How 'Last Chance U' and American Football are reshaping television

There is a gruesome moment in the Amazon Prime series "All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines" that embodie...

Posted: Nov 13, 2018 11:32 AM
Updated: Nov 13, 2018 11:33 AM

There is a gruesome moment in the Amazon Prime series "All or Nothing: The Michigan Wolverines" that embodies a new genre of filmmaking.

In a game against Wisconsin last season, third-string quarterback Brandon Peters is knocked unconscious for what seems like an eternity.

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His hand is limp, his eyes are shut, and he's completely unresponsive. "He's out," says a Michigan trainer.

Finally, after 30 seconds of heart-stopping airtime -- with the 20-year-old's future teetering on edge as a microphone captures his eerie silence -- he regains awareness.

Peters is carted off the field. Michigan lose. Coach Jim Harbaugh consoles his dejected, beat up players in the locker room.

And viewers stream through the whole emotional saga.

The formula of revealing tense fly-on-the-wall moments is turning up at all levels of American football -- and proving addictive to binge watchers.

"All or Nothing," which also profiles three NFL teams, is one of a handful of football-focused docuseries shaking up the entertainment industry.

Among the most popular are the acclaimed Netflix series "Last Chance U," the NFL and HBO-produced "Hard Knocks," the high school quarterback-focused "QB1: Beyond the Lights," Snoop Dogg's "Coach Snoop," and "Friday Night Tykes," which spotlights eight-year-olds playing in pee-wee league football.

There is even a series on the football marching band at Bethune-Cookman University, "Marching Orders."

Viewers, it seems, can't get enough of the grit and drama surrounding the brutal sport, and production companies are taking notice.

'Emotional roller coaster'

Oakland Raiders rookie Maurice Hurst Jr., who was filmed driving an Uber car during his senior year at Michigan in "All or Nothing," says the show painted an accurate picture of life as a student-athlete.

"It gives the fans a little bit of an inside look as to what our day-to-day is," Hurst tells CNN Sport after a recent Raiders game in London, "what problems we deal with, players getting hurt and how tough that is on their families, and careers ending."

The series was miked up to hear quarterback Wilton Speight's groans after a season-ending hit, and the unfiltered bawling of defensive teammates Rashan Gary and Josh Metellus after a loss to Michigan State.

Cameras were focused on the mother of receiver Tarik Black, who cried after hearing her son would need surgery, and on Hurst who wept after his last game in a Michigan uniform, a loss to South Carolina.

"You know, it's such an emotional roller coaster, and on top of that you have school," says the four-time Academic All-American. "It's a real tough duty being a college football player, and I think that showed it."

Hurst is a fan of other football reality-style series, including "Hard Knocks." The NFL production, which recently wrapped its 13th season, depicts the struggles of unsigned players and promising rookies like the Cleveland Browns' Baker Mayfield.

But his favorite show is the one which has shaken up the genre: "Last Chance U."

Currently filming its fourth season, the Netflix series has shadowed two junior college programs in rural America that recruit troubled football players thrown out of Division I schools.

Not surprisingly, the action on the field is matched by the drama off it.

A few players like John Franklin III move on to bigger schools, graduate and take their shots at the NFL, while -- spoiler alert -- others like Bobby Bruce and Isaiah Wright run into legal troubles that spell their undoing.

"You could see there was a lot more than football," Hurst says of the show. "There are a lot of life lessons that you can get from the game, and that's the stuff that people don't always think about."

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'Amazing what the show has done'

Englishman Daniel Shepherd, who has spent "hundreds of hours" watching football series, demonstrates the genre's allure among international viewers, many of whom were not raised on American football.

"It's kind of alien for us, coming from the UK," he says. "If you played high school rugby like I did, you'd be lucky if there were a couple of parents and some guy walking his dog around the outside of the pitch."

Shepherd has re-watched every episode of "Last Chance U," and even passed by Eastern Mississippi Community College, where the first two seasons were set, to grab a T-shirt while driving across America.

"They were super amused," he says, "How does a Brit end up in Scooba, Mississippi in an RV?"

A favorite figure from the series is Eastern Mississippi's academic councilor Brittany Wagner, aka "Miss Brittany" to her students.

From the moment the show began airing in 2016, Wagner has received "tons of emails" from places like Japan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Brazil and even China -- where Netflix is not readily available.

"It's hard for me to wrap my brain around having fans in places that I have not even been to," she marvels. "It's just amazing what the show has done."

