This summer, I was invited to venture to Irvine, California, to join the training camp of the NFL’s most recently relocated squad, the Los Angeles Rams. I saw it all: coaches screaming, grown men (really, really big ones) crying, powerful friendships forming and life-long dreams shattering. Just how did a 5’11, 145-pound college journalist like myself, having no more than two concussions, a deflected pass and a single season of freshman football to my name, earn a spot alongside some of the world’s most pristine examples of sheer athletic beauty?
My dad has an HBO Go subscription, and the Rams were pegged as this year’s team for Hard Knocks, HBO’s annual all-access documentary series revered for taking the at-home fan and placing them straight inside the huddle. Though the list could be infinitely longer, here are five reasons why Hard Knocks is a must-watch program for just about anyone (even if you’re the type of person who doesn’t know anything about football and thus, when either forced to watch or play the game, resorts to making the perennially painful “let’s throw a home run here”-type jokes).
A Hayes-y Ideology
Will Hayes, the Rams veteran defensive end, is Hard Knocks‘ must-watch star. Outspoken about his lack of belief in dinosaurs, Hayes takes a trip to a life-like dinosaur exhibit and lets his tour guide know exactly what it would take to make the 6’3, 278-pound man a believer in the extinct giants.
“You know what would convince me actually?” says Hayes. “If somebody was to dig in my backyard and find something prehistoric. Then I’d say, ‘You know what, they got something here.'”
Making the entire situation about 10 million times better is the fact that Hayes is a full-fledged believer in a species with far less scientific backing: the mermaid
“As a matter of fact,” said head coach Jeff Fisher, “I remember him getting real excited about the potential for moving out here because he knew that he would be closer to mermaids here on the West Coast.”
It’s a new bullet point to add to the list of reasons to move to Los Angeles.
America’s Cutest Child
Attention America: Riley Curry has some new, promising competition in the category of “America’s Cutest Child” after the introduction of Rielyn Hill. The daughter of Austin Hill, a free agent wide receiver hoping to find a roster spot, Rielyn is her father’s biggest fan.
Be ready for your heart to melt like a popsicle in the middle of August as Reilyn cheerfully runs routes alongside her dad to the perfectly utilized tune of Tom Rosenthal’s “Go Solo.” When it’s time for Rielyn to go home and say goodbye to Austin, she breaks into hysterical tears, a moment from which I have still yet to recover.
Hard Knocks is narrated entirely by Ray Donovan star Liev Schreiber, the Morgan Freeman of the gridiron. Schreiber’s dulcet tone and heavenly vocal chords could narrate just about anything and earn the attention of my ears. Seriously, anything. I’ve been debating just how much money I would be willing to give up to hire the man to read aloud every “Terms and Conditions” section of any contract I ever come across for the rest of my time on this earth, as it’s the only damn way I’ll pay attention to whatever I may or may not be signing my life away to.
The Mad Mikes
Defensive line coach Mike Waufle and defensive assistant Mike Singletary are the most terrifying, entertaining guys named Mike since Tyson had Holyfield’s ear for dinner in ’97. Waufle, an ex-Marine, looks akin to J.K. Simmons and brings a level of intensity strikingly similar to the actor’s award-winning Whiplash performance. Addressing his defensive line in a team meeting shown in the show’s first episode, Waufle proves himself to be the baddest 62-year-old alive.
“I am not scared,” says Waufle. You can probably f—- me up, have a good time trying to do it.”
Mike Singletary, whose illustrious playing career as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, still looks ready to take the field at the age of 57. If a player doesn’t do a drill to his liking, Singletary not only will berate that player with nothing but valid notation of their mistakes, but also proceed to do the drill better than any player on roster. Sharing his thoughts to a fellow teammate during practice, Will Hayes best summed up the overall attitude towards the coach.
“Ay,” said Hayes. “That’s the one coach I’m not f—ng with.”
Tavon Austin and the art of catching them all
During the show’s premier, Tavon Austin, star wide receiver for the Rams, is introduced to his first experience of 2016’s most addictive app, Pokemon Go. Guided by a teenage kid whose affiliation to the Rams is not mentioned, Austin is introduced to the likes of Rattata, Mankey and the various virtual creatures brought to life through an iPhone screen. Hilariously swerving his golf cart around the UC Irvine campus, Austin’s smiling face implies that the 25-year-old speedster may be on his way to becoming the Ash Ketchum of football.
“I’m playing Pokémon, leave me alone right now!” screams a golf-cart driving Tavon Austin to teammate Benny Cunningham. “I’ma catch you later, Benny!”
With Friday night lights already burning bright across the country and the NFL officially kicking off tonight, America is football crazy once again. But what do you do at say, 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, when there are no games on but you don’t have class ’til 3 and need to get your football fix? Turn on Last Chance U and thank me later.
The six-part documentary show follows a season with East Mississippi Community College, possibly the best junior college football team in the nation. When a player from a major D-I team gets in some trouble and needs to take a year off before returning to his high-level dream? This is where he goes. When a good but not great player isn’t satisfied with their offers coming out of high school and wants to hold out for something better? This is where he goes. It’s an eclectic mix of boys and men, all of them there for a different reason but all forced to live with very-small-town Mississippi life for a year.
Just as important as any player in the narrative of the season is Ms. Wagner. She’s the academic counselor responsible for helping these players pass the community college classes they couldn’t give less of a shit about in order to help their dream live on. She becomes as important as any character on this show when it becomes clear that the players view this woman as a surrogate mother, goofing around all day in her office like the children many of them still are. When they leave — and all of them do eventually because they all came in the first place to leave — she gets the longest hug.
In Hard Knocks — long held as the beacon of football documentary entertainment — we the viewers seek real moments in between the standard meeting room scenes and gameplay. We all love the rookie hazing scene, the veteran’s day off scene or something fun caught on a sideline mic. We like these things because they’re peeks past the NFL’s pristine façade, the feeling of well-manicured hollowness that the league often gives off. In contrast, Last Chance U is almost entirely these moments. It’s all very real. The players are still kids and the coaches, while titans in their own mini-worlds, do not operate at a high enough level to wear a thick PR armor.
The work that most comes to mind when watching Last Chance U is Steve James’s 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, arguably one of the greatest non-fiction films of all time. Like that movie, this is sports entertainment that quickly breaks out of its own genre and starts running wild in its thematic exploration. At different moments, Last Chance U is a show about race, about education, about class, about influence, about America and about dreams.
If you want football at its best, watch Hard Knocks. If you want the sport at its most complex — its most human — watch Last Chance U.