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Touchdown Hollywood

Meet the team behind De La Salle’s silver screen premiere.


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Photo by Tracy Bennett, courtesy of Sony Pictures

De La Salle High football coach Bob Ladouceur has long been a local legend. Coach “Lad” led his Spartans to 399 wins, seven national championships, and a 151-game winning streak that remains the longest, at any level, in football history.

On August 22, audiences across the country will learn about Ladouceur when the Sony Pictures feature, When the Game Stands Tall, hits theaters. The film, which stars Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, and Laura Dern, condenses Ladouceur’s 33-year career into two hours, focusing on the dramatic events between 2002 and 2004.

Diablo tracked down the filmmaking team—and the real-life coaches who inspired the story—to get the scoop on how the movie came together.


 

Bob Sansoe

The Coaches: Bob Ladouceur, Terry Eidson

When Bob Ladouceur took over as head coach of the De La Salle football program in 1979, the team had never had a winning season in the history of the school. Ladouceur and his best friend and defensive coordinator, Terry Eidson, put an end to that, building a Spartan football legacy that was the envy of every high school in the country.

With a record winning streak, 17 state championships, and seven national titles, it’s no wonder Hollywood came calling. But the famously low-key coach is predictably humble about the movie.

“It’s kind of exciting, I suppose,” he says. “A lot of people are excited about it at De La Salle. I think it’s a good thing.”

Ladouceur and Eidson visited the set of the movie during the last days of filming—the pair could not get away until the 2013 school year ended—and were amused by the movie star treatment they received.

“We came to the set during a night shoot, and as we were walking up, [the cast and crew] were pointing and whispering, and saying, ‘Here they come,’” says Eidson. “It was so weird—a religion teacher and a high school football coach being the center of attention. We never in our wildest dreams felt that anything we had been doing was movie worthy.”

Eidson was able to feed bits of authentic sideline dialogue to actor Michael Chiklis (The Shield), the actor playing Eidson in the film. Meanwhile, Ladouceur became close with his cinematic alter ego, Jim Caviezel, who was an ideal choice to play De La Salle’s head coach.

“He’s a devout Catholic, very religious guy,” says Ladouceur. “He is one of those dudes that wants to make movies that mean something that is positive and wholesome.”

Ladouceur, who has devoted a lot of his time to religious studies, found himself having deep conversations with Caviezel, the star of The Passion of the Christ.

“I knew quite a bit about the Passion stories,” says Ladouceur, adding that he has attended a workshop presented by Raymond Brown, the world-renowned expert on the Passion. “So, when The Passion of the Christ came out in theaters, I wanted to see it: It was right in my wheelhouse.”


 

Photo by Tracy Bennett, courtesy of Sony Pictures

The Star: Jim Caviezel

Actor Jim Caviezel has had his share of legendary characters to portray, including the title role in director Mel Gibson’s controversial The Passion of the Christ.

Q: What was it about When the Game Stands Tall that attracted you to the project?
A: I played 17 years of basketball and had a great coach—my dad. And my dad played basketball at UCLA under John Wooden, who had a very similar philosophy to Coach Ladouceur: He did not focus on winning; he focused on building the character of the team.

When I was in high school, we were on the precipice of making the state tournament in Washington State, and we went out as a team to celebrate. We found out that the team we would have to play first in the tournament was the top ranked in the state: We had no chance to beat them; the size of and level of the team was so much more advanced than ours.

But we happened to go out and see the movie Hoosiers that night. There was so much in that film that changed me, and all of it was how I later related to Ladouceur. By the fourth quarter of that big game, I was not concerned about the score. I was fearless, and I felt love in my heart for my teammates: I wasn’t going to let them down.

That’s what I read in the script. When I came to visit De La Salle, that’s what I saw in the way those boys looked at Ladouceur. It was the same way that Vince Lombardi’s players looked at their coach and the same way that Wooden’s players looked.

Q: What were your first impressions of Bob Ladouceur when you met him?
A: Someone told me that he is passive, but when I watched him, I realized he is not passive: He sits very strongly in silence. There is a difference.

