EXCLUSIVE: Emmy-award winning director Steve Trout of NFL Films was sitting in a nondescript hotel conference room in Dallas, the clock ticking towards the biggest shoot of a documentary to be called The Perfect 10.
“Yesterday, we pre-lit everything,” Trout told Deadline. “Today was a full day of rehearsal.” If he was feeling pressure, he wasn’t letting on.
In the morning it would be game on: filming a group of football legends as they assembled for the first time—the only men to win a Heisman Trophy and be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Marcus Allen, Tim Brown, Earl Campbell, Tony Dorsett, Barry Sanders, Roger Staubach, and Charles Woodson, sitting down for a once-in-a-lifetime conversation as multiple cameras rolled.
“If you go by hardware, it really is the greatest collection of football talent at one place in one time,” Trout said. “It’s the coolest clubhouse in football history. We’re treating it like that… We’re trying to make this gathering the 11th character in the film.”
The shoot called for a scouting report to rival a Super Bowl. One key, finding the right location. An unoccupied warehouse was selected in the Deep Ellum section of Dallas, an industrial area that has more recently been transformed into an arts and entertainment district. Plenty of room for a production team of more than 80 people.
“We have the whole building,” Trout said. “Windows all around, exposed brick columns, just a dirty wooden floor. It’s gorgeous.”
The warehouse floors ran about the length of a football field. On the third floor seven armchairs were arranged in a horseshoe to accommodate the legends. Then, on a sunny October morning, the film subjects began to arrive, pulling up one after another in black SUVs. A Steadicam operator wove around as they dismounted from the vehicles, capturing the first footage in what would amount to several hours of filming. On the second floor staging area, a tingling sense of excitement had been building.
“It’s a big day… It’s a really surreal moment,” said Olivia Steier, EVP of content development/distribution for Hall of Fame Resort & Entertainment Co, one of the producers of the film. “This meeting is everything to this documentary.”
On the third floor, Trout marshaled his production forces, a two-way radio fastened to his hip. A lot may have been riding on the shoot for the filmmakers, but the men at the center of it appeared relaxed, sharing banter as they took their seats in the horseshoe.
There was Staubach, tall and trim at age 79, the elder statesman of the group. The only one of the seven who seemed to show outward battle scars from his playing days was Campbell, who mostly gets around in a motorized scooter as a result of back, knee and nerve issues.
Filming was about to begin when Allen got a call on his cell from Joe Theismann (rhymes with Heisman), the ex-quarterback who for all his accomplishments on the gridiron remains on the outside of that special group (he finished second in the Heisman voting in 1970 to Jim Plunkett; neither man has been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, despite impressive careers).
It astonishes virtually everyone, even those steeped in football lore, how few people have earned the “H2H” (Heisman to Hall) distinction. “More men have walked on the moon,” notes publicity materials for the doc.
“People don’t know it and would never guess,” said Marc “Blue” Bluestein, President and CEO of Aquarius Sports and Entertainment, a behind-the-scenes dealmaker central to the project. “That’s what takes our tagline of ‘More men have walked on the moon’ and really puts it into perspective. It really is something that is so different, unique.”
Two of the 10 men to have won a Heisman and entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame have passed on: Paul Hornung, who died last year and Doak Walker (1927-1998). That leaves eight living (for reasons too obvious to need stating, O.J. Simpson was not invited to join the Dallas gathering).
As sunlight angled through the warehouse windows, production staff clicked markers and the cameras spun.
“I’m just glad that I’m amongst greatness,” Dorsett, the University of Pittsburgh and Dallas Cowboys running back noted. “I have nothing but a lot of admiration for Earl Campbell. And this man right here—I have never seen nobody run the football like Barry Sanders did.”
“No, you did!” the group quickly retorted, joking, “You need to look in the mirror.”
As filming continued, more stories spilled out. Sanders recalled not being heavily recruited out of high school (remarkably). Staubach played for the U.S. Naval Academy and after graduating served a tour of duty in Vietnam. He became an NFL rookie at the age of 27.
“When I left the Naval Academy,” Staubach said, “I really didn’t think I’d ever play football again.”
Allen drafted the first version of his Heisman acceptance speech—at age 11.
“It wasn’t a very sophisticated speech,” he told the group. “But it was a speech… ‘I want to thank my parents, the University of Southern California.’” He got to deliver a revised version of that address as a USC Trojan a decade later.
There were stories from off the football field as well—Campbell, whose soft voice quietly exudes wisdom, spoke of toting crates of plywood as a kid. That manual labor no doubt helped build muscles, but made him eager for an escape. He said football was a way to avoid spending life in the oilfields of his native Texas or baling hay.
Dorsett’s father worked in a steel mill in the Pittsburgh area and Tony’s older brothers followed their father into that line of work. As with Campbell, football provided a better life for Dorsett.
