By STEVEN TRAVERS
The true story of the longest movie deal that never got made . . . so far
My conservative political opinions and Christian faith have served the purpose of making me and the Hollywood film industry diametrically opposed to each other. Perhaps this explains in spiritual terms why the following tale of “once upon a time in Hollywood,” at least up until now, has never had a happy ending.
Our story begins on September 12, 1970. I am 11 years old and completely, totally and absolutely infatuated with anything that has to do with the University of Southern California. On that date a fully integrated Trojans team ventured into Birmingham, Alabama, heart of Jim Crow, to do battle with a thoroughly segregated Crimson Tide team.
The game was not televised, but my dad and I sat next to a radio in rapt attention as the Trojans, coached by John McKay and led by a superb African-American running back named Sam “Bam” Cunningham, dominated Alabama, coached by Paul “Bear” Bryant, 42-21.
Over the next few years dad and I would be watching college football, and one of us would remark something like, “Hey, Texas has a black running back,” or “Hey, now ‘Bama has black players.” We both intuitively understood that this social change could trace its germination to that USC-Alabama game.
“Somebody should write a book about it,” Dad remarked.
A decade later I find myself a student at USC, sitting in a sports bar frequented by Trojan athletes. One ex-African American football player was a regular named Cliff Culbreath, who had been in the program during the time of this seminal game. By 1982 college football was thoroughly integrated. Cliff gave me juicy nuggets about playing for John McKay, and the experience of the black players in Birmingham, 1970.
“Somebody should write a book about it,” Cliff remarked.
A few years later I purchased a VHS tape called Trojan Video Gold: The History of USC Football 1888-1988. On the tape famed announcer Tom Kelly explained that after the 1970 win over ‘Bama, Bear Bryant brought a shirtless Sam Cunningham into the Crimson Tide dressing room to announce, “This here’s what a football player looks like.”
“Somebody should write a book about it,” I remarked.
Swimming with the sharks at ICM
By 1994 I was a failure. I had a nice resume, on paper at least, but it was all smoke and mirrors. I was a “sports agent,” for lack of a better term, but that experience was basically Jerry Maguire without the happy ending. Out of this experience I came to know an ex-baseball player named Bo Belinsky, and ended up writing a screenplay about his colorful life.
That script ended up as a semi-finalist in the Beverly Hills Screenplay and Fiction Contest, and was optioned by Frank Capra, Jr., son of the It’s A Wonderful Life director. It was not made into a movie but led to steady paid work in the form of four or five screenplays, the last of which was The Lost Battalion, which I wrote in 1998.
This seemed to be the one that would finally launch my career. A month or so after having finished it I was reading the Sunday Los Angeles Times, which featured a Parade magazine insert with an article about the actor James Woods. The end of the article featured the following:
What is next for Woods?
“I’m directing, producing and starring in a movie called The Lost Battalion, with my friend Edgar Scherick. It’s the story of patriotism and valor in World War I.”
You guessed it; the exact same story, complete with title, of the screenplay I had just completed. I called my agent and USC friend Lloyd Robinson, who knew where every dead body was buried in Tinseltown, and asked him to look into it for me.
A week later I found myself sitting opposite Edgar Scherick in his Westside office. He was an intimidating man; burly, gruff-voiced, not inclined to flattery. It began with my sitting down while he “big leagued” me on the telephone, so I got up and walked around, looking at his pictures. I saw him with Howard Cosell, Frank Gifford, Jackie Robinson, and a veritable “whose who” of New York sports royalty of the 1950s.
He finally hung up the phone and sounding like Torquemada asked, “Are you here to sue me?”
“No,” I replied. “I understand you are producing a movie that is the same subject as a script I wrote, but it’s historical material not ‘owned’ by any one person. But perhaps you’d be interested in using some parts of my script in your film, or in any of my other screenplays.”
His tone changed. He saw in my biography I had played professional baseball.
“Why the hell did the Dodgers not pinch-hit for Vizcaino last night?” he suddenly asked.
“Because Dave Hansen’s on the DL and there was nobody to face a right-hander. Besides, with a tie score if it went extra innings Johnson wanted defense.”
A perfect answer, and thus the beginning of a beautiful, but unfortunately short friendship.
Scherick had literally founded ABC Sports, the original Baseball Game of the Week, discovered Cosell, and Monday Night Football was his brainchild. He had lost a power struggle with Roone Arledge, moving to Hollywood where he produced Bewitched, That Girl, Raid on Entebbe, The Stepford Wives, among many other movies and TV programs. He was a legend.
Two weeks later Lloyd called, sounding giddy.
“Edgar loves you and he loves your screenplay,” he said. “He wants to buy it and incorporate your dialogue and character development of the major character, Major Charles Whittlesey, into his film.”
This is the scene from The Player when Tim Robbins tells the young writers to go home and “pop a bottle of Champagne,” because like all writers they will hope to soon be “on the slopes of Aspen with Jack Nicholson.”
Before my dreams of glory and a hefty payday could be realized, I met with my friend Brad Cole, a successful TV actor in Europe and in American soaps. He had worked with Woods and warned me of the protocol. At the time my girlfriend was a beautiful, voluptuous blond.
