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‘Draft Day’ parallels real life for Texas Aggie stars and pro hopefuls

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No exciting promotional trailer or movie still could have properly projected the genuine excitement of the new Ivan Reitman film, “Draft Day,” which debuted in theaters on April 11, 2014. Given the excitement surrounding the (real) upcoming 2014 NFL Draft Day, set for May 8, it’s a must-see film. If you need any additional incentive, if you like Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, or Ellen Burstyn, and if you can bear to watch Dennis Leary, you’ll love the film.

Why is “Draft Day” so good? Two hours fly by with excitement and anticipation as well as great acting. Kudos are due scriptwriters Scott Rothman and Rajiv Joseph for a true-to-life portrayal of the excitement surrounding the NFL’s “biggest day of the year,” second only to the Super Bowl. However, the script may be a bit close to home for some Texas Aggies fans.

Three of the Aggies’ top players, Johnny Manziel (a sophomore on the 2013 roster), Mike Evans (a sophomore on the 2013 roster), and Jake Matthews (a 2013 senior who opted to return to Texas A&M for his senior season in lieu of last year's draft) are expected to go on the first day. Other hopefuls who participated in combine workouts included senior Ben Malena, senior Derel Walker and senior Nate Askew. Malena was undoubtedly the go-to player you could count on as an Aggie running back.

Walk-on senior Travis Labhart (and former women’s basketball practice team player) won the Aggie Heart Award, as the heart and soul of the Texas Aggie football team. You don’t hear about Malena, Walker or Labhart for top-round NFL picks and yet, you wish you could.

If players were picked for character, work ethic and everyone being aware of their love for their alma mater, Malena and Labhart would be first-rounders. Labhart recently graduated from A&M, and is recently known for making a “long-distance basketball shot from the second floor balcony of the Tex-Ags office with the Dude Perfect group.” That he was a football walk-on in the final years of his academic career makes his story even more exciting. But he’s not big box office, sadly, and neither is Malena. Something is wrong with the system when that’s the case.

Ironically, throughout the entire first half of the 2013-2014 season, it was Aggie Ben Malena whose photograph was shown on the Aggie Athletics website on their football page header. Malena’s leadership, maturity and strength were singularly touted by Aggie Head Coach Kevin Sumlin all during preseason for reasons we’d all like to forget. Particularly during the controversial weeks before the season began, when the media buzz surrounded the question of “autographs” did the Aggie spotlight turn, and turn hard, to Malena.

Even with the season’s Bowl-game standout win at the end, “Do-everything Ben Malena received the coveted Coaches’ Choice Award for being a team captain, rushing for 506 yards, and leading the team with 10 rushing touchdowns and making 20 catches for 184 yards, ranking third on the team in all-purpose yardage with 796 yards.” Johnny Manziel was named Offensive Player of the Year and Gavin Stansbury was named Defensive Player of the Year.

But it’s very telling that the Aggie team captains were: Jake Matthews, Ben Malena, Toney Hurd, Jr. and Mike Evans. Hello, Hollywood! When you watch “Draft Day,” and listen carefully to what is said about the importance of how a player is regarded by his peers, the obvious statement as it applies to the Aggies is like having a brickbat “upside your head.”

In College Station, Texas, it’s your college play that makes you beloved and remembered, or not. Unless you remain in your college town, fewer fans will remember your college days when you saved the team by scoring on the last play, or defined your team on the first play on a 99-yard runback, against your biggest school rivals. And it’s your true friends who care about you when the camera is off, or when your game is not up to par one week. They don’t leave you in the dust if you haven’t done anything to get the team talked about.

In real-life and even in the movies, it’s their pro play mostly that makes men memorable. Pro ball is not just about friendship. It is about relationships, and how each player can work together to become a cohesive team. How do you build camaraderie? If you’re Cleveland’s general manager Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), you go with your gut.

As the story progresses, the tension builds as Weaver makes a big deal with the Seattle Seahawks for their first-round pick, who is theoretically the Heisman Trophy winner, Bo Ridley Callahan (Josh Pence). Callahan’s agent, Chris Crawford, is underplayed well by Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Diddy, suit mogul Sean John, or just as he’s billed in the imdb.com data base, Sean Combs.

The knight in shining armor, with the slight bad-boy reputation, Callahan is thought to be the one to save the Seahawks, but their GM, Tom Michaels (Patrick St. Espirit), is willing to shop him. Michaels calls Sonny Weaver to see if he’s interested in a trade. And Seahawks team owner Walt Gordon (Chi McBride) trusts Michaels throughout the process. Why would the Seahawks want to trade away their theoretical franchise future? And that’s where the questions begin.

You’re introduced to a rarely-seen, but all-too-real security head of each professional football team. They have people who track the players’ Twitter feeds, their Instagram accounts; they know if players have been arrested, their GPAs, and every nuance, down to how many friends came to your 21st birthday party. Team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella) doesn’t care a whit about those elements; he just wants to be on television, up front, presenting the jersey to Bo Callahan as the first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Langella channeling Jerry Jones is a hoot to watch.