I was at his last football game, which was win number 399. I knew I was going to do the film but had not told anyone yet. I videotaped Lad that night because I can tell you how scary it is to play someone who is a real-life character. In a fictional film, you can build a character from the ground up, but here, this is a real man.

Of everything I filmed, I found I have footage of him saying very little but doing great things. I noticed he does not get in the way of the greatness of his coaches; he lets them do their thing.

How the boys looked at him—that moved me. When you have tears in your eyes, it is because there is a place in the heart that burns with emotion. That’s when one cries: And when you can tap into that, that’s when you find magic.

Q: As you formed a relationship with Ladouceur, what did you learn?
A: I kept thinking about the Spartan tradition, the brotherhood. The task of building that team is bigger and tougher than any opponent you will face. Individual egos must die for a team to live; being a team player means cooperating with your fellows in harmony. We win because our players love each other. Put simply, love means I can count on you, and you can count on me.

It’s a really simple but important lesson. If there were no other reason than my two sons and one daughter to see this film, it would have been worth it. If I were to die, and they would have this film to see who Ladouceur was, and who their father was, I would be proud.

Q: What did your costar, Michael Chiklis, bring to the project that helped demonstrate the relationship between Ladouceur and Eidson?
A: Michael is a very honest individual: He will tell you exactly what he thinks of you very quickly. (Laughs.) Terry [Eidson] has always been very honest with me as well. So it was so natural: Michael was very in sync with Terry, and that comes out in the film.

Q: Ladouceur told me that you came to visit him several times here in the East Bay before and after filming. What are your favorite things about this area?
A: I love that area. It felt like home as soon as I came to visit. I would love for my own son to go to that school. I wish the school was in our area. [Caviezel lives in Los Angeles.]

When I went to visit the school, I saw that they had a painting of The Passion of the Christ in the cafeteria, and I thought, “Wow, that’s my profile.” (Laughs.)

When you get to know someone in your life like Ladouceur, it is like finding a diamond. You want to keep it for the rest of your life. I know that we will be friends for a very long time.


 

Photos by Tracy Bennett, courtesy of Sony Pictures

The Producer: David Zelon

The way film producer David Zelon discovered the material for When the Game Stands Tall could have been taken out of a Hollywood script. While producing the inspirational surfing film Soul Surfer, about a surfer who lost her arm in a shark attack, Zelon was also volunteering for his son’s high school football team in Santa Monica.

“I was cleaning out an equipment locker, when I came across a copy of Neil Hayes’ book [When the Game Stands Tall],” says Zelon. “It was a gift to the previous season’s coach from the parent booster club, and was still gift wrapped. I tore off the wrapping and started to read. Thirty pages into it, I knew I wanted to make this movie. I took the book home and finished it that night.”

Zelon met with Hayes in Los Angeles, and said, “I love this story, but I’m having a hard time getting my head around how to tell it as a movie. How do you show a team winning game after game for 12 years?” Then Hayes asked whether Zelon had read the hardback edition or the paperback. Zelon had read the hardback, and Hayes suggested he read the paperback, with the 30-page epilogue.

“Neil was right,” says Zelon. “The whole movie was in the epilogue: The streak ends, Lad has a heart attack, and one of the team’s greatest players is killed in a tragic shooting.”

Zelon had more revelations when Soul Surfer was released. The true-story account of teenage surfer Bethany Hamilton was a hit with viewers who loved the positive message about faith and courage in the face of adversity.

For When the Game Stands Tall, Zelon decided to tell an inspirational story about building character through education and teamwork, instead of shooting a big-game sports movie. Zelon says this direction is winning so far with audiences.

“The movie tests extremely well with older women,” he says. “Moms want to think of their kids being coached by men like these and of their sons growing into young men like the players from De La Salle.”


 

Photos by Tracy Bennett, courtesy of Sony Pictures

The Director: Thomas Carter

Thomas Carter knows a good coaching story when he sees one. The veteran director’s first gig behind the camera was on the classic basketball show The White Shadow in the late 1970s. More recently, he directed Coach Carter, about Richmond High basketball coach Ken Carter, who benched star players who could not meet GPA requirements for playing on his team.