“Woods will have a hot girlfriend,” he told me. “No matter what, don’t flirt with her. But he’ll flirt with your girlfriend. Just let him do it.”
I told Brad I could handle that, and then . . .
Lloyd called and said, “Bad news. The Woods-Scherick project is being packaged by International Creative Management, the biggest talent agency in the world. They represent all the ‘above the line’ talent, which means producer, director, star, and screenwriter. Everybody is an ICM client except you. If you get a writing credit they don’t get the big payday from packaging the project. Edgar has quit the project in protest and Woods left to do Dirty Pictures, about Robert Mapplethorpe.”
Lawyers and agents! There was a reason Satan was an attorney in The Devil’s Advocate, not to mention Shakespeare had advocated killing them all. I myself had quit the law because I was not morally compromised enough to exist in its shark-filled waters.
Edgar went on to make Path to War, an HBO series about the build-up to the Vietnam War starring Alec Baldwin as Robert McNamara.
“As soon as I’m done I’m gonna hire you to write a script about Sonny Liston, the last of the ‘mobbed up’ boxers,” he told me.
This sounded great, but no so fast Johnson . . .
On December 2, 2002, Edgar Scherick died. No Sonny Liston project, no Hollywood screenwriting career. I was disappointed but rebounded. I was the lead sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner and therefore an eyewitness to Barry Bonds’s breaking of the all-time season home run record. This was like riding “shotgun” with George Patton in World War II, and I parlayed this access into a biography of Bonds that sold well and was a finalist for the Casey Award as best baseball book of the year.
But I miscalculated the impact of that book. I thought the literary world would pound a path to my door, but they did not. In 2004 I could not get a second book published. Initially big publishing houses sounded me out about writing the “big steroid book” which went not to me but to Mark Fainaru-Wada, who wrote Game of Shadows.
“God has brought us together”
In 2000 I had written up Petros Papadakis as my pick for “Trojan of the Month,” in my regular column about USC sports in a magazine I wrote for in Los Angeles. His father, John Papadakis, had read it, called to thank me, and invited me to their family restaurant, Papadakis Taverna in San Pedro. I met him and he told me he had played in the 1970 USC-Alabama game, which featured prominently in a recent “Distant Replay” column I had written. We met and he talked about the impact of that game.
“Somebody should write a book about it,” John remarked.
I was still enamored of writing for Hollywood, so I asked Lloyd to shop the idea around. He made some perfunctory calls but nothing came of it. Four years later, I was 45 years old; StreetZebra magazine was a mere memory; the Examiner, once the jewel in the crown of the Hearst publishing empire, was out of business; the money from Barry Bonds: Baseball’s Superman had dried up; Edgar Scherick and all my screenwriting hopes pinned to him were dead; the “big steroid” book a New York agent had promised me had gone to Fainaru-Wada; I had no real literary representation; and seriously considered whether I was a loser who should find another way to make a living. It was a low point, for sure.
So I turned to God. So inspired was I by Mel Gibson’s The Passion that I began reading the New Testament every day. The morning I finished the last page of Revelation, I turned on the TV and saw Petros Papadakis announcing a football game between LSU and Oregon State. I ruffled around my desk, found his dad’s business card, and called him to wish Petros congratulations.
“God has put us together,” was the first thing out of John’s mouth. He added that he was “feeling lucky” and apparently my call was prophetic. I can remember the date perfectly: Saturday, September 2, 2004. I was not particularly happy with myself, but after reading The Bible perhaps this was a sign of some kind.
Over the next five months I met with John, Sam “Bam” Cunningham, and a few of John’s friends. The first thing we needed to do was figure out whether this should be a book or a film. Prior to my coming on board, John had come to an agreement of some kind with his ex-teammate Allan Graf. Graf had played on the 1970 USC team that beat Alabama. He had become a stuntman and eventually a highly respected second-unit director. His specialty were football movies. He had coordinated all the on-field scenes in The Replacements, The Waterboy, Jerry Maguire and Any Given Sunday.
Graf was frustrated that despite showing considerable professionalism behind the camera, he had not been given the opportunity to fully direct a film. He was convinced this was his chance; a football movie about a game he had personal experience with.
Graf proceeded to write a screenplay and managed to sell it to Gerald Molen, one of the top producers in Hollywood. Molen had played the original doctor at the clinic where Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man character lived until Tom Cruise “kidnapped” him. He had produced that film along with many other hits ranging from Days of Thunder to Schindler’s List to Catch Me If You Can. He was Steven Spielberg’s “go to” guy, at least until a fateful day in 2004 when Allan Graf met with John Papadakis on the steps of USC’s Heritage Hall.
Graf and Papadakis had a handshake agreement. Graf’s deal with Molen was between them and did not include Papadakis, who expected a big pay day. Graf thought his old teammate just wanted to see a great story told, one that would glorify and hopefully enrich their mutual teammate Sam “Bam” Cunningham. Papadakis had not “produced” anything. Graf, on the other hand, was a successful second unit director who had written a screenplay good enough to get a top producer like Gerald Molen to produce it.
Graf tried to explain that but an argument ensued, ending in fisticuffs at Heritage Hall. Thus was a 35-year friendship down the tubes. Papadakis had then threatened Graf and Molen with a lawsuit, which is death to a movie in Hollywood. Molen pulled out of his deal with Graf, a crushing personal blow to Allan. His one truly big chance was out the window.
