5 tickets each by all of the football players on all three teams (freshman, JV and Varsity.) At $10 a ticket and with over 120 players in the program, the guarantee would be $6000. We agreed that a portion of the proceeds would go directly to the Clifford family, another portion to ALS and the Williams Family and the Investors would receive a portion as well, a win-win all around. Most importantly, they wanted me to fly out to Indiana and be their guest, all expenses paid, and hold a Q & A afterwards. I then added some value by making a phone call to one of Indiana’s own Hollywood royalty, screenwriter Angelo Pizzo of “Rudy” and “Hoosiers” lore. Angelo agreed to join me at the screening for the Q & A.
I was overjoyed at the opportunity presented to me. It’s not often that a filmmaker is able to get instant gratification regarding his work. Most of the time we make the film, it gets out there, and we never get to experience that immediate impact on our audience. I was fortunate to experience that in Atlanta at the Rialto, at Jeremy’s hometown church in Columbus and at one of my locations sites in Hamilton, but they were partisan crowds, Jeremy Williams’ fans already. This would be the first time I’d show the film to people who knew nothing about the story or Coach Williams.
I flew to Indiana on a cold and rainy morning. The pilot warned the passengers on board that we were in for a bumpy ride. Inclement weather in the Midwest was of much concern to him so we better hold on tight, he said. Well, God must have known about the mission I was about to engage in and the ride was surprisingly smooth.
Assistant Coach Josh Bryant, a cousin by marriage of Andrew Fritz, greeted me curbside. Andrew unfortunately was out of town due to work and Josh would be my host driver these next two days. Josh immediately projected to me the overwhelming response by the hometown. “We may get a packed house tonight,” he said. If that was true we were talking about 1200 people!
Josh drove me through the heart of Carmel, the Art & Design district. What a quaint town Carmel turned out to be. Carmel had a new 118 million dollar concert hall, beautiful retail shops on clean streets and I was quickly informed that CNN Money Magazine voted Carmel the 14th best city to live in the United States.
We went to Muldoon’s for lunch, a Carmel landmark, to meet my guests of honor, Dave Clifford and his wife Gigi. When Dave walked in, his walker and cane in tow, I was immediately reminded of the seriousness of my visit. Someone was given a death sentence to one of the worst diseases on the planet. All he wanted was to share an evening with his “peeps” in hopes that they understood the need to find a cure for this terrible disease known as ALS, Lou Gehrig’s.
Dave, Gigi and I immediately clicked. We found commonalties in the east coast (Gigi lived in Connecticut and worked in NYC), as well as football (Dave and I), but also the fact that Dave was CEO of Crown Theaters, a chain of movie theaters in the Midwest. We were all movie enthusiasts. I soaked up all I could from Dave’s stories of his glory days in Carmel as well as his success in life and love. I could tell how much Gigi loved her husband and how strong a woman she must be in these trying times. We must have talked for hours before Josh had to whisk me off to the football field.
Carmel Football had a grand history. In the last 33 years they have won 6 state championships. Dave’s was the first championship, 1978. This made my trip to practice even more meaningful. The playoffs were coming up that Friday night, and at 9-1, the Greyhounds had as good a chance as any to win it all. I was immediately impressed with the facilities and the staff. The atmosphere seemed loose and fun, not tight and rigid. They took after their Coach, Kevin Wright, who seemed engaging and intuitive. Coach Wright geared me up from baseball cap to rain gear bottoms. Full Carmel Greyhounds regalia.
Practice was all business. Stretching, skill drills, run through the offense and defense, and finally the two-minute drill. The team seemed ready. I was able to throw a few footballs around and at the very end got my picture taken with the entire team.
Finally, the event was here, the moment of truth. Nicole Todd and here Touchdown Moms were marvelous. They took the tickets from the pre sales and sold more at the door. T-shirts went quickly. The 1200 seat theater was almost filled to capacity. As Josh Bryant, Kevin Wright and then the head of the ALS Indiana Foundation spoke beforehand, I was nervously waiting on one quest. Angelo Pizzo. Just as the movie started, Angelo arrived. Angelo had brought two scripts he autographed, both “Hoosiers” and “Rudy” shooting scripts that he would put up for auction to raise more money. We were complete.
The movie went remarkably well, even with a small glitch on the DVD about an hour into the film (which we quickly corrected.) The crowd cheered during the football scenes, cried at some of the more emotional moments, and sympathized at the reality of Coach Williams’ plight. When it was over, they stood and cheered, not just for the film, but the courageous journey that lies ahead for Dave Clifford.
Both Angelo and I answered questions on the film but when Dave Clifford walked slowly to the podium afterwards, you could hear a pin drop. He spoke about “holding the line.”
Here’s what he said (paraphrased):
“Imagine hanging from the edge of a cliff with a drop that will surely kill you. The only thing between you and the fall is a line, with the person of your choice at the other end. Who do you know who has the guts to pull you to safety? Who will hold that line? Who will burn their hands, let blood drip from them and not let go? If you can name two people, that’s not good enough. They may not be there. But if you look around this room, could you trust that everyone in here will “hold that line?” Let their hands bleed for you? When you can say that, you’re destined to win a lot of ball games. When you’re down by 4 points with 30 seconds left in the 4th quarter, yell at your teammates– “hold the line – let it burn and don’t let go.” I find myself 33 years later with a terminal illness. Those very same teammates still hold the line for me. You will find that allegiances like that are extremely rare.”
To paraphrase the old lady in “Poltergeist” I thought to myself, “My work in Indiana was complete.”
Thanks to all the wonderful people of Carmel, Indiana. It truly was an “Evening of a Lifetime.”