This Movie Brought an Inspiring True Story to the Big Screen

This Movie Brought an Inspiring True Story to the Big Screen

gridirongangposterReleased on September 15, 2006 by Columbia Pictures and Relativity Media, Gridiron Gang is a sports drama that presents an inspirational true story of hope, teamwork, and perseverance. The movie focuses on a group of young men at Camp Kilpatrick, a Southern California juvenile detention center reserved for the region’s most severe repeat juvenile offenders.

Already deeply involved with the worlds of crime and gang violence, the camp’s residents have little hope of achieving anything greater. Their fate appears dire until one counselor steps up as a mentor, offering a unique proposal designed to spark their dreams and aspirations: a Camp Kilpatrick football program. Under the guidance of a man who believes they are worth more than their past transgressions, the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs develop from a contentious group of troubled teens into a tight-knit high school football team, discovering newfound confidence, motivation, and camaraderie in the process.

Directed by Phil Joanou and written by Jeff Maguire and Jac Flanders, Gridiron Gang stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Xzibit, L. Scott Caldwell, and Leon Rippy. Because it draws inspiration from the Cinderella story of the Mustangs’ 1990 inaugural season, in many ways, the film’s development began over a decade before its debut.

Bringing the Story to Light

Before the story of the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs became a major motion picture, it was the subject of an Emmy-winning documentary by accomplished filmmaker Lee Stanley. In telling the Mustangs’ moving story, Stanley drew on his extensive experience in not only documentary filmmaking, but also in working with juvenile criminal offenders. For many years, Stanley ran a volunteer program that arranged 10-day sailboat expeditions for troubled youth, instilling lessons of teamwork and self-esteem in young men who desperately needed positive mentors. Stanley chronicled these often life-changing experiences in the award-winning documentary Desperate Passage (1987).

Stanley’s familiarity with the difficulty, emotional gravity, and positive impact of working with struggling youth drew him to the story of Camp Kilpatrick’s gridiron gang. Stanley collaborated with his wife Linda Stanley and son Shane—an Emmy-winning filmmaker in his own right—to chronicle the Mustangs’ first season competing against local high schools with a full 11-man roster. Stanley has noted that the story of this debut season, in which the Mustangs overcame an early slump to compete in a hard-fought championship game, is a prime example of the good that can come from investing one’s time and energy in helping youth.

Developing the Feature Film

Lee Stanley’s Gridiron Gang documentary moved producer Neal H. Moritz to tears upon his first viewing, prompting him to immediately begin formulating plans for a Hollywood adaptation. Well-known throughout the industry for films including The Fast and the Furious (2001), Sweet Home Alabama (2002), and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Moritz was able to assemble an impressive production team that included Jeff Maguire, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of In the Line of Fire (1993), who worked to weave the story’s factual details into an engaging interconnected narrative. Moritz found his ideal director in Phil Joanou, who previously showcased his energetic visual style in State of Grace (1990) and the documentary U2: Rattle and Hum (1988), while former professional wrestler and budding action film star Dwayne Johnson was the perfect fit for coach Sean Porter.

Portraying Sean Porter

Dwayne Johnson
Image courtesy Eva Rinaldi | Flickr

In playing Sean Porter, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson recreates the juvenile corrections officer’s tireless struggle to help his young charges find a positive identity and direction, even recreating some of his most inspirational locker room speeches from the Mustangs’ legendary first season.

With as many as 75 percent of youth offenders returning to county custody or dying on the streets, Porter was desperate to find a way to reduce Camp Kilpatrick’s startlingly high levels of recidivism. He found the answer in his own past experiences, recalling how football helped him overcome a troubled adolescence and learn valuable lessons about teamwork and discipline. With the help of probation officer and assistant coach Malcolm Moore (played by Xzibit in Gridiron Gang), Sean Porter developed a group of directionless young men into a team of skilled football players, helping them shed gang ties in favor of real friendships, find respect for themselves and others, and renew their hope for the future.

Remembering the Mustangs

Located in the Santa Monica Mountains of Southern California, the Los Angeles County Probation Department’s Camp Kilpatrick served as a “last-chance” facility for repeat juvenile offenders before incarceration within the California Youth Authority. The Gridiron Gang crew shot the majority of the film on-location at Camp Kilpatrick, including its practice field, which spanned little more than 60 yards.

The lack of an ideal practice field or ample resources for equipment were just two of several obstacles facing the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs in their formative years. Many of Kilpatrick’s residents were not immediately eager to form a football team, and with a large portion of them involved in gangs throughout the Los Angeles area, the team’s diverse members often found themselves at odds with one another. In addition to dealing with adversity in their own lives, Porter’s team also had to contend with the opinions of outside parties. Many local high schools were hesitant to compete against the program, and even Camp Kilpatrick’s leadership was reluctant to accept it.

Despite these obstacles, the Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs banded together as a team, eventually earning the acceptance of one another and the local community. Through their fight to overcome the odds, they gained a confidence and maturity that would aid them throughout their lives. The experience had an especially profound impact on Michael Black, the man who inspired the character of Willie Weathers. The talented athlete went on to play football at Washington State University and eventually played for the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks in the NFL.

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