It is interesting to note what happened to Molen after that. Up until that time he was making hit movies, usually with Spielberg. But Molen was a Christian and a conservative. Always a minority in the film business, by 2004 it was practically the mark of Cain. That was the year the Iraq War heated up, Michael Moore made Fahrenheit 9/11, and hatred of George W. Bush was at a fever pitch. Molen was edged out and ended up making conservative documentaries piercing the thin hide of Barack Hussein Obama. They were well done and made money, but his Hollywood career was over.
It was right after that when I called John. At the time I did not know who Allan Graf was. When John explained what had happened with Graf, even though I seemed to feel Graf was in the right, it occurred to me that if I had a dog in this fight it was John and Sam Cunningham. He suggested I write a screenplay to compete with Graf’s, but not knowing yet what Molen might do, I figured that would be going up against an already-written script recently bought by a respected producer.
“I should write a book,” I told John.
A book; especially a book written by John and Sam Cunningham from a personal angle (co-written by me), would represent a certain sense of “ownership” of intellectual property, which was nebulous at best since no matter what, the 1970 USC-Alabama football game was a historical event that did not “belong” to anybody, any more than the events of The Lost Battalion, and the battles fought in the Argonne during World War I, belonged to me, or Edgar Scherick, or the other screenwriter he had originally hired, Jim Carabatsos, who had also written Heartbreak Ridge and Hamburger Hill.
John understood what I was saying and agreed we would write a book together. We had no contract, but I was reeling from the fact that after Barry Bonds: Baseball’s Superman, the literary industry had forgotten about me. Loss after professional loss had added insult to injury. If I were to continue with the dream of writing and making a living out of it, this was my big chance. My only last chance.
Over the course of the next five months I woke up every day with one thing on my mind: finding a publisher for the 1970 USC-Alabama book. I worked for free, six or seven days a week, eight or 10 hours per day. I paid for my own gas, my own phone calls, my own travel expenses. If I took a lunch, it was out of my pocket.
I put together a solid book proposal. Lloyd was strictly a film agent, and no big powerhouse either. He knew everything that went on in the industry but was not the sort of heavyweight who could push a project forward. His contacts with book publishers consisted mainly of those specializing in self-publishing. This book had to be with a top house that could promote it and generate enough heat so that the movie industry would follow up on it, not to mention pay a large enough advance to satisfy John Papadakis, Sam Cunningham, and me. This was no easy task.
I had spent years trying to find a literary agent. I had found Lloyd on the recommendation of a producer for Vin Di Bona, who in 1999 had taken a script I wrote with a couple of surfer/skateboarders all the way to Jerry Offsay, head of programming at Showtime. After months moving up the greasy ladder past readers and increasingly higher level executives, Offsay reportedly said, “I’m not making any Godd—n skateboarding movie.”
That was that. I stayed with Lloyd but despite a friendship, the man had not promoted my career one iota, so I needed an agent with a track record for books. I had a large file filled with rejection letters from agents, publishers and producers in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and all points in between. At this point I had been writing “professionally” full-time for a decade, with little to show for it: a few low-pay assignments to write scripts for Frank Capra’s group; a column with a magazine that was a casualty of the “dot bomb” era; a big city column for a paper now out of business; a high-expectation-but-ultimately-brutal experience with Edgar Scherick and the sharks at ICM; a broken promise from an unscrupulous agent over the “steroid book” that went to a colleague instead. This was the writer’s life.
All I had was a successful Barry Bonds biography that kept me going a year or so; followed by more disappointment.
I was divorced. My daughter Elizabeth was attending the University of Oregon, and after putting money away since 1985 I discovered I had enough to pay her way for a year and-a-half at best. I was at a cross-roads. So I hitched my ride to the coattails of John Papadakis and Sam “Bam” Cunningham. How did I find an agent? I just went on the Internet and pounded away with phone calls, letters and emails. At one point I thought I had found one.
Her name was Maureen Regan. She was the sister of Judith Regan, at the time the hottest publisher in New York. This seemed too good to be true. It was. First I called Maureen at one P.M. Pacific Time on the day before Thanksgiving. She threw a complete fit, excoriating me for calling “after hours” (four P.M. on the East Coast) on the Wednesday before a holiday. She basically told me to buzz off. Good-bye Maureen Regan.
There was some sense of justice or karma, however. Her sister Judith had just published a book by a blond bimbo who had an affair with the convicted wife-killer Scott Petersen, and followed that up with the infamous If I Did It, an odd, odd book by O.J. Simpson in which he “confessed” to killing his wife using a fictitious partner-in-crime named Charlie. The book was so ill received that it essentially ended Judith’s (and Maureen’s) career in publishing. It did not help when it was revealed Judith had an affair with N.Y.P.D. Commissioner Bernard Kerik.
Next was a strange guy in L.A. who had originally been interested in my “steroids” book. One day he put me on the phone with a publisher who offered the princely sum of $2000. I think I just hung up and went out to get drunk.
