Now and then, Hollywood magic results from something decidedly non-glamorous – like a guy reading a book on a pile of smelly football shoulder pads.
It helps, of course, if the guy is David Zelon, a producer and executive vice president at Mandalay Entertainment Group. Back in 2009, the devoted football dad was straightening up the equipment room at his son’s high school in Santa Monica when he came across a copy of “When the Game Stands Tall,” the famed story of Concord’s De La Salle High School Spartans and their 151-game winning streak under the guidance of coach Bob Ladouceur.
It was the first Zelon had heard the tale, though the book – written by former Contra Costa Times columnist Neil Hayes – was originally published in 2003. But once Zelon cracked it open, he caught the whiff of a potential film.
“I settled right in on that pile of sweaty shoulder pads and started reading – I was hooked,” he said in a recent phone interview. “The thing was, I’d never seen this kind of approach to a team anywhere. Ladouceur wasn’t about winning. No yelling and slamming clipboards down. He was about developing these boys into great young men. So I thought, let’s show everybody how they did it.”
We’ll all be hearing a lot about “When the Game Stands Tall” as the movie adaptation opens nationwide Friday. And while the production is Hollywood all the way – and filmed in New Orleans of all places, thanks to financial incentives – its roots run deep in California’s East Bay. Not only with the team itself and the book’s author, but also with former Contra Costa Times photographer Bob Larson, whose photos in the book were used as the inspiration for key scenes.
And just as the stars aligned in the making of De La Salle’s record-breaking team, kismet also played a part in the story’s path from real life to feature film – an effort which at times felt futile.
Bump and run
It goes back to Hayes’ and Larson’s days at the Contra Costa Times in the mid-’90s covering De La Salle, a private Catholic school for boys known for its powerhouse football program, which draws talented athletes from around the East Bay. The team, coaches and players alike, had no interest in excessive publicity early on, and it took some serious coaxing – first from Larson, and later from Hayes – to get behind the scenes midway through the 151-gamer that ran from 1992 to 2004.
“Even though I’d gone on to cover other sports and NFL and stuff, I kept going back to De La Salle. My instincts were screaming, ‘This is a great story,’ ” said Hayes. “I finally pestered (Ladouceur) enough where he told me the only way I could find out what goes on is if I showed up every day for a year. I took that as an opening, and I did it. I had unbelievable access.”
In a matter of months, Hayes had written the manuscript, accompanied by Larson’s striking photos, but then he hit a wall – getting it published. “The bigger publishing houses all said the same thing: too regional,” Hayes said. He had nearly given up when North Atlantic Books in Berkeley, a tiny press better known for fitness guides and cookbooks, took it on.
The book sold well enough for its niche, but soon there would be more to the story. This first edition followed the team only through the still-undefeated 2002 season.
“Then the 2004 season started, and all the tragedies happened – the coach’s heart attack, (star linebacker and University of Oregon-bound) Terrance Kelly was shot and killed in Richmond,” Hayes said. “And the streak finally ended that September. The Spartans finally lost.”
He updated the story with an epilogue for a paperback version, with both editions selling in total about 60,000 copies. Hayes was approached by a few independent movie producers, but nothing panned out – until the day Zelon sat down to read.
“He called me, and we met at the Rose Cafe in Venice,” Hayes remembered. “He said he loved the book but didn’t know what would drive the dramatic arc. I looked at him funny and said, ‘Um, did you read the hard copy or the paperback?’ ”
Indeed, once Zelon – producer of “Soul Surfer” and “Never Back Down” – learned of the epilogue, “trumpets started playing in the background and the sun came up,” Zelon said, laughing.
All in the details
Hayes would go on to work closely on the first draft of the script with the studio’s creative team, through dozens of revisions. And Larson, who is now a freelance photographer, began getting calls from the studio to send them photos so they could study the details.
“I’d get calls almost daily, ‘Can you send us these pics, we want to look at them for sets and helmets and background and costumes,’ ” Larson said. “They were very specific. ‘The coach is wearing a gold lanyard in this photo. Was it always gold, or sometimes green?’ It really tells you how detailed they got.”
Several of Larson’s images are used in the movie during the end credits, he said, notably a poignant shot of two players reassuring each other by holding hands during a crucial point in a game, with Terrance Kelly seen in the background. “It’s the last image you’ll see before the screen goes black,” he said.
Hayes was on the set every day during the April-June 2013 filming in New Orleans – a location chosen strictly for budgetary reasons, he said. “I didn’t have a clue what to expect,” he said. “It was surreal. Kind of a blur, to be honest with you, to see these big actors playing people I know.”
Jim Caviezel stars as Ladouceur, Laura Dern plays his wife, Bev, and Michael Chiklis portrays assistant coach Terry Eidson.
Hayes says the movie holds pretty true to the book, though some key games were placed in a different time frame for dramatic purposes and not every student in the film is based on an actual player. “But everything is really true to the spirit of the school and what they believe in,” he said.
Larson is still pinching himself that this will finally hit the big screen. “I never thought in my lifetime I’d be involved with something like this,” he said. “I’m used to being behind the camera, not involved in what’s going on.”