NFL Players Tackle Hollywood

It's an industry where only the toughest thrive. Where everything's a game. Competition is cutthroat. Careers can be cut short. Survivors know how to block and tackle.

I'm talking about the movie biz.

No wonder football players want in.

Hollywood sign
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images
Hollywood sign

This week on the Universal Studios backlot, 20 current and former football players participated in the NFL’s first Hollywood Boot Camp, a four-day crash course in writing, directing, acting, shooting, and every other job on a film set. The league has been creating programs like this over the last few years to help players transition to successful careers after football.

With the help of veterans like Robert Townsend, the players were split into two groups and shot two short films--one a comedy about an app which can transport people back in time, the other film was a drama about a squatter in an empty house. (Both shoots took place right next to the Wisteria Lane set at Universal Studios, and Eva Longoria and Felicity Huffman popped in for an impromptu game of catch.)

"I love movies. I eat movies. I sleep movies," says Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens, the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Over a hundred players wrote critical essays to apply for boot camp, and Suggs won a spot by proving that he’s been a film buff for a very long time. His favorite movie is perhaps an odd choice--"Finding Forrester".

Suggs calls it "a brilliant movie, from start to finish"--this from a man mostly known for being even scarier than Ray Lewis on the field. Off the field he’s already co-written and produced one film, "When Beautiful People Do Ugly Things," which was selected for Cannes. Suggs says some doubted his ability to become a filmmaker, but, “I always say the work’s gonna speak for itself.”

While Suggs likes "Finding Forrester", the favorite film for D'Brickashaw Ferguson of the New York Jets is the comedy "Class Act". "I've got it on my iPad," he says. Ferguson hopes to eventually make a documentary about the challenges of finding affordable clothing for big and tall men, and he’s learning the process of filmmaking this week by handling several jobs--assistant director, audio, even holding the slate. Like most players here, Ferguson is more interested in being behind the camera than in front of it. "Acting is a talent," says the offensive tackle, "but I like to see the whole picture." Here's more of my interview with Ferguson.

Universal helped sponsor the event, with the NFL covering all costs except for plane fare to Los Angeles. Will any of this bear fruit? Hollywood is a tough business. Being a pro player can certainly open doors, but then what? "It's not rocket science," says Jeff Friday, CEO of Film Life. He's the guy who pitched the boot camp idea to the NFL, and he says players just need to learn how the business works. The fact that they understand teamwork is a plus, Friday says, and he’s amazed by their energy level and focus. "I'm really tired, and they're not." He’s been most impressed by Ike Ndukwe of the San Diego Chargers, who came into the program wanting to learn to direct, but has turned out to be a pretty good actor. “He’s unbelievable.”

Nearby, Robert Townsend was running the film crew through its paces and giving directing tips. He tells me he explained to the players this week how the process works. "Making movies is real intense. It's like game day, and that excitement, that top play, and if you can get it one take,” Townsend declared before asking them, “'Do you know what I mean?'” Then he laughs, “And they said, 'Oh, we know what you mean.’"

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