Finally I found Craig Wiley, an attorney in Indianapolis. Despite no great track record and a location far off the beaten literary track, he was enthusiastic and competent. He became the agent for Papadakis, Cunningham and myself. He immediately began to attract competent publishing houses, and finally had an offer on the table.
It was February, 2005. USC football under Pete Carroll was the hottest thing in sports. Anything associated with USC at that point was worth its weight in gold. The offer came from Thomas Nelson Publishers, a very successful house known for conservative and Christian titles. My book proposal had emphasized the “feel good” nature of Christian truth being the prime motivator reaching the hearts and minds of the American South.
A conference call was set up. I was on my line; John and Sam were on John’s line at Papadakis Taverna; Craig was in Indianapolis; and a coterie of Thomas Nelson execs were on their line in Nashville, Tennessee. What happened next I will never forget as long as I live.
The call came in. Craig introduced Sam, John and I. Maybe I said something like, “Hello, nice to meet you.” The Nelson execs said something like, “We’re really excited about this project.” Then John started talking.
Call this an exaggeration. Call this what you will, but for the next hour straight, that man talked and talked . . . and talked. Craig never got a word in edge wise. Neither did I. Neither did anybody from Thomas Nelson. It was all John Papadakis all the time, 60 minutes uninterrupted. Finally, at the very end, John introduced big Sam, who was a very humble, modest man. He said a few words that took up about 30 seconds. Then John took over again and closed out the conversation. At the end the Thomas Nelson people maybe said something like, “Well, thanks, I think we’d like to go forward with this,” at which point Craig might have said, “That’s good news,” at which point John spoke again for a few minutes and closed the call on his terms. I do not think I even said, “Good-bye,” much less anything else about my career or vision for the project. The only promotion of Yours Truly came when John said I was “a great Trojan and USC historian.”
Within a day Craig called me to announce that Thomas Nelson was offering $50,000 to us for the book. Now maybe I just think small, but $50,000 U.S. in 2005 was not anything to sniff at. John was wealthy; he owned a successful restaurant and lived in posh Palos Verdes Estates. Sam was struggling. He had a landscaping business in Inglewood and an NFL pension, but had monetary issues. I of course thought one-third of $50,000 was a very nice payday.
I congratulated Craig on a job well done and proceeded to call Papadakis with the “good news.” That call changed my life and is one of those strange events that cannot be predicted, because at first it seemed disaster had befallen me.
Told an offer for 50 grand was on the table, Mr. Papadakis delivered this one-two punch to my kidneys: “I’m not gonna accept that offer. I want a bigger house than Thomas Nelson. Also, I’ve decided we’re not gonna go with you. We’re gonna use Bill Plaschke.”
I was stunned but not silent. John was very proud of his Greek heritage, so I said something about the Trojan horse used to blindside Athens back in antiquity. He replied that I was not helping my cause by speaking like that. We hung up.
I called Craig and told him what happened.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “I just got off the phone with Thomas Nelson. They don’t want to work with John after his one-hour phone tirade, but they think you are a historian who can research this project, interview all the relevant people involved, and produce a book ready for publication next football season. They understood it is historical subject matter, and is not John’s story, and not even Sam’s story, any more than D-Day was the story of any one man.”
Craig added this zinger. “John screwed you over. He deserves what’s gonna happen to him.”
I did not disagree and told Craig to draw the contract up. Within days it was signed and I was being paid more than I would have had I been forced to split it three ways with Papadakis and Sam. I felt badly about Sam, because he was a moral man and had not hurt me, but he had hitched his star to a man who, at least in this instance, had acted dishonestly.
Papadakis of course exploded and told everybody he knew, which was a considerable list, that I was a terrible person. He even had people in the media he knew write unflattering, dishonest things about me, which included a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News referring me to me as, “Little Stevie.” Later when that writer wrote a middling book with Tom Kelly I copy-pasted what he wrote about me word for word into an Amazon review, except every place where he criticized me I filled in the blanks with glowing praise for him. In other words, being the better man.
I proceeded to do my research. Over the next months I interviewed approximately 40 players, coaches, media and academics from Alabama, and about the same number of players, coaches, media and academics from USC. I also used stories and quotes from my many conversations and meetings with John and Sam, which I was assured breached no ethics. I had been in the room or on the phone with them and they had said what they said. I could not unknow what I now knew.
All was going very well until Craig called me to tell me John was suing Thomas Nelson. Incredibly, Thomas Nelson did not back me up one iota. Instead they insisted I take out everything that I had heard John and Sam say, and remove every interview with any former USC person who I had been introduced to by Papadakis. Additionally, they insisted every word of the book be bibliographed. In the end, Thomas Nelson did what I considered to be the opposite of Christianity; they failed me in my time of need and threw me under the bus. They canceled the book and asked for their money back. I told Craig to tell them I had worked very hard and operated in good faith, which I had, and they would not see a dime from me.
I will never forget it. It was a terrible low point, another low point in a long series of low points in a writing career I had struggled so hard to make into a success. It was so unfair, so wrong. But instead of feeling sorry for myself, I again returned to God. I had interviewed two standout players from that 1970 USC team, lineman Dave Brown and tight end Charles “Tree” Young. Both were devout Christians who infused their descriptions of the events with Biblical phraseology. I called both and asked them to pray with me; not for me, but for this project, which we all viewed as an important book glorifying God.