“My dad said, ‘Don’t come in this mill,’” Dorsett recalled. “You don’t know if you’re going to come out.”
The film will try to solve a mystery that may ultimately defy explanation—what drove these men, more than any others, to succeed at the highest level in college and the pros. Lots of Heisman winners have crashed out before making much of an impact in the NFL (think of Johnny Manzeil, the first freshman to win the Heisman).
“Just because you were successful in college—the NFL is a very different game and it doesn’t always translate, your athletic ability and your success on the football field,” Bluestein commented. “If you look at the list of the 25 years or so since Charles Woodson won his Heisman, there are several that never even got drafted or played in the NFL… A couple had cups of coffee [in the league], but the NFL then becomes a hard game.”
Why did Earl Campbell turn out to possess the rarest of the right stuff?
“I think because of the way my mom, my family raised me,” he told Deadline. “The outlook that they had on life for you, but more important, what did Earl Campbell himself want to do? That’s what it basically boils down to. Some people I played with… they fell by the wayside. But because of the good Lord, somehow I rose to the cream of the crop. And I think the same seven guys of us involved in this feel the same way.”
Dorsett told Deadline some former Heisman winners took their foot off the pedal after winning the award that goes to college football’s premier player.
“Sometimes some guys can slow down, they become satisfied, ‘I made it to [the NFL]’ and just take it a little easy,” he observed. “But these guys here [in the Heisman to Hall club], they worked at both levels… The work habits that they had, they brought it with them and kept it going.”
Tim Brown won his Heisman as a wide receiver at Notre Dame, and built a Hall of Fame career mostly playing for the L.A. and Oakland Raiders. He’s an executive producer of the film and came up with the idea to bring the guys together.
Brown, like all the special seven in Dallas, overcame major challenges to achieve what he did. Perhaps the biggest obstacle he faced was a severe knee injury (two torn ligaments) sustained in his second pro season that could have ended his career. At the time, he was 23.
“After I realized I could play this game, no matter what the doctors were saying, it was a beautiful thing,” he told Deadline. “Two, three years later I made the Pro Bowl again as a punt returner, kick returner. It’s just something that’s inside of you that says, if you want this, it’s attainable. But this is what it’s going to cost.”
The documentary will feature one-on-one shoots with each player, in a location with special significance for each of them. From that material, plus highlights of their playing days, and the shoot in Dallas, Trout will construct his story.
“This can’t just be a football film. If it’s not a character film, then we’ve all failed,” Trout said. “I need to figure out [what makes them tick] as dads and brothers and grandfathers and scared kids and vulnerable—the human side of a superstar. I want people to learn more about these seven human beings and what puts them in this room. Of course, we’ll hit the football stuff. That’s a no brainer. But the idea is to go deeper than that.”
NFL Films, Hall of Fame Resort and Entertainment Co. and an entity called H2H are producing the documentary. Distribution plans are in the works. Pairing with a streamer, a network, a theatrical release—they’re all under discussion.
“It’s such a tremendous story, we just want the world to see it,” Steier said. “For us, the more audiences that we can reach, the better.”
Some of those audiences will be in Canton, Ohio, home to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mike Crawford, president and CEO of Hall of Fame Resort and Entertainment Co., which is headquartered in Canton, envisions events that will involve exhibition of the film, part of his company’s efforts to build the city south of Cleveland and Akron into a premiere resort destination.
“We build destinations, we create media content and we develop gaming environments all around professional football—sport in general, but predominantly professional football,” Crawford explained. “These guys called and said, ‘Hey, we got this idea—it’s a story that’s unbelievable.’ I heard it. It took me 30 seconds to say, ‘You guys have a franchise…’ It’s just fun to be able to support these guys. That our tagline—‘Honor the past, inspire the future.’”
After about 90 minutes of discussion, the legends broke for lunch, retreating to a green room on the second story. It was impossible not to stare as the men strode the length of the floor, both mythic and mortal at the same time. For many working on the production it was a chance to be in the presence of icons of their youth—heroic players they had watched for years on college football weekends and NFL Sundays.
Makeup artists, wearing plastic shields for Covid safety, dabbed the men with powder before the afternoon’s taping resumed. The seven discussed who one day might join their number—perhaps Heisman winners Lamar Jackson, now starring with the Baltimore Ravens, or Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns. Kyler Murray (Arizona Cardinals) and Joe Burrow (Cincinnati Bengals) are heading in the right direction.
“That’s a lot of guys,” Allen joked. “We wouldn’t be so exclusive anymore.”
Veterans Eddie George, who retired in 2004 and Plunkett, who retired in the late 1980s, could still be voted into the Hall. Jackson, Murray and the other young candidates are still early in their careers. So for now, and likely well into the future, the Heisman to Hall club will stay a perfect 10.