If you asked a random person on the street, “What’s your favorite football television show?” you would probably get a few different answers. Some would wax poetic on the merits of Friday Night Lights. Others might talk about the grittiness of a show like HBO’s Hard Knocks or the hilarity of FXX’s The League.
But what about a short-lived darkhorse like ESPN’s Playmakers? Debuting in August of 2003, Playmakers was ESPN’s first fictional weekly drama. The series clairvoyantly touched on nearly every major issue the NFL would encounter over the 10 years that followed: Intrusive owners? Check. General disregard for player health and safety? Check. Nightclub shootings? Word to the artist formerly known as Pacman Jones. And much, much more.
Sadly, Playmakers’ take on professional football was a little too accurate for the NFL—a vital business partner of ESPN—to tolerate. The adventures of Demetrius Harris, Leon Taylor, Eric Olczyk and the rest of the Cougars lasted only one season before the Worldwide Leader pulled the plug on the critically acclaimed series, despite it earning high ratings and winning a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Drama Series and an AFI TV Award for Top TV Series. In celebration of the show’s 10th anniversary—it debuted on August 26, 2003 and last aired on November 11, 2003—TDdaily spoke with the cast and creator of Playmakers about its exciting beginning, abrupt ending and everything in between.
(ESPN did not respond to multiple e-mails requesting comment on the show.)
John Eisendrath (Creator/Executive Producer/Writer): The truth is, I had no interest in trying to be controversial. I assumed as a sports fan that I wasn’t telling any stories that sports fans didn’t already know occurred in the NFL.
Omar Gooding (Demetrius Harris, Running Back): In high school I tried out for the football team because that was my favorite sport. After the first couple of days, the coach was like, “You have to be dedicated and be here everyday.” I was like, “I’ve got an audition today, so I don’t think I’m going to make it to practice.” That was the end of that. So [Harris] was definitely a dream role for me.
Chris Wiehl (Derek McConnell, Quarterback): Right when I saw the script and I read it I thought it could be something special. I got my manager to go in for it and I really felt strongly from the beginning. He initially wanted me to go for the [Eric] Olczyk [middle linebacker] character, but I felt that going forward, if I did my job right that in Seasons 2, 3 and 4 the stories would eventually be about the quarterback. I had a great audition and got the part. Even though he wasn’t an initial cast member, they eventually bumped up McConnell to a regular.
Tony Denison (Coach George, Head Coach): I was shocked that they picked me because the only sports I followed with any kind of regularity are boxing and baseball. I’m not really a football, basketball, or hockey fan. I watch the playoffs or an occasional Super Bowl. Apparently they wanted me very much, so when I got there I went through sort of a rigorous training. I watched a lot of plays, and college football, and I got to really enjoy the game especially from a technical perspective.
Russell Hornsby (Leon Taylor, Running Back): I felt that the role was saying something—I could say something through the role of Leon Taylor, just telling that character’s truth. I felt like the writers allowed me and the other actors to do that.
Thea Andrews (Samantha Lovett, Reporter): What was really interesting is that ESPN originally hired me in April of 2003 and I didn’t start because I was finishing my obligation [in Canada]. [Ed’s Note: Andrews was a co-host of Cold Pizza who also played the role of a TV news reporter on Playmakers.] So I didn’t begin Playmakers until after that. So I knew I was going onto this job. But would I have done it if I had been working at ESPN as a broadcaster for five years? I’m not sure.
Bruce Gray (Gene Wilbanks, Cougars Team Owner): Honestly, I am not a football fan, but it certainly didn’t feel like another job. They didn’t present it to me like I was just another job; the excitement on the set wasn’t like it was just another job. I started looking at some of the owners, specifically Jerry Jones. I saw some interviews of him and he was a pretty straight shooter.
ON SET IN TORONTO
Gooding: We stayed working out. I found an apartment in Toronto with a nice gym and sauna. We worked out at the training facility with some of the guys from the CFL. We had an A team and a B team for filming so they would use the guys from the CFL to make things as accurate as possible. We would go out there and run some plays and catch some balls, and they would use that sometimes, but for the most part it was body doubles. But we had a ball. I had an absolute blast.