Then, another miracle.
I had written an article for a small, unknown web site in which I said USC under Pete Carroll had surpassed Notre Dame historically as the greatest college football program of all time, and that the 2005 team had a good chance to be thought of as the best team ever assembled.
Then I received an email from Rick Rinehart, publisher of Rowman & Littlefield, a very successful house. Would I, he asked, be willing to write a book advocating the same thing in a book about USC’s storied grid history? Would I? You bet.
He made a generous financial offer, and I replied, “Let’s make it a two-book deal. I write the USC history book for the amount you offer, then you can have a second book, which is practically finished, about the 1970 USC-Alabama game, for the same price as the first book. One can be published in 2006, the other in 2007.”
Without hesitation Rick accepted. He may even have yelled something like, “Hell, yeah.”
It was beautiful and it made my career. It changed everything and I have never known low moments such as I describe herein, ever again. But that is just the half of it. In addition to being paid a hefty sum for two books, I kept the advance from Thomas Nelson when their legal team told them I had been in the right all along. That is still not the end of this bumpy but ultimately happy story. Rowman & Littlefield allowed me to put everything back that Thomas Nelson had requested I take out (which would have gutted the book) when their legal team determined I had not stolen or plagiarized or acted unethically in any way. I was of course never sued because there was no merit to the threat. I had survived and been vindicated.
If you don’t know how good that feels, you have never experienced tribulations such as I experienced. But more important, I never lost faith in God, and the success I experienced in subsequent years is, in my humble opinion, a reward for my faith. All glory is with God Almighty.
Everything can be summed up in a brief event that occurred during this time. I love being able to tell it now, for it demonstrates as self-evident truth how righteous I was, and how unrighteously John had dealt with me.
John believed he had derailed me and my book. While he had poisoned the Thomas Nelson deal (as he had the Graf screenplay with Gerald Molen), he only created an avenue leading to a better deal with Rick Rinehart. But unaware of that yet, he hired Don Yaeger to write the book he had fired me from. Apparently he and Bill Plaschke, the L.A. Times sports columnist, never agreed to do it.
Yaeger was a fine writer who had written Under the Tarnished Dome, which exposed improprieties in the Notre Dame football program. He had no personal experience with USC except that a decade earlier I had approached him about writing a book about scandals I knew involving Todd Marinovich and others at USC. At the time USC was not doing well, and he declined saying, “Nobody cares about USC.” He did me a favor; had I written a scathing hit piece about the Trojans I would have been persona non grata at USC, instead of eventually receiving a free lunch from one end of the campus to the other.
But now the Trojans were two-tine national champions and anything about USC meant gold, so Yaeger jumped at the opportunity. Then he called me, thinking my publishing deal was dead. Yaeger offered me $10,000 for all my research, interviews and writings, which he would basically just copy-and-paste into his book. I have never heard such a ludicrous thing before, not to mention anything quite as sleazy and unethical. Undoubtedly John Papadakis knew all about this and was in on it. I played along, drawing them deeper and deeper, claiming I would do it only if my name were on the cover as a co-author. Then I let ‘em know my book deal was not dead; in fact it would compete with the Yaeger-Papadakis book.
The best is yet to come. My book did do better and was more critically acclaimed than the rather fast-and-slick Yaeger book, but the cherry on top, the ultimate bragging rights, came when Yaeger wrote a book called Tarnished Heisman. Papadakis had allowed a snake into his cherished garden of Troy, and using all the inside knowledge he picked from the tree of USC, Yaeger had written the book launching the NCAA’s investigation into Reggie Bush, resulting in a lengthy probation that sent the football program into a decade-plus spiral of mediocrity.
I heard Papadakis “hates” Don Yaeger. He got what he deserves.
But before that, USC was still on top of the college football world and nobody benefited from it more than I. The USC Trojans: College Football’s All-Time Greatest Dynasty (2006) sold very well and made me a celebrity at USC. One Night, Two Teams: Alabama vs. USC and the Game That Changed a Nation was a bestseller and finalist for Pacific Booksellers of the Northwest Book of the Year. Both USC and the University of Alabama gave me carte blanche to use their resources and libraries to research it, granting me a specialized Ph.D.
I was on every major radio and television station, local and national, interviewed about the book. I signed books, made speeches and many appearances at USC, including in front of the peristyles at the L.A. Coliseum and with the Pasadena Quarterbacks Club, whose previous honored guests included Pete Carroll, Bill Walsh and John Robinson. I became a frequent panelist, speaker and adjunct in USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism, in a class called Sports, Culture & Society.
I told audiences that I basically “talked my way” into USC in 1981-82, but if back then the Oracle of Delphi had shown me this future, in which thousands of my fellow Trojans would be lined up to hear me speak, and a special table in USC’s bookstore would be reserved for my work, well I would have accepted that as a very good future indeed.
That was not the end. This led to numerous other USC books, all of which sold like hotcakes during the enormous success of the Pete Carroll era. My ship had come in at precisely the right time and in precisely the right place. I felt like George Patton, suddenly in command of the army that would destroy the Nazis once and for all, when a short time earlier he had almost been sent home in disgrace.
