Three Sacramento filmmakers set out to highlight the inspirational story of Grant Union High School football, that longtime powerhouse program from the underdog neighborhood of Del Paso Heights.
But as brothers D.L. and Adam Stern and friend Milton Boyd followed the Pacers during their 2012 season, things went from bad to tragic.
Grant kept losing, in blowouts and nail-biters, its pileup of “L’s” an anomaly for local legend Mike Alberghini, head coach since 1991. Under Alberghini, Grant had produced NFL players and, in 2008, a state championship. But in 2012, the Pacers were on course to miss the playoffs for the first time in two decades.
Then real life dwarfed the on-field drama. In September 2012, beloved Grant assistant coach Ed Coleman was found dead in his Natomas home after apparently killing his girlfriend, Luv Land, and himself.
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“We knew this could change the trajectory of the story of the season, in a big way,” said D.L. Stern.
Coleman’s death also deeply affected the filmmakers, whose documentary “Give Us This Day” will premiere Monday at the Newport Beach Film Festival and debut locally at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Delta King as part of the Sacramento International Film Festival.
“The people who knew Ed could not believe that could ever happen, because they knew what kind of person he was,” D.L. Stern said. “We were filmmakers – we had to stay objective – but we had grown to love him, and could not imagine it.”
Filmmakers with more remove might have seized on the Coleman angle as compelling drama. Boyd and the Sterns lacked that remove when the tragedy occurred, and still do.
During an interview last week at the filmmakers’ midtown Sacramento office, Boyd’s and Adam Stern’s eyes welled with tears when Coleman’s name came up.
They had interviewed Coleman, himself once a Grant football star, for “Give Us.” In footage that seems haunting now, he talks about how high school football kept him out of trouble.
The filmmakers said Grant players had turned to Coleman for emotional support because he knew where they were coming from. “He was a father figure to many of the kids on the team who in reality don’t have a father at home,” Boyd said.
Boyd and the Sterns halted their shoot just after Coleman’s and Land’s deaths and made themselves available to players who wanted to talk. When they resumed filming “we purposefully decided to cover the effect of the tragedy in general on the team, and not get into the details” of what happened, D.L. said.
Even with a cloud over it, the 2012 season yielded positives. But for those cinephiles who do not follow prep sports but might see the film, we will not reveal its outcome.
D.L. Stern and Boyd, both 37, and Adam Stern, 33, are avid sports fans who were prep athletes themselves at the Sacramento Waldorf School, which is in Fair Oaks and a world away from Grant. They had followed Grant’s success for years.
“I wondered, ‘Why is Grant this inner-city school that does so well?’ ” Adam Stern said. “Why does it occupy such a unique place in that community?”
To find out, the filmmakers sought and were granted intimate access to locker and living rooms, discovering an enthusiasm so avid that team statistician Tommie Williams likens it, in “Give Us,” to a religion (Williams, also a reverend, should know).
Making a film was Adam Stern’s idea. He started filming on his own in 2011, doing much of the legwork in earning coach and player trust.
“It took a while to get them to open up more,” he said. “They could trust that I wasn’t there to exploit anybody. We were looking to tell their story.”
His brother and Boyd came aboard in 2012, the whole trio embraced by Pacers present and past.
Grant-turned-NFL players Paris Warren and Onterrio Smith are interviewed in the film about their Pacer pasts. Alberghini let the filmmakers follow him to his granddaughter’s soccer game. At weekly team meals, struggling families already shelling out to feed 50 people would insist the Sterns and Boyd grab a plate.
“We treated them like our brothers,” Isaiah Rios, the Pacers’ starting quarterback in 2012, said of the filmmakers.
Such relationships cannot be turned on and off. So it’s no surprise that the Stern brothers show up for an interview in Grant T-shirts.
Yet “Give Us” is not some booster-club video. It looks professional and polished. D.L. Stern brought years of experience to the project. He made a 2004 documentary on Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla that was picked up by the National Geographic Channel. Thus began a years-long relationship with the channel that included a stint producing the reality series “Alaska State Troopers.”
