Uncommon Bond

This is the first blog entry in what I hope will be a long and prosperous literary and cinematic experience regarding our film, “Season of a Lifetime,” The Jeremy Williams story.  The teams of Endorphin Entertainment and FishEye Media feel blessed to be a part of this man’s life and hope that we can tell HIS story in a way that will make his community, his friends and his family proud.

I often get asked these two questions about the film– “How did you come across this story?” and “How did you get the rights?” Well, here’s the story.

Back in November of 2009, my business partner at Endorphin Entertainment, Chris Pullaro, called me up on a Sunday morning and asked if I had seen this article in the AJC Sports section by sportswriter Michael Carvell about a coach dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease.) Obviously I had not. Chris pressed that I go out to buy the paper and read this article because he thought it would make a great documentary.

My wife Jennifer told me to tell you that God is watching you, Rick. You have a responsibility to our family to tell OUR story. Don’t fumble it.

Chris and I had just journeyed through the enigma that is known as independent filmmaking on our last documentary, “Faded Glory.”  We were still trying to close out clearances and on a distribution deal. Even though “Faded Glory” had done extremely well at film festivals and received praise by audiences, critics and other well-known filmmakers alike it was a very typical uphill battle to fight for the crowded distribution space. Along the way we made many rookie mistakes but eventually found a home for “Faded Glory” both domestically (NEHST Studios) and internationally (Forward Entertainment.) Ours was one of the fortunate films.

The major problem with pursuing Coach’s story was that I had just secured the rights to an amazing poker story that was like “21” meets “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Taken from a “Rolling Stones” magazine article written by friend Ivan Solotaroff, it told the tale of six young poker turks that called themselves “The Crew.” They ruled poker in Vegas from 2002-2004 until greed, ego and neurosis brought them down. There was no possible way I’d take on two films at one time.

Well, my curiosity got the best of me and I meandered outside.  I went to my favorite Einstein Bagels to get the paper and read the article while I devoured a personal favorite, a Santé Fe Wrap with raspberry lemonade.  Immediately, I was engrossed in this story about a coach given a death sentence who refuses to stop living.  It had everything—disease, family in crisis, a town divided, a Cinderella football team, a white coach coaching all black players, etc. I called Chris up and told him that although I thought the story was very compelling, the chances of us pulling off this type of film were highly unlikely.

First off, the distance between the confines of my cozy urban suburbia of Sandy Springs to the proximity of the rural cowpoke town in Greenville was a minimum of 100 minutes with no traffic.  Second, everyone and their mother will go after this guy for their next Lifetime “movie of the week” from Hoboken to Hollywood.  And lastly, we probably missed the boat on their Cinderella season.

Unfortunately for Greenville and fortunately for us Grenville lost in the next round of the playoffs to eventual state champions Wilcox County. Chris told me to reconsider my stance and get back to him after the Thanksgiving Day Holidays.

I took both stories down to my parent’s house in Boca Raton, Florida. My kids were going to spend some quality time with their grandparents.  I trusted my father’s opinion and gave him both articles to read. After reading both articles, my father’s response was this—“Everyone eventually dies from something, son, but not everyone reaches the pinnacle of their profession only to find themselves in a third world country mental institution.”  So, I heeded his advice and pursued my poker story.

A few weeks after I got home from Florida I received a chance call from AJC sportswriter Steve Hummer. Steve had written a wonderful article on me on Father’s Day regarding “Faded Glory” and he was just checking in on the film’s progress and mine. I casually asked Steve about the Jeremy Williams story. Steve said he had actually covered that story as well. My curiosity peeking, I asked him if he could get me in touch with Michael Carvell.  Steve said he could, but that it might take him some time for him to connect. Get back to him after the Christmas holidays and he’ll let me know if he could make that possible.

Soon after the New Year, Michael Carvell did call me. We discussed the Jeremy Williams story at length. He told me that the only way to get to Coach was through the school Chaplain, Gerald Fowler. Gerald Fowler was a humorous yet cantankerous old buzzard that knew as much about football as he did about the Philistines. I tried to appeal to his theological side and mentioned the last film I had completed about two months ago, “And the Lord said…Smack ‘em in the Mouth!” Remarkably, Gerald had seen the film. It played in between the High School championship football games on PBS in December.  It was one of those subjective films where half the people who saw the movie said, “they are really crazy about their God and football down south,” and the other half remarked, “isn’t it wonderful how crazy they are about God and football down south.” I appealed to the latter, thank goodness, and “Coach G” granted me an interview.

Chris and I went down to Greenville on a cold, wintry day in late January. There was only one road off highway 85 that led into Greenville. A 20-mile straight shot down highway 29, past broken down homes, discount grocery stores and confederate flags waving off gun-racks on pick-up trucks. Occasionally you’d spot a church with the reminder “JESUS SAVES.” Boy,” I turned to Chris, “Coach Williams is going to read right through our Northern ways.” Chris was raised in New Jersey, myself in New York. We didn’t understand the quaintness of a small southern town. Atlanta certainly didn’t qualify.  Neither did Johns Creek and Sandy Springs respectively.