It’s a lesson that was more understated than it should have been, but the movie takeaway was just like the lyrics to the song by The Police, “Every Move You Make,” and to be sure, the NFL is watching. Amateur athletes don’t belong on Twitter. The pros can’t be fired by what they post on Instagram, but draft stock can go up or down depending on “amateur hour” on social media.

The unsung hero of the movie comes into view fairly quickly, defensive lineman Vontae Mack (Chadwick Boseman). Boseman’s performance is absolutely perfect, and his on-field record is not shown until long after you meet his real-life responsibilities, caring for and about his two nephews, who lost their mother to cancer six months earlier. Mack’s only concern is that he wants to be Cleveland’s seventh pick rather than down in the next-day’s rounds, where his salary, and ability to be able to provide for his nephews is what’s at stake. In contrast, Callahan rides around in an expensive car; Mack is driving an old-model sedan.

Dennis Leary is absolutely useless and so unlike a real professional football coach that he’s the only weak link in an otherwise strong and entertaining movie. Leary as Coach Penn is a whiner; he’s petty, foul-tempered, arrogant, and he wouldn’t last five minutes in the real NFL. Casting flunked out bigtime in choosing Leary.

Jennifer Garner as Ali, the attorney who is charged with making all the money work, is a nice romantic substory for Costner’s Weaver. Ellyn Burstyn, with a weird hair look, is an unpleasant mother to Sonny, Jr. Rosanna Arquette as Weaver’s ex-wife, Angie, is high-name-recognition window dressing because you’re not getting to see her acting skills as much as you keep thinking of Toto’s “Rosanna” while she’s on screen. Surely more of her acting depth is on the virtual “cutting room floor,” or not. Garner is not exceptional as Sonny’s current love interest, but she is entirely believeable as the football-obsessed attorney.

In retrospect, the greatest days of football were built without having to use computers, and there was more-or-less a cone of silence surrounding most of the havoc off the field, save for Dandy Don Meredith and Broadway Joe Namath, who were among the sport’s more colorful headline makers. Life was kinder and gentler to pro football, without ESPN 24/7 broadcasting quips from the childhood dentist of the player currently on suspension from the college team.

That’s where Texas Aggie football fans are obsessed, insane and at the very least over-the-top rabid about their alma mater. Pro football is filled with a bunch of good Joe’s who were once college stars and pro hopefuls before becoming standouts: Joe Namath, Joe Montana, and Joe Flacco are just three. Then you think of the legacy of the Manning family, Archie, Peyton and Eli, and then you might recall the Miami Dolphins in the grand old days, the Dallas Cowboys led by Roger Staubach (once known as that kid from Navy), and the 1985 Super Bowl champions, the Chicago Bears (Da Bears).

But, with electronic and supercomputing progress comes disruption of status quo. Today it’s not only the NSA keeping a close eye out for problems. It’s the sports media who focus on each and every anomaly in a player’s skillset, because the public clearly wants to know every single factoid about their favorite players and teams. Often the players are more than happy to oblige, whether with sound bytes or in-depth, on-camera interviews, when the better choice might have been to “sit this one out.”

And so it is that “Draft Day” comes along a month before the 2014 NFL Draft. It’s just coincidental that Texas is in the spotlight, again, as the Houston Texans have the first pick, followed by St. Louis, Jacksonville, and Cleveland, the team of focus in the movie. Texas A&M fans have made no secret that they would love for the Texans to take Texas Aggie quarterback, Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, as their quarterback.

In fact, some excited Aggie fans have purchased billboards up and down the Houston freeways, suggesting that the Texans should take their native son as their first-round draft pick. As if that idea had never occurred to the Texans before. However, they have a native Texan quarterback, Case Keenum, who played for the University of Houston, but not one who won a Heisman Trophy (yet).

The central question, then, of the Cleveland Browns in “Draft Day” is much like the one surrounding the Houston Texans in real life. If you are a new coach, Bill O’Brien, and you have a quarterback whose work ethic and performance you’re happy with, who understands and knows your system, do you essentially sideline him and use your first-round pick to take Manziel?

The question becomes what is best for ticket sales and front gate receipts vs. what is best for the team morale as well as team performance. It’s not a question of whether or not Manziel could start, but what it would mean to the Texans’ gate. So, too, in “Draft Day,” the Cleveland Browns have quarterback Brian Drew, coming back off of an injury, reportedly “better than ever.” Drew is a favorite of the strength coach and the head football coach. You don’t see Weaver’s opinion of Drew in the film but you do see him gathering every piece of information he can about the strengths and weaknesses of Bo Callahan.

There is a great substory about Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), a running back who is an early-round choice for anyone’s team, but who wants to play for the Browns, and only the Browns, where his father Earl (Terry Crews) had been a standout player for Sonny’s father.

Jennings would have been a shoe-in as a Browns’ legacy, but for a question that surrounded a post-season skirmish, involving some people who were busted for drugs and gang activity. Jennings got on the phone with Sonny Weaver to explain, personally, that he’d grown up with some of the guys and he was not a part of what they were doing and they all ran into a “situation” and it was guilt by association.