He had moved to Seattle to be closer to Alaska, but returned to Sacramento in 2012 with his wife, Nikki, and toddler son, Jackson.
Adam Stern worked briefly on “Troopers” with D.L. and then at an office job before devoting himself to making “Give Us.” Boyd works in real estate services but has developed entertainment projects as well. He learned the skills necessary to operate a camera at Grant games via a class at Access Sacramento.
All of them shot footage of the 2012 season, exploring factors that led to Grant’s status as a beacon of possibility in an economically challenged neighborhood. One factor was the coaching staff led by Alberghini – who is constantly on his players about maintaining grades and showing “character” on and off the field – and defensive coordinator and Grant athletic director Reggie Harris.
Grant coaches do more than many prep coaches because more is asked of them.
“There are things (Grant players) had to overcome that I never had to overcome when I played sports,” Adam said. “Something as small as having to ask a coach for a ride. (And) some kids don’t eat lunch the day of a game, or only (get) one meal a day. Those coaches would bring back bags of food (for players).”
The filmmakers also found the idea of Grant football as a symbol of success ingrained in some Del Paso Heights families.
“There’s an intensity that gets passed down,” Boyd said. From father to son, uncle to nephew, sibling to sibling.
Jonah Toma, starting linebacker for the 2012 team, grew up knowing he would be a Pacer, because brothers Justin and Jeremiah had been. Jeremiah went on to play for Fresno State.
“I probably would have gone to another school” had he not played football, Toma said. “The only reason I wanted to go there was to play football and continue the tradition.”
His family moved to North Highlands after he graduated in 2013. Toma spent last fall playing football at Southern Oregon University, but has returned to Sacramento for family reasons, he said. He now attends American River College.
Toma plans to watch the movie Wednesday, to see how the directors handled the Pacers’ “roller coaster” 2012 season and the loss of Coleman. That loss “brought the whole team together, like a family,” he said. “But it was a burden that we wouldn’t have one of the best coaches we ever had.”
The Pacers returned to the field the Friday after Coleman’s death.
“I know how (badly) the players were hurting,” Alberghini said. Coleman’s death had a big impact on him as well. He had known Coleman since “he was a very small young man,” Alberghini said.
“It was losing a lot, and how it took place, it was hard. (But) you have to go on, you have present to the kids that there are tough things that happen in life,” Alberghini said. “The responsibility is that we couldn’t take away the senior or junior year of these people because life was miserable.”
Alberghini has seen the film, and appreciates the care with which Boyd and the Sterns documented a difficult season.
“They did an honest job, and they worked hard,” he said. “I consider them very good friends.”
The competitive part of him wishes, however, that “Give Us” did not show a Grant team that lost more games than in other years.
Though “Give” is festival-ready, it awaits technical finishing touches. The filmmakers have launched a Kickstarter campaign seeking $15,000 to help with such details as color correction, music licensing and, possibly, theatrical distribution. D.L. Stern said the filmmakers would like an outside distribution partner but are preparing to distribute themselves if needed.
D.L. has financed the low-budget film up to now, and he puts its cost at between $500,000 and $1 million when factoring in income the filmmakers forfeited to focus on the movie.
Wednesday’s Sacramento screening has a built-in audience of Grant fans and former players – including Rios, the 2012 Grant quarterback who now attends Sacramento City College.
Having seen only the trailer, he perks up when he discovers the reporter on the phone with him has seen the movie. He starts to ask about it, then catches himself.
“Don’t spoil the movie for me,” he said with a laugh.
The Grant community will arrive with certain expectations of entertainment value, having been raised watching exciting Pacer games.
Boyd and Adam Stern know this well, from the film shoot and because they have not missed a Pacer home game since. D.L. Stern, who unlike his filmmaking partners has family demands, makes it to games when he can.
“It’s the best thing to do on Friday night in the fall,” Boyd said.