When we pulled up to the school and around the back where the field house was situated, I noticed a distinct yet pungent smell in the air. It was quite fowl. To the left of the field house I could hear the familiar sounds of barking dogs. There was a teacher in the parking lot. I asked her where I might find Coach Williams and what that awful smell was all about. She replied, “You’ll often find Coach Williams over in the field house…and that smell is the crematorium outside the shelter. It’s that time of the month.” Once again, I turned to Chris with skepticism in my expression.

When I entered into the field house it was as if time stood still. It looked very much like the locker rooms I had frequented when I played high school football in the early 80’s on Long Island. Except it was 2010, not 1982. You know the weights are old when the rust comes off on your hands.

Coach was sitting behind his desk when we entered his office. Pictures of his family, his playing days and his former players dominated the walls, shelves and his desk. He got up to shake my hand and I noticed that he couldn’t raise his arm stiffly, nor close his hand firmly. He wore layers of sweatshirts to keep him warm. His speech was slightly slurred and he had just shaved off his goatee, which made him look 10 years younger. He was frail but not as atrophic as I thought he would be.

We proceeded to talk about football and family. He was interested in knowing about Chris and I as much as we were about him. There were commonalities between us. He played quarterback in high school but was moved to defensive back in college. So did I. He was deemed too small to play major college football. So was I. He had a competitive older brother who pushed him to excel. So did I. His son’s name was Jacob. So was mine. When I learned about Jacob’s illness, my heart sank. All I could think of was how could God place two burdens on one family?

Finally, we got down to the point of our trip. Jeremy intimated that many people had already approached him about telling his story: ESPN, HBO and other heavyweight filmmakers had reached out. “Why give this story to us?” He stated honestly. I replied, “Has any of these so-called big boys come down to visit you in Greenville?” His reply was “no.” “Well, then I guess they don’t want to tell your story as bad enough as we do.” He laughed.

We talked about honesty and integrity. I promised Coach that I wasn’t interested in telling an “end of life” story. I had no interest in going beyond next season, regardless of what shape Jeremy was in or how his team had finished. Knowing how important his family meant to him I also promised I would be as non-intrusive as I possibly could. This wasn’t reality TV and this won’t be HBO “Hard Knocks” either. That was comforting to him.

My pitch was this – This is a story about a man who is given a death sentence but refuses to stop living. Whose actions speak louder than his words, literally. Whose singular purpose, to spread his inspirational story of faith and hope, transcends all trivial metaphors of “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

I told him that I knew exactly how he felt. I had seen some rough times myself, and I documented them in “Faded Glory.” My perseverance is what kept me going just as his refusal to die without living life to its fullest drives him. He corrected me; “God drives me through my purpose each day. It’s all in God’s hands.”

I glanced around at the walls of his office. They were littered with Post-Its that had bible messages on them. Not being religious, or faith-based, I still reveled in their meanings.

Coach told Chris and I that he needed to pray about this decision. There was something big on the horizon and he needed 21 days to see it through. He would give us an answer after God had sent him that message.  I gave him a copy of my little Christian football documentary, shook his hand, thanked him for his time and we left.

And then we waited. And waited.  And waited.

Twenty-one days. Twenty-one days became twenty-eight days. Then thirty-five. Like Moses wondering through the desert for 40 days to find the Promised Land, I waited patiently for Coach to hand me my tablets, i.e. sign a contract. I left several messages on his straight-to-voicemail cell phone but had yet to receive a reply back. It was over I thought. He’d gone with someone else or he decided to live in peace. No distractions of the cameras or the media.

And on that 40th day, as if by prophecy, I got a phone call.

It was Coach. He immediately began with an apology. Something monumental had happened. He had prayed for his family’s well-being and the Lord blessed him with his generosity.

Extreme Makeover Home Edition had come down to Greenville and bulldozed his home. In its place, a brand new, state of the art, wheelchair-accessible modular home for he and his son to live in comfortably. Not only that, the 1980 Field House had gotten a 21st century makeover, weights included.

He continued with his reason– The producers of the show had taken his cell phone and computer away. He had no communication to the outside world. Then, while on a vacation with his family, he fell ill. Almost died. Lost 20 pounds in a week and needed a feeding tube inserted through his ribs. The strain of the shoot and the media attention had almost done Coach in. He was a humble man and now he was being tested for receiving such attention from others when he always shied away from it.

But this was Coach. And Coach never quits. And he never complains. He prayed to get better so he could coach his team again. And he prayed about us too. “Why don’t you and Chris come down to Greenville and we’ll talk.”

On the next venture down to Greenville I didn’t notice the things I had noticed before. In place of the things I turned my nose up towards were things I could now appreciate: Greenery was now everywhere.  Peach stands, buy 7 for $5. “Go Patriots!” on the walls of the mini-marts. Even the barking dogs had turned silent and were replaced by the sounds of the Spring Herons and Cranes.

When I entered Coach’s office, he looked frail this time. I almost wanted to turn around and say, “sorry to have burdened you, Coach” but I didn’t. Then, as always, Coach found inner strength. He talked about life lessons, the importance of living every day because each one of us is not promised another one.  How we can’t control the wind, but we can adjust its sails. And then finally, he said this—

“My wife Jennifer told me to tell you that God is watching you, Rick. You have a responsibility to our family to tell OUR story. Don’t fumble it.”

Always coaching.