Gray: Omar Gooding was sort of interesting on set. It didn’t seem like he was doing much at all, but then I watched the dailies and it was amazing. He was just a great actor with powerful internal work. Russell [Hornsby] was also a very intense actor. Every set is different. I’ve played a guy that ran a brokerage film before and the atmosphere for a show like Playmakers was nothing like that. There was a lot of manliness, pushes on the shoulder, camaraderie and guys wanting to stay in character. There was one scene when my character was being introduced to a new player on the practice field, and the agent introduced me to the player, and we had to shake hands. I went with the regulation handshake, [but he went with] bumping and slapping, which I wasn’t familiar with and when he did it he was being so cool. I was trying to be cool about it and see if could follow him—it went unsuccessfully. The director said this was too good and he just photographed the hands and kept it for the show.
Hornsby: I actually did my stunts twice. One time I went through the hole and they tapped me. The next time I went through, they popped me. That was the last time I did anything involving full-speed tackling. You realize that you’re an actor. I’ve been pampered—I can’t do this gladiator lifestyle.
Andrews: I would never consider myself to be an actor, which is why it was funny working on Playmakers because I never wanted to be an actor. I’m a broadcaster. It was a challenge for me, a little bit scary. Truthfully, it was more work than I’d expected.
Gray: [One time] Snoop Dogg came onto the set. He loved the show and wanted to be on it. When he comes in he came with limos, and they had to give him a huge star wagon. There was a guy named Bishop—I don’t know who he is but he wore lime green suits and gold teeth. There were girls in the trailers. It was a big deal having someone that big on the show. It was a little intimidating, but it was great having him on set.
Gooding: I absolutely thought it was going to be a big deal. We were just told to kill it every episode, go as hard as you possibly could. The extra motivation was that we were told that we weren’t to mention the NFL in any way in any interviews, because they didn’t want them to say any of the storylines were based on the NFL because the owners were already upset about some of the preliminary scripts. ESPN knew we were treading on thin water, so the better we do the better chance we had for coming back for a second season—even though that wasn’t the case.
Gray: [Playmakers] was shooting up in Toronto and when I came back down, I’d come to my local gym and there were a lot of guys who wanted to talk to me about the show—about what things they thought were truthful and some things that they thought were not right. I do a number of sci-fi characters and the fans always want to talk story, and that was similar. There was a lot of publicity about the show and some of the actors were being elevated. Omar Gooding started making a name for himself.
Wiehl: The funny thing was being in Toronto we were kind of in a bubble. We didn’t really know how big it was until we got back midway through the first season. Men and women both really responded to it. It was like a football soap opera, and we were tackling some major issues.
Andrews: There was an uproar about the character I played. The Association for Women in Sports Media (AWSM) protested it. They were really offended by this depiction of a female sports reporter and the relationship she had with a player. A lot of the detractors must not have actually watched the show, because they assumed there was a sexual relationship between the reporter and the player—but it was a dream that he had about her, which is nothing, really.
Eisendrath: As I recall, about halfway through the run, the guy who I would talk to at ESPN, Mark Shapiro—who was responsible for their original programming—he would say they were starting to get complaints from some of the owners. Gatorade had been a sponsor of the show, and at some point they dropped us because of the outside pressure. It was the year the TV deal was being renegotiated so they were a little vulnerable on that front. I got the idea that they weren’t too keen on it but I really didn’t think it would be taken off the air. Then I remember doing an episode of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel about the show, and I remember thinking that it was becoming more controversial than I imagined. I watched the interview on-air and Gumbel asked [Real Sports senior correspondent] Frank Deford, whom I idolized as a kid, if he thought the show would come back, and he said, “No way.” When it finally happened, I wasn’t surprised. ESPN was very honest about it: They were being forced to take it off the air. I got little hints along the way.
Hornsby: I ran into Stephen A. Smith in New York on the street one day and he was like, “That Playmakers—y’all telling the truth. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.” Then hearing from people like Deion [Sanders] about how well the show re-created the NFL and locker room and then I knew things were getting bigger than I expected. You know the NFL had to play damage control, and even now they’re playing damage control with issues.
Gooding: Honestly, we completed the season in Toronto, and when we got home to L.A. to the overwhelming response and support, we thought it would go on forever. Then we got the final word we weren’t going to be picked up and it was like, Man! The ratings were through the roof. We looked at the ratings and wondered how they could drop us, but they weighed the millions from our show against the billions from the NFL. We kind of understood.
