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Last night an SEC recruiting junkie a lot like you and me won an Oscar.
Rich Middlemas, a University of Tennessee grad who moved to Hollywood soon after graduation, is a huge Volunteer fan who follows recruiting. Back in 2009 he came across a Memphis Commercial-Appeal story about O.C. Brown, a large lineman from a poor Memphis city school, who’d emerged as a sought after recruit. That article grabbed his attention and soon after Middlemas and his producing partners, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, were in Memphis exploring O.C. Brown’s story.
But that trip only whetted their appetite.
Shortly after that meeting, Middlemas called me and said the story was much bigger than O.C. Brown’s recruitment, bigger than a real life “Blind Side.” During their trip to Memphis Rich, Dan, and T.J. had seen a much bigger story, one about a school full of underdogs at Memphis Manassas, the story of a team where football provided a vital linchpin of life.
By the summer the trio had sold their idea and were relocating to Memphis to embed themselves with the high school football team.
That was in the summer of 2009.
Thirty-one months later the trio stood on the stage at the Academy Awards and accepted the Oscar for best documentary for their film.
I couldn’t be prouder of Rich, Dan. and T.J.
Not because they won, but because they took the risk to tell a story about kids that typically get overlooked.
Because they made an amazing movie.
And it all started with an SEC fan’s search for recruiting information on his favorite team.
Rich and I met several years ago after he emailed me in the wake of one of my ClayNation columns at CBS. In the ensuing years we’ve been in contact frequently. First, about our mutual love for Willie Morris’s “The Courting of Marcus Dupree,” a book I’m still convinced would make an amazing movie. We talked about buying the book rights for a film, but discovered that ESPN was in the midst of a 30 for 30 documentary. So we moved on and continued to talk about finding a project some day to work together on.
Often our conversations were about football, about our favorite SEC team, the Vols.
I still remember the first conversation we had about O.C. Brown, just a few days after Rich had read the article, and Rich’s idea for a real-life documentary built around his story.
We met in Memphis during the 2009 season, talked frequently about the progress of the team, about Rich’s life in Memphis, about the growing movie.
It was exciting to see someone take a creative risk, go all in for a story with no idea how it would end.
That fall the Memphis Manassas football season ended and Rich, T.J., and Dan packed up in Memphis and moved back to Los Angeles with over 500 hours of footage.
Fast forward to October of 2010, I traveled out to Los Angeles to write about the California-USC game for FanHouse. USC trounced Cal 48-14 — it was 35-0 at the half — and after the game Rich and I met to get a bite to eat. While we ate we commiserated over the fallen fate of Volunteer football and Lane Kiffin’s sudden arrival in Rich’s town.
A few months before Rich had shared a trailer with me of his new film, seeking feedback, I told him it was fabulous.
And it was.
Since then I’d been getting updates about the editing process, the slow distillation of 500 hours to less than two hours of movie. It was hard, grueling work.
That night I walked back with Rich to a small room where T.J. and Dan, the directors, were editing the movie.
Pizza boxes were strewn all over the floor, energy drinks were scattered about, papers were everywhere, a storyboard was on the wall, it was Saturday night in Hollywood and T.J. and Dan were working their asses off splicing together footage, trying to get everything just right..
The excitement was palpable.
Already they’d been working on the film for over a year.
Hardly anyone had seen it.
There wasn’t any guarantee that very many people would ever see it.
“I hope,” Dan said that night, “that one day people will be able to see this.”
I told him it was good, that one day a million people might see it.
“If a million people ever see any movie that we make.” he said, “I don’t know what I’d do.”
After all, most documentaries don’t reach very large audiences.
That was especially true with sports documentaries, which are often seen as having too narrow of a focus to appeal to the general public.
But that night they showed me clips of the movie, and I was blown away.
Right then and there, I began to sense how phenomenal the final product was going to be.
How a recruiting junkie’s search for Volunteer football recruits was going to lead to a special story that millions of people were eventually going to see.
In October of 2011 Rich finally mailed me the finished product to get my feedback.
I persuaded my wife to watch the movie with me — it was the middle of October and the last thing she wanted to do was watch more football with me — but she agreed to try it out for a few minutes.
She never left the couch.
By the end of the movie we were both crying.
That night, Ocrober 26th, I tweeted out this message: “Just watched advance screening of “Undefeated” Memphis high school football doc. It’s extraordinary. Best sports doc since Hoop Dreams. Wow.”
It might turn out to be my best sports prediction of all time.
Four months later, to the very day, Rich, Dan, and T.J. stood on the stage accepting an Oscar for best documentary.
An Oscar that all came about because an SEC fan wanted to read about recruits considering his school.
I’m proud of Rich, Dan, and T.J.
And when you watch their movie you will be too.
Their movie is so gritty and real, you forget you’re even watching a movie at all.
But you don’t need me to write a review.
You just need to watch the movie.
And know that being obsessed with recruiting and your favorite college football team really does pay off.
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