Hollywood beckons . . . again
As of this writing I have written some 33 books, plus hundreds of articles and essays in newspapers, magazines and web sites. I accomplished what I set out to accomplish. But recall how I started out, as a screenwriter in 1994.
Which brings me back to Hollywood, and a side story to this tale that may or may not end up with such a happy ending. We will see, for the story is not entirely told yet. Considering how much I have come to despise what Hollywood stands for, I have very mixed emotions over what, exactly, a happy ending will turn out to be.
Suffice it to say that back when the book was being written and eventually published, it received a lot of buzz from the film industry. Ron Howard, a big USC guy, wanted to option it. So did David L. Wolper (Roots), another USC alum. Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman) was rumored to want to direct it. I personally wanted John Milius, a USC legend and screenwriter of Apocalypse Now, to direct, but nothing came of that.
Three documentaries were made on this subject matter. The first was from CBS/College Sports TV, and the second was called Breaking the Huddle (HBO, 2008). In 2013 Showtime featured Tom Selleck (USC ‘66) as the narrator of Against the Tide.
But in 2006, before One Night, Two Teams was even published, I was contacted by a man named Jim Starr. Jim had earned a master’s from USC and had spent many years in the L.A.P.D., where he was known as the “singin’ cop,” an act he used in schools and later took to Las Vegas. Jim was close friends with Anthony Davis, a Trojan legend who had been a freshman when USC played at Birmingham in 1970.
“You walk on water,” Jim said to me several times, until I told him only one man ever “walked on water” and it sure was not me, but he was another of Lloyd Robinson’s clients and Davis knew a man named Kerry McCluggage, a top Hollywood producer. Lloyd recommended that the three of us form a “producer’s team” and present ourselves to McCluggage. I agreed.
In June of 2006 we met at McCluggage’s Sunset Boulevard offices. To say that he was impressive did not do the man justice. First, Kerry looked not like a movie producer but rather like a movie star. In fact, his girlfriend at USC had been Cindy Hensley, the most beautiful blond sorority queen of the 1970s. She eventually left Kerry and married John McCain, and in 2008 almost became First Lady. I was impressed that Kerry, unlike most of the industry, was a Republican. I never got to the bottom of his Christian faith really, but he was a native of Kansas who had Midwestern values, then and now. He did not even live in Hollywood proper, but in the Pasadena-La Canada Flintridge area, and his daughter was the Rose Queen in 2007.
He had helped produce The Breakfast Club, Out of Africa, and Cocktail. He had run Paramount and Universal TV for 10 years, then founded UPN. He had overseen Miami Vice, Cheers, the Star Trek TV franchise, and The Arsenio Hall Show, in addition to The A-Team, Coach, Cheers and Frazier, just to name a few highlights. He had grown company profits from $700 million to $3.2 billion and was an absolute legend, the modern picture of a “big shot” despite his soft demeanor. By the time I came into his orbit he ran Craftsman Films.
McCluggage had a partner named Barry Kemp, who in his own way was just as big a deal in Tinseltown. Another down-to-Earth Midwesterner and University of Iowa alum and football fan, Kemp had written for Newhart, Taxi, and was the driving force behind Coach, which I assume is how he and McCluggage became partners. His top film credits included Patch Adams and Catch Me If You Can, where he must have crossed paths with Gerald Molen, the man who originally bought Allan Graf’s screenplay but dropped the project when Papadakis sued, as he did with me after I signed a publishing deal with Thomas Nelson. I figured I had some real intestinal fortitude; John had forced a powerful man like Molen to drop a potentially great project, but had failed to bring me to my knees.
I signed an option agreement with Kerry and Barry after meeting with both personally several times. They also did something very smart. They brought John Papadakis into the fold. Frank Wells of Warner Bros. apparently was ready to produce based on their book, but when he decided not to, McCluggage signed his group. This was straight out of The Godfather, when Michael Corleone says his father taught him to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
McCluggage optioned the book co-authored by Yaeger, Papadakis and Sam Cunningham, as well as life story rights for both Papadakis and Cunningham. No doubt had he not done this John, who must have his lawyer on speed dial if not retainer, would have sued as he did with Graf and myself. It was around this time that I became friends with Graf, and all the years since I have always felt he was the one guy in this Hollywood tale who got truly screwed over. He would have made a great director. Absent Papadakis, he and Molen might have made this movie 10 years ago.
But with everybody under one tent, McCluggage and Kemp were now free to produce the project absent any legal wrangling. They especially wanted to avoid “doubling down” on the same subject manner, as occurred when there were two films about Steve Prefontaine, and later two films about Steve Jobs.
In 2010 Kemp wrote a screenplay based on my book and the Yaeger book. I had written a screenplay based on my book but never “went out” with it. Barry’s was a very creditable screenplay with one exception. It contained a scene – albeit a famous scene – that I had found to be untrue.
An enduring myth about the 1970 USC-Alabama game was that after the game, Bear Bryant had entered the USC dressing room and asked John McKay if he could “borrow” Sam “Bam” Cunningham. He in fact had done this and McKay had in fact asked assistant coach Craig Fertig to tag along.
