|How involved were you with the filmmaking?|
I was very involved with the script development, working with the screenwriters. I also helped the art department, props people and the wardrobe department. I brought them a zillion pictures from that time period and still had a lot of my old clothes. So I was on the set a lot. But at times I was afraid I was getting in people’s way, so I’d stay away. Then I’d get a call from the producers asking, "Where are you? Get over here right now. Things are flat. We need your enthusiasm!"
What was said or done behind the scenes that made it clear this would be a PG family film?
These are the same people who made The Rookie and Miracle. They changed a few things from the original screenplay that weren’t really objectionable but might’ve raised an eyebrow. It had nothing to do with profanity or sexuality or anything like that. We just wanted to make sure we were giving the right message, which is when I knew this was a Disney movie.
What struck you when you saw the final cut?
It’s pretty spooky sitting there watching a movie about you. Kevin Conway, who played my father, was just ridiculously good. He nailed the part. Those scenes were so true, and the discussions with my dad really happened that way. Also, the training camp side brought back memories. People will see some of those amazing hits and say, "No, that didn’t happen." Yeah, it did happen.
Clearly, not everyone was thrilled about you coming out of nowhere to compete.
A lot of people thought it was all a publicity stunt. The movie shows how difficult it was and how much abuse I took—not just physically—from guys I eventually beat out. Their whole lives were playing football and here comes this 30-year-old freak who never played college ball who not only might take their job away, but was so reckless that I could hurt them. They called me the Italian Kamikaze because I was all-out physical on every play. I had nothing to lose. I think they were a little afraid of me.
What did you learn from that? How did you cope with that lack of acceptance?
The first thing you do in a situation like that is find out who’s going to cover your back. I found one guy I knew I could depend on, Dennis Franks, and he eventually became my roommate, teammate and is now the godfather of my children. You need someone to confide in. You just can’t hold everything to yourself. Meanwhile, on the field I realized I had to prove myself by doing things a little bit differently than the other guy, which helped me get noticed. As a result I wound up making the team. Guys who felt entitled to their roster spot or took it for granted are the ones that suffered.
You speak to teenagers a lot. What advice do you give them about tackling life?
In addition to surrounding themselves with good people, I tell kids three things: 1) Make sure you have a game plan in life; 2) Know who and what your rivals are, making sure you’re not your own worst opponent with a lousy attitude; 3) Don’t compare yourself to other people. Just be the best you can be and hold fast to your dreams. And if you don’t fulfill a dream, so what? The victory is in the participation. There’s no shame in giving something your best shot, picking yourself up and going to the next dream, because eventually you’re going to realize one. Thirty years ago I was a substitute teacher working on my Masters degree. It was a very nice life. If I hadn’t made the Eagles, I would have continued in education. That would’ve been a good thing, too.
Published July 2006