“It is a bit of a coincidence that both of these films involve coaches in the East Bay Area,” says Thomas Carter. “What is not a coincidence is that I am drawn to these stories that are contained within the world of coaches and teams: the values of coaching, the coming-of-age stories, and most importantly, the character-building that comes from these experiences.”

In When the Game Stands Tall, Carter found himself with two fascinating lead characters in Ladouceur and Eidson, for whom winning is an afterthought to providing physical training, fostering emotional maturity, and most of all, encouraging teamwork.

“I want people to leave the theater and understand what these men were really after, what character building really means,” says Carter.


 

Bob Larson Photography

The Player: Terrance Kelly

Richmond resident Landrin Kelly will undoubtedly have the most bittersweet experience watching When the Game Stands Tall. Kelly’s son, Terrance—or TK, as he was known— is a key character in the film, and his is the most tragic of the stories in Hayes’ book.

Terrance Kelly was a star on De La Salle’s “Last Great Team”—the undefeated 2003 team that won a USA Today National Championship. Kelly, who grew up in Richmond’s violence-plagued “Iron Triangle” neighborhood, excelled as a student and athlete at De La Salle, and received a scholarship to play football at the University of Oregon.

Two days before TK was to leave for college, he was gunned down by a 15-year-old in his Richmond neighborhood. Landrin Kelly and his mother, Bevelyn, who was instrumental in raising TK, rushed to TK’s side after he was shot. When Bevelyn saw her grandson’s lifeless body, she suffered a heart attack, then passed away two months later.

“I promised my mother that I would keep TK’s legacy alive,” says Landrin Kelly, who founded the Terrance Kelly Youth Foundation, an after-school program in Richmond. “I promised to keep up what he stood for, what he lived for, and I feel blessed that the movie is coming out to help spread that message.”

Canadian actor Stephan James plays Terrance Kelly in the film, and has received much praise from the creative team behind When the Game Stands Tall.

“Casting the TK role was difficult because it required a deeply emotional performance,” says producer David Zelon. “The part was also supposed to be the best football player in the country. Stephan sent in a tape showing him running with a football, catching a football: Right away, we could tell he had a very athletic way about him.”

Zelon says that Terrance Kelly’s story is more than a dramatic centerpiece of his movie. Until his tragic death, TK demonstrated accomplishment and heroism, and the ability of a young person to transcend what is expected of him.

“In a lot of ways, TK’s story is what De La Salle is about,” Zelon says. “It’s about the ability to reach a higher level than what is expected—that kids are capable of so much more than they think they are.”


 

Cristiane Laird

The Writer: Neil Hayes

Before writing When the Game Stands Tall, former Contra Costa Times sports columnist Neil Hayes spent the 2002 football season embedded with the De La Salle football program. Hayes had full access to Bob Ladouceur, his staff of coaches, and team of players, in what turned out to be a national championship season.

“The guys let me into their world,” says Hayes. “I was really motivated to write a book that they could hold up and say, ‘He got it: This is how we do it.’ ”

Hayes’ book was released in 2003, and received praise from local sports luminaries John Madden and Tony La Russa. A few years later, producer David Zelon optioned the book and worked with Hayes as an executive producer. Hayes was on the set every day of shooting, letting the cast and filmmakers know how Ladouceur coached, mentored, and inspired his players.

“One day, they were shooting a scene that took place at a pregame team meeting,” Hayes recalls. “The script had a player telling his team that he would die on the field for his teammates. I told the director, ‘Lad would never let a player say he would die. He’d say, This is high school football; no one is going to die today.’ They gave that line to Jim [Caviezel], and he says it in the film.”


 

Behind The Scenes On Set

Photos courtesy of Neil Hayes

De La Salle alum, Maurice Jones-Drew (center), on set with Hayes and Caviezel.

Terry Eidson on the set with his wife, Aggie.

Bob Ladouceur with actress Laura Dern.

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