But according to lore, Bryant had brought Sam – shirtless, clad still in hip pads, gleaming with sweat – and propped him up on a bench while his beaten white Crimson Tide players stared up at him, not unlike a slave auction, and declared, “This here’s what a football player looks like.”
It had not happened. I was the one who discovered it had not. I broke the news in my book. In talking to some 40 Alabama people, including numerous players and coaches who were in the room, including assistant coach Clem Gryska and quarterback Scott Hunter, who became a good friend of mine, they all adamantly stated it had not happened.
In an interview with the Mobile Press-Register, Sam admitted as much, saying, “I’m not the one to say it didn’t happen, but it didn’t happen.”
I had spoken to numerous journalists who had been in the hallway at Legion Field when Bryant did in fact parade Cunningham before them, and in drilling down to the nub of the story I determined that Fertig, who was extremely genial, had been distracted and was engaging in conversation with people he knew in that hallway, losing track of Sam.
Bryant had walked Sam past not just writers but some reactionary elements of the racist Alabama old guard – apparently a retired World War II Army general and a few others who did not like what was happening at all – and in passing said in general terms, “This is a football player” and “This is what a football player looks like.”
He had not taken him inside the ‘Bama dressing room, but to the entrance, where apparently a few players came out and shook his hand. Bryant had never embarrassed his team with a big show, just as he had not scheduled the game hoping to lose, and thus forcing the alumni to accept the fact they needed blacks to compete.
I had discussed all of this at length in my book. The result of the game of course was that it became accepted that blacks play at Alabama, which immediately benefited Alabama, but Bryant had already recruited one who was a freshman, ineligible for varsity play at the time. Wilbur Jackson sat in the Legion Field stands that evening.
I had in fact made enemies and friends in the course of my revelations. One good friend to this day was Bryant biographer Keith Dunnavant, an Alabama alum who still finds some of my precepts to differ from his but respects my position. On the other hand, for some reason another Alabama scribe named Allen Barra became utterly hateful towards me, even though he was one of the writers who helped me discover the myth behind the story.
Then there was Loel Schrader. He had promoted the story in his columns for 37 years until I showed it to be untrue, and he despised me for it. He had even claimed to have seen it, but nobody had seen it because it had not happened. He hated me and tried to discredit me for not having been there, an odd thing since he had been there but failed to report the truth.
What had happened was that the term “this here’s what a football player looks like” had been bandied about by Bryant and others in that hallway late on that sweaty night in 1970. Fertig had heard it, as had others from both ‘Bama and USC.
It somehow entered the lexicon, and at USC dinners and fundraisers was repeated, by Fertig, by John McKay, by Tom Kelly, and others, for decades. Cunningham never even knew about it. He was off to New England to play for the Patriots, where his teammate was John Hannah, an Alabama All-American. Even when he retired, he had little contact around USC circles because they had failed to recruit his younger brother, Randall, as a quarterback instead of as a cornerback. It was only when Pete Carroll arrived and Sam re-acquainted himself with his old friend John Papadakis, and was invited to speak to the Trojans by Carroll, that he found out about the Bryant fable. At first he was too embarrassed to deny it, if indeed he even remembered enough about that evening to verify what exactly happened. But when it became obvious it had not happened, Sam agreed with the assessment I arrived at.
Yet, Barry Kemp wrote the untrue scene into his 2010 screenplay. I immediately called both Barry and Kerry.
“Listen,” I said, “I know these Alabama people. I’ve been there, a lot of them are friends of mine and a few have even made themselves enemies. Some even think I’m a ‘California liberal,’ even though I’m a total Reagan Republican. They are protective of their history, especially Bryant’s legacy, and they all know this story is false. If we play it on screen like it happened it will be all they see. They won’t stick around for the film’s ultimate message.”
Thank God, Kemp up-dated the script with a re-write, this time writing it as I described it. Sure, the first version had cinematic value, but the reality of the story, its feel-good ending, had not changed.
But I thought we would have a film “in the can” within a year or two. Instead years went by. Finally it looked like we had a deal with Sony. I even scored an invite to Sony’s premiere of Moneyball, where I sat practically next to Billy Beane, and bragged about how “my movie” was next on the Sony slate, but nothing came of that.
At one point Melissa Joan Hart, star of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, wanted me to leave Kerry and let her produce it. Her husband, a country music star, was an Alabama native who loved the story. I said “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Around 2013 Kerry announced he was on the verge of a deal with Legendary Pictures, who had made 42, the Jackie Robinson bio-pic. Month after month passed with no further word.
Then he was ready to make the movie with a top Disney executive who had played baseball at USC for Rod Dedeaux. Again the Champagne was put on ice, where again it stayed for months, then a year, until it just faded into memory.
When I first signed with Kerry, I invited my daughter Elizabeth and both my parents to a celebratory dinner announcing, “My book is being made into a movie.” Four years later my father passed away, never having seen it. Now my mother had become a cynic. Whenever word of a deal was bandied about, I no longer told her anything. When I talked about it with my daughter and her husband Jason, it was as if discussing a joke, another biting Hollywood tale as like the infamous Lost Battalion script that supposedly Edgar Scherick and James Woods were going to make, only to have it stolen away by the ICM sharks. Mom finally died in 2020.
