Last week twenty-five students from Southern Virginia University gathered at my farm for a workshop with NFL Films filmmaker Chris Barlow. Chris and I worked together on “Steve Young: A Football Life,” which will debut on the NFL Network on October 7th. For two hours, Chris took students behind the scenes to see what it takes to make a documentary film.
It was a never-to-be-forgotten learning experience. The best part was that Steve Young’s parents Grit and Sherry Young were on hand to participate. They sat amongst the students and added colorful insights during the question-and-answer session between Barlow and the students.
At one point, one of the students – Cynthia Stoddard – conducted an interview with Chris, which created another wonderful teaching moment.
Afterward, Grit said to me: “I’m really glad we came.”
This was part of the launch of the Institute for Writing and Mass Media at Southern Virginia, which I wrote about in my last blog post.
After the workshop, a private dinner was held on the farm to honor Grit and Sherry. It was attended by donors who are supporting the Institute.
One of the attendees was Nate Checketts, who came down from New Canaan, CT. He recently founded an athletic apparel company called Rhone, which makes some of the best (and coolest looking) workout attire on the market.
The Youngs knew Nate when he was a little boy. But they had no idea he was coming to the dinner. During the meal I read a passage from Steve’s book about his father’s insane workout habits. At one point, Grit was doing over 7,000 sit-ups per day.
After my reading, Nate awarded Grit with his own set of workout clothing.
Another attendee was Sterling Tanner, who heads up Steve and Barb Young’s FOREVER YOUNG FOUNDATION. Sterling and his wife came all the way from Phoenix. When I read a passage from Steve’s book about Sherry Young marching on to a Pee Wee football field to reprimand a player who had neck-tackled Steve back in the day, Sterling laughed so hard he had tears in his eyes.
The highlight of the dinner, though, was a presentation by former Southern Virginia University student Jeff Gasser, who spoke about the internship that changed his life and led to the career he now has as a video producer for the Beckett Fund in Washington, DC. The primary objective of the Institute is to help students secure internships and entry level jobs in the media industry. When Jeff was my intern I knew he was going to go very far.
The following day “Steve Young: A Football Life” was premiered in front of a standing-room-only crowd at Southern Virginia. We had a popcorn machine on site and Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” playing on the sound system before the lights went dark.
The hall was absolutely packed and totally silent as the film opened with the dramatic scene of Steve Young throwing the last-second touchdown pass to Terrell Owens to beat the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs. With the play slowed down on screen, Steve narrates the play in a way that takes the viewers inside his helmet. You feel like you are about to catch his pass. Even though I worked on the film, the hair still raised up on my arms as I watched.
For 46 minutes the audience was riveted. And I wanted to freeze those minutes. I sat between my 10-year-old daughter Clara Belle and Steve’s Young’s mother Sherry.
All you have to do is look at my daughter’s face to understand how compelling and universal Steve’s story is. Clara knows nothing about football, but she understood everything about Steve.
At one point toward the end of the film, tears were streaming down Sherry’s face. These were tears of joy and pride that only come after the struggle. I put my hand around her shoulders and held her close. What a moment!
When the credits rolled moments later, the entire audience rose to its feet and launched into a standing ovation that reminded me of the many times I’ve launched into an ovation at a Broadway theater following a great performance.
As filmmaker Chris Barlow and I made our way from the front row to the stools on a stage, the cheering got louder. I was so happy for Chris. And I was so grateful that he shared his gift with Southern Virginia.
Once I sat on my stool and looked out at the audience, I could see that many people had tears in their eyes. The film does such a compelling job of capturing Steve Young’s personal journey – with all of his struggles and obstacles – to the top of the football world. Afterward, I can’t remember how many people approached me and said how grateful they were for Steve being willing to talk about the hard parts of his life as opposed to just the glory moments.
As the founder of the Institute for Writing and Mass Media and the biographer of Steve Young, I could not have scripted a more perfect launch to the Institute and Steve’s forthcoming book and film.
To learn about upcoming events at the Institute and Steve’s upcoming book tour, follow me on Instagram at authorjeffbenedict.