By association, Jennings’ previously perfect reputation is held in abeyance for what could be seen an act of coincidental involvement by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Shades of the Aggies; in February, 2014, in the situation of Devante “Speedy” Noil, who was “in a vehicle with” Isaiah Golden, who was arrested on a misdemeanor drug possession charge, and Darian Claiborne (who’d had a similar arrest in December) who was charged on a “noise violation,” and at the end of the night, Noil was not arrested, as the Bryan-College Station Eagle story noted.

If that’s not close enough to call true-life, Texas Aggie fans wince at the recent revelation of standout quarterback, and one of Manziel’s heir apparents as starting quarterback, Kenny Hill, being arrested on a public intoxication charge outside a bar in Northgate. Aggie fans just don’t know who to take to task for improper supervision of high-profile players under 21 years old, who are walking magnets for trouble simply by their being at a party at the now somewhat famous Reveille Ranch complex, or even outside a Northgate bar.

All the details on that incident will now be buried on the back pages with the obits, but the damage is done as the cloud and question mark immediately makes Aggie fans say, “how about that Kyle Allen, super high school standout? Whoop!” The latest EPSN wags note how Allen “resembles NFL draft prospect Aaron Murray.” Let the buzz begin, all hail Kyle Allen, who wasn’t in Northgate two weeks ago. As the late Linda Ellerbee would say, “And so it goes.”

An especially funny part of the film is as Griffin Newman portrays Rick the Intern, whose first day working outside Sonny Weaver’s office shows perfect acting as the entirely competent but overly scared intern. Rick must have questioned 35 times that day why he wanted to work in the Cleveland Browns offices at all, ever. Newman is perfect casting and the writing for Rick is hilarious. All his scenes with Kevin Costner and Jennifer Garner are playback-worthy by the time the DVD comes out.

There’s a subtle dynamic in the all-too-brief appearance of Sam Elliott as Coach Moore, Bo Callahan’s college coach at Wisconsin, who would not answer directly the question Sonny Weaver posed: “How many of Bo’s teammates came to his 21st birthday party?” The dialogue provokes questions in Sonny’s mind, without a specific negative word being spoken by Coach Moore.

A memory that comes to mind is of Johnny Manziel’s interview with the “ESPN guys” following his standout pro-day throwing for the scouts. Of all of the coaches that Manziel credited and thanked for preparing him for “that day,” Texas A&M Head Coach, Kevin
Sumlin’s name was not heard. Probably that was just an oversight on the part of a clearly excited Manziel.

Sonny Weaver keeps his cards close to his vest the entire movie on what moves he’ll make on Draft Day. Real life and art intersecting once again is seen in the attitude and actions of the Houston Texans Head Coach Bill O’Brien, whom Chris Baldwin of the Houston Culture Map, notes is “already in full old school Bill Belichick bunker mode, hunkered down with his plans...not sharing what he is thinking.”

O’Brien had, in real life, interviewed for the head coaching job at Cleveland. Hello, Cleveland. And there is another quarterback awaiting the draft, who might be on O’Brien’s radar, maybe. It’s 6’5, 224-lb, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger who is available. His name hasn’t been in the news a lot since he tore his ACL in LSU’s final game of the season, but he had a good pro day and it’s said of him that he has “an impressive work ethic and exceptional leadership skills.”

Leadership + work ethic = NFL. Mettenberger is also a two-time team captain, for those keeping score at home. The Zach Attack found him ranked third nationally for pass efficiency and one of the few LSU quarterbacks to pass over 3,000 yards. Again, he was a two-time team captain.

The most pervading theme of “Draft Day” represents the most relevant lesson that any college player could learn and take to heart immediately: “For your four (more or less) years in college: Be aware of every action you take and every decision you make, on and off the field. Your professional NFL future depends on it.” In relaxed teenage terms, you ask: “how much money will you, or can you, afford to lose for the rest of your future by being an off-the-field idiot, slacker, loser, hot shot or stud?”

Another lesson is “stay off Twitter and Instagram, because all general managers of pro teams will review your posts and content.” Kids won’t listen and they don’t listen, but not everyone is planning on a professional career, NFL or otherwise. But, an Apr. 11 report by the Wall Street Journal shared a resounding statistic: “44% of Twitter accounts have never sent a tweet.” How many current college football players will ever see the Wall Street Journal blog or determine its relevance to their future is likely less than 1%, far less in fact.

So, the players will just keep posting on and on about their worry over tests, skipped classes (like their teachers don’t read their posts), wild weekends, how their hangover has a hangover, and how exciting are their exotic opportunities to see and be seen. Kids will be kids.

Question is: how many NFL hopefuls, Texas Aggies included, who see this film will absorb those lessons as takeaways remains to be seen. In any event, go see “Draft Day.” You won’t be disappointed. The 2014 NFL draft is only 24 days away, and soon we shall see how closely art imitates life.

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