Ten years ago, I was sitting in a small high school office with a football coach of the Pflugerville Panthers deep in the heart of Texas – or at least a bit north of Austin. I was a young production assistant working on the first season of “Friday Night Lights” and we were shooting one of our very first – of what would be many – football games for the TV show. The date was Sept. 25, 2006 – the night of The Block.
This is not a story about rebirth. This is a story about change.
On that night, central Texas had a good bit of experience with the New Orleans Saints under its belt. San Antonio played host to the vagabond team for a few games of the previous year’s 3-13 campaign, and Saints fans had been well represented in Austin for decades by the Shoal Creek Saloon – a true Saints bar that had a giant, homemade Saints helmet adorning its roof.
As a production assistant on the TV show, I was given the ever-so-easy task of keeping track of the Pflugerville coach in case we needed him for anything. So, as the production churned through play after play on the high school football field – fictional home of the Dillon Panthers – I was sitting in a cramped office watching a 19-inch TV set as the Saints took the field against their bitter rival the Atlanta Falcons. The chatter on my walkie-talkie faded into the background.
Like many a stranger who happen to being watching the same game, the coach and I talked to each other by talking to the TV. We – as I assume every one in the country that didn’t live in the Atlanta metro area – were pulling for the Saints. Our eyes were transfixed on the TV and at the ready.
We know how the series goes but what impressed me the most was the sheer level of volume of the Crescent City crowd. Our tiny TV sounded like a hiss of static as its old speakers tried to process the enormity of sound. We laughed and the crowd got louder. Michael Vick would try to sprint away, but Scott Fujita would be faster and knock the ball out of his hand. The Superdome got even louder still. My walkie was squawking but those transmissions were coming from one of many fantastical lands, this latest one named Dillon, Texas. My body was planted in Austin, but my mind – like the nation’s – was in New Orleans.
If you were to shoot a movie where the heroic home team won the game on a blocked punt you would shy away from shooting it the way it actually happened in real life. It just looks too easy. In a way, it looks fake. Yet, the way it looks, with Steve Gleason stunting into an ever-widening hole, is cinema at its best.
You’ve seen the statue that graces the outside of the Dome. It’s a recreation of the very moment – The Block itself. It’s one of the coolest football statues made. It means more than it portrays. The way statues should. It’s the moment you know well – the city ignited, the city in tears.
But my favorite moment happened right before Steve Gleason left his feet and turned into Superman. If you watch the videos, there’s a moment where the offensive line shifts to the left and right and Gleason turns the corner and begins his pursuit of the Falcons punter. The two are on a perfect line – the punter and Gleason.
It looks like a duel.
As with most duels, there can be only one victor. Would Gleason get there?
You know he got there. You know he got there because you lived it. You lived through it. You know he got there because you walk down Magazine Street and see folks filing out of Tracey’s wearing the jersey of a guy who played special teams. You know he got there because Gleason lays it out on the line to this very day. Gleason didn’t get lucky that night. He saw his chance and went in for the kill.
We were screaming. Some perfect stranger and I were screaming. We slapped high fives, threw out some expletives then got silent and listened to the New Orleans crowd once again – the Black and Gold Nation.
“Mark! Are you listening? We need the coach!” I waited until the TV faded into a commercial.
“They need you, coach.”
Remember. This was 2006, and while a lot of folks had smartphones the ubiquitous use of video wasn’t quite at our doorstep. So, as coach and I walked out of the locker room doors onto the field, we were alone that night, in knowing what happened.
We stepped onto a real football field that was inhabited by fictional characters. Fake teams, fake people and made-up stories were all fighting one another in an effort to just get it right. Shoot it once. Now go again. Let’s try it one more time. OK one for safety. The brutal honesty of filmmaking – keep going again and again until you get lucky and make believe replaces reality.
As we crept into the waves of football players and film crew, my mind was reeling with what had just happened and I couldn’t withhold a smile. I pointed the coach in the direction he needed to go and fell back into the ever-moving, ever-changing legion of film production.
The coach, smiling as well, looked over and nodded in a sort of recognition that we alone on that field in Central Texas saw one of the greatest plays of all time.
Thank you, Steve Gleason.
*AP – Sept. 25, 2006 file photo, New Orleans Saints' Steve Gleason (37) sprints through the end zone after blocking an Atlanta Falcons punt. The Saints recovered for a touchdown. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
This was to be a piece about change and I guess in some way it is. It was going to be about change in a, “Deuce McAllister was a long time ago,” sort of way. I was going to put the front office on blast mode for mismanagement of the salary cap and such. Then I was going to touch upon how LSU fired Les Miles and bring it back to – lo and behold – the Tulane Green Wave being the hottest football story in southern Louisiana. But sometimes you start writing and realize the story being told is different than what was intended.
So, take last night’s Saints loss for what it is. Another game that was played, another game that you got to watch and raise hell about. Good or bad, football is great entertainment. Rarely can a fictional drama ascend to the heights of even a decent football contest because the emotions attached to football are real emotions – time invested, love of family, civic pride.
If TV or film executives could capture the essence of football you would have it force-fed to you every hour of every day. That’s just the brain-dead nature of Hollywood. But one can’t bottle the nature of sport. Even with all of its rules – its too wild and unruly and unexpected love is just one special teams play away.