Wiehl: Unfortunately, we were just caught between two giant corporations. I remember going to the AFI awards, and we got an award for Best Drama, and the day after I found out we were cancelled. I think with the NFL, it’s a no-fly zone. They’re just too powerful.
Gray: I don’t know if this is the exact truth or not but I heard that a lot of it came down to Gatorade. Of course, Gatorade was a big sponsor. It was hard for the NFL to publicly cancel the show, so they did a simpler thing and told Gatorade that they wouldn’t be showing their advertisement in the games. [So Gatorade] pulled their advertisements from the show, the money was gone and the show was cancelled.
Eisendrath: I get why ESPN made the choice they made, but I think it says a lot about what how money rules pro sports like it rules many other things. You could argue that the most powerful person in Hollywood is the Commissioner of the NFL—not any studio head or head of a TV network. They get the biggest ratings, and nobody wants to cross him. The Commissioner of the NBA is next. Sports rule the TV landscape. The head of the NCAA is one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. Which is why since Playmakers, before or after, you’ve never seen a show depict, in any real way, life in big-time pro or college sports. The networks and the cable stations are too afraid of the reaction from their sports partners. You can have a show that makes fun of the President of the United States and mocks him mercilessly. You can do shows that dig into the real lives of doctors, lawyers, cops, teachers, moms, dads—anyone in America is fair game for a TV dramatization except pro and college sports. The biggest subculture in the country is off-limits.
Denison: Really, it was so real that I can’t imagine that pro football is any different from what we showed. The care and detail that the second unit was doing with the football scenes was impressive. I’ll put those 11 episodes of Playmakers against anything. That show was great. My friend, the late Dennis Farina, would call me and say, “Oh my God, that show is great—I’d love to so a guest spot on the second season.” I am proud to have that on my résumé. It was great. Once in a while someone will come up to me and say, “Man, weren’t you Coach George on Playmakers?” And I got mobbed in the ESPN Zone one time by young people wanting autographs. It was like I was a Beatle.
Hornsby: We were definitely cutting edge with a lot of topics that are now hot-button issues with the NFL—concussions, the weight guys were putting on, prescription drugs they were using, homosexuality, the things the players exposed their families to. I think the show took these things and gave a commentary on athletics, and what I appreciated is that they didn’t glorify it. It was from a real point of view. Like it or not, the show was honest.
Gray: There was a lesson learned: You can do individual movies. It’s not dependent on sponsors. The NFL can’t stop a movie, but they can stop a TV show. It’s a cautionary tale.
Eisendrath: One of the reasons it was a good show was because the characters felt real so the stories seem to reflect a truth about the characters. When that happens, you’re not trying to make a bigger statement, you’re just trying to live with these characters. At that time I was also working on Alias, so during the day I’d work on that. There were other writers working on Playmakers but I wouldn’t get a chance to work with them because I was working on Alias. I’d come home and sit with my wife—who’s also a writer—and ask for her help. I’d say, What are we going to do here? The episode’s due in two days. My wife knows nothing about football. We would just sit and think about what would be a good story to tell. Later, I’d see articles in the newspaper about how controversial it was and my wife and I would laugh because all we do is sit in our kitchen at night and think of stories that would be fun to tell through these characters and then suddenly it’s become controversial. It was an odd juxtaposition. It wasn’t like I was on some vendetta or had any sort of point of view except a positive one. I love sports, I admire athletes, and I felt like the guys who were portrayed in the show were heroic. What was obvious, but the NFL didn’t care about, was that the only way to portray someone as a heroic character is to give them obstacles to overcome. They aren’t interested in that. They just wanted everything to be sweet and gravy and fantastic. I wasn’t portraying the characters in a negative light. Ultimately, they’re all heroic. I don’t think the public would be interested in watching them if they were terrible people doing terrible things with no redeeming qualities. I had no interest in pulling back the curtain to reveal truths that no one knows about the NFL. I thought it was just a great setting for dramatic stories about struggles that young men go through. They were totally wrong if they thought I was trying to do something negative. I love sports and I was writing about it. What could be more fun than that?
Brandon Harrison is a contributor to TDdaily and SLAMonline. Follow him on Twitter @_brandonallen.