New football movie: Sportswriter shares story of hard-to-believe journey to Hollywood

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana is on how one sportswriter made it to Hollywood.

From the column:


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.


And the link to the rest of the column.


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