I was becoming bitter but also less sure I even wanted to do business with an industry I found un-patriotic but even worse, filled with people I honestly had come to believe were Satanists in one form or another. Still, we all have vanity, we all have an ego, and the notion of having my name appear “above the line” as an author, a co-producer, maybe even getting a screenwriting credit; the chance to be on a set with the director and the star, that was still exciting. I even imagined maybe I would have some minor role as one of the sportswriters crowding around Bear Bryant in the halls of Legion Field.
Then came word that a black filmmaker named DeVon Franklin, a rare Christian in Hollywood, was on board. I researched him, liked what I saw, then waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Nada.
It was around this point that Lloyd Robinson, whose grandfather had been Vice-President of Universal during the silent era, and who had been in show biz since 1964 himself, told me he was unaware of any project that had ever been renewed so many years without getting made, and that if Kerry kept paying me on options, pretty soon he would own the property outright.
Finally in 2018 it was announced, once and for all, that Warner Bros., who had wanted to do it as far back as 2006-07, had literally “green lit” the project. The term “green light” is the magic phrase in the industry. I was told they had a budget and everything.
This happened just before I entered my high school’s athletic hall of fame, along with my senior year team that had been national champions, later was the cornerstone of the program being named National High School Baseball Program of the Decade by The Sporting News, and by both MaxPreps.com and Student Sports as the 13th and 14th greatest high school baseball team in history, respectively.
This drew great plaudits at the banquet. My mother was still alive and I convinced her that this time it was real. To Elizabeth and Jason I remained suspect. I was right to lack confidence.
Again, I waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. Zero.
Then I heard that Kerry had landed Jeff Daniels to play Bear Bryant, with Carl Weathers (Rocky) set to direct. Back in 2007 we had hoped for Kevin Costner to play John McKay, as he was friends with McKay’s son, J.K. It all seemed to be smoke and mirrors.
Finally after the George Floyd killing, I became convinced the industry would never accept a movie in which two “white saviors” (Bryant and McKay), who were both Southern “red necks,” had conspired to play a football game that would open the eyes of the white South and create the modern environment we live in.
Stabbed in the back one more time
Finally in 2021 Sam “Bam” Cunningham passed away. This was a blow, since having him around to do interviews and promote the film was a huge plus. But no sooner was he gone than John and Don Yaeger breached their contract – essentially the same terms I was bound to and had signed onto every year since 2007 – by signing with Village Roadshow’s Steve Mosko.
“This has Sam Perlmutter’s name all over it,” Lloyd told me, referring to Papadakis’s attorney. “He’s known for this kind of behind-the-back dealings.”
I certainly understood that Papadakis was not to be trusted, after the way he dumped me after I brought the Thomas Nelson contract to him, then poisoned that as he did with Graf’s Gerald Molen deal.
“The book’s author Don Yaeger said it best,” said Mosko. “During a difficult time when the entire country was torn apart by issues of race, this game not only swept away the last remnants of racial divide in college football but marked a tipping point for civil rights progress in the South. We at Village Roadshow Pictures look forward to further memorializing a story that goes well beyond sport and touches on important cultural contemporary themes.”
Perhaps the most egregious aspect of this fiasco was that Papadakis waited until San Cunningham was dead. Sam was honest and likely would have not wanted to breach his deal with Kerry, and had long since become a friend of mine. In fact I had hosted a symposium on the game’s effect featuring Sam in Dallas when USC played Alabama there in 2016. I introduced Kerry that day as the man behind the making of the movie, to a standing ovation of 1,000 well-heeled Trojans.
For years, anybody at USC who was in the know was aware of the film project based on my book. It had been the subject of numerous appearances in Professor Dan Durbin’s Sports, Culture & Society class, and was well known throughout Hollywood circles, which is dominated by Hollywood. In fact I had once attended a meeting with Magic Johnson’s agent, Lon Rosen at the William Morris Agency. There were eight people sitting around a table. Every one was a USC alum.
Village Roadshow had a long and successful history producing such hits as Gran Torino, I Am Legend, American Sniper, and many, many others. However, there were involved in a costly and well publicized legal case with Warner Bros. over The Matrix, and indications are they will not prevail.
Now they face another lawsuit, this one filed by Kerry’s attorney (a Hollywood heavyweight, of course), at the least demanding Village Roadshow “cease and desist” going forward with Papadakis. Kerry explained the situation to me, which was complicated and concerned differentials between his option on the Papadakis-Yaeger book, and the life rights of Papadakis (as if it is his story) and the effect of Sam’s passing.
While all this has been and is going on, John goes on the air regularly with Petros Papadakis on his sports talk show in L.A., airing out his side of the story.
All of which leaves me more or less where I was way back when ICM poisoned my deal with Edgar Scherick and James Woods. Do I still care? I cannot lie; I do still care. Do I have faith the movie will get made? If it is God’s will.
Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored over 30 books including the upcoming Best Sports Writing Ever. He is a USC graduate and attorney with a Ph.D who taught at USC and attended the UCLA Writers’ Program. He played professional baseball, served in the Army JAG corps in D.C., was in investment banking on Wall Street, worked in politics, lived in Europe, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, Newsmax and MichaelSavage.com. He lives in California and has one daughter, Elizabeth. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.