When first approached by director Greg Whiteley, Wagner declined to be involved, nervous that it would exploit the student-athletes. Once appeased, she had little concept of how transcendent the show would become.

"It had been my everyday life for years, so I just didn't understand what the appeal was going to be," she reflects, admitting she had not used a streaming service like Netflix to that point.

"Why would people watch this show of kids being in this school in Mississippi?"

The oddity of having two people filming in her cramped office for over six hours each workday while she encouraged players to attend class and do homework never really became normal.

On top of that, her air-conditioning had to be switched off because it was too noisy. "It would get really hot in there," she recalls. "It was just such a tight space, so it felt crowded all the time."

The exposure on the show led Wagner to launch a new career as a motivational speaker and establish her academic foundation 10 Thousand Pencils.

It also brought her plaudits and gratification after eight years of dueling with Eastern Mississippi's fiery coach Buddy Stephens, and a further seven years counseling in other schools.

"I felt unappreciated for a really long time," says Wagner, who noted that at least five NFL players she guided hold college degrees. "And then the show comes on and I guess I'm getting 15 years of appreciation all in two."

READ: Inside an NFL locker room

'Only getting the good stuff'

The success of "Last Chance U" made life easier for director Evan Rosenfeld when pitching his newly released series "Warriors of Liberty City."

Produced alongside LeBron James and Maverick Carter's SpringHill Entertainment, the filming is set in a rough patch of Miami, where the murder of youth players as young as eight is not uncommon.

"A show like this could not have been made even four years ago," says Rosenfeld. "It was 'Last Chance U' that opened up the door."

Using the backdrop of football -- where stakes are high in every game, if not every play -- to tell human stories translates well to the masses.

"You're only getting the good stuff," he explains. "It's done with an eye specifically knowing you want people who don't like sports to watch it."

As distasteful as the documented head injury risks of the sport are, football's danger provides tension to TV audiences that is missing from baseball, basketball or soccer.

"These people put everything into the sport," Rosenfeld says, "and one weird tackle or landing when you're making a catch, or getting hit too hard with a helmet, it's all gone. Everything you worked for is done.

"That's something you struggle to find when you're doing something outside of sports or outside of football," he adds. "What are the stakes? To have that built-in when you're a storyteller is nice."

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'Fighting for their jobs'

Even though the sport lends itself to gripping plot lines, not every football show is a smash hit.

Kevin Oberding was a producer on the ill-fated series "4th and Loud" that followed the exploits of the Los Angeles Kiss, an arena league team founded by Kiss bandmates Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.

From the start, the show that aired in 2014 was plagued by the difficulty of shadowing a rotating cast of players and a coach fired in mid-season.

"In the Arena Football League people are getting cut every week; it's not like the NFL," says Oberding, who played football at the University of Oregon and is now a marketing manager with the Portland Trailblazers.

"As producer I can say (it was) probably a little bit of a miss on our part."

Oberding says the show was aimed to capture a "behind the scenes" look into "working for rock stars." He followed the LA Kiss for 13-weeks, entering the homes of players and coaches.

"That was quite a bit of drama," he says. "You're dealing with people who are not (on-air) talent, who are not used to having that reality show kind of camera in their face."

Like most expansion teams, the LA Kiss fared badly, which created friction off-air.

"We were there to film a TV show, but the coaches and the players were there to win," Oberding says. "If you've ever been around a team, the last time they want a camera in their faces is when they're on an eight-game losing streak.

"I still had to be that guy asking them to run something again, or do interviews, and they're fighting for their jobs."

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'You end up cheering for these guys'

Ultimately, the success of reality football programming hinges on viewers rooting, and empathizing with, the players.

"You watch these shows and you end up cheering for these guys," says Oberding, who often Googles players from the NFL Network series "Undrafted," which ran until 2016, and "Hard Knocks" to check on their careers.

Posting updates on "Last Chance U" alumni is a cottage industry online -- though search results can be unpleasant.

Former Eastern Mississippi running back Wright served nearly a year in prison on what was initially a criminal homicide charge. While inside, he called Wagner as a voice of comfort and the two have spoken again since his release in August.

"I think it's tough when you're playing football and you're on a very successful TV show, and you get out and have all these expectations and some of them don't pan out," she says.

"He found himself right back where he started, and it's heartbreaking."

Wagner says Wright is now "trying to make good decisions" and even finish his college education. Fans of "Last Chance U" will no doubt keep tabs on his future.

"It restored my faith in humanity that people took to (the show) because of the stories and the relationships," Wagner says.

"It really had nothing to do with the game itself, which is very enlightening and inspiring for me."

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