It's no secret many CFL players have incredible stories about how they got to this league. From Anthony Calvillo, the "skinny little Mexican kid from La Puente" who's become pro football's all-time leading passer, to Taj Smith, who saw a friend gunned down next to him and lost brothers to murder and suicide while he was young, to Eric Wilbur, who abandoned bartending to come punt for the Argonauts, it's easy to find those with remarkable backgrounds. Just how does a football player find his way to the CFL, though? That's one of the key questions explored in Anaid Productions' Hail Mary, an 11-part half-hour documentary series focusing on the journeys of Edmonton Eskimos' hopefuls from open tryouts to making the team. In advance of the series premiere Saturday (10 p.m. local on most CityTV stations, including those in Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto and Vancouver), story producer/director/writer Jeff Kinnon took the time to talk about the series and what viewers can expect.
Kinnon's a veteran of the sports world who's worked with Sportsnet, NBC (during the Vancouver Olympics) and Vancouver radio station CKNW, but this was his first project with Anaid. He said Hail Mary came from a long-germinating idea of his to do a CFL project, and the open tryouts many teams hold struck him as a particularly interesting starting point, as they can completely change someone's career.
"This was an idea I've had for a while; I've always wanted to do a CFL show," he said. "The open tryouts, the idea of them is so compelling. Ricky Ray used to sell potato chips!"
It's that starting point that makes Hail Mary distinctive, according to Kinnon. There have been plenty of behind-the-scenes sports shows in recent years, including HBO's Hard Knocks (on NFL teams), Showtime's The Franchise (on MLB's Miami Marlins) and TSN's The Extra Yard (on the CFL's Toronto Argonauts). However, the trend has been focusing on the team. By contrast, Kinnon said Hail Mary's more about the individual stories of players trying to make the Eskimos, especially the six the show spotlights.
"There's so many behind-the-scenes shows, Hard Knocks, The Franchise, but they're not really about the players," he said. "They get cut, they walk out and that's it."
Kinnon said it's especially important to tell the personal stories and backgrounds of these players, as that brings a new dimension to the football scenes and makes the show compelling even to those who aren't necessarily diehard CFL fans. He also thinks that will make it interesting for the hardcore Eskimos fans, who can learn more about the guys suiting up for their team.
"A lot of times you do cheer for the nameplates, you don't really know what they're playing for. [With this show], you know who they're playing for, and that makes a difference in how you watch it," he said. "Anyone who's had a dream and wants to see it through to fruition, you're going to love this show. It's guys trying to achieve their dream. It's a wild ride."
Kinnon said the CFL was a compelling target for this kind of show because players don't put up the media-training walls you often find in other leagues.
"The guys that play in the CFL, they're a lot more open than just about any other league," he said.
Another element that makes this league so different is that it's a dramatically new experience for most of the players. Hail Mary concentrates on five Americans (Joe Burnett, Joe Gibbs, Simoni Lawrence, John Goebel and Orrin Thompson) and one Canadian (Ryan King), and Kinnon said the reactions from the Americans (who themselves come from a wide range of backgrounds, including Gibbs' small-town days in Alabama and Lawrence's hometown of Philadelphia) to their new environment were notable.
"Of the six guys we focused on, only Ryan King really knows the CFL," Kinnon said. "You've got guys that have never been to Edmonton before, never been to Canada before."
Beyond just the different geography, players also have to get used to the CFL rules, which isn't easy.
"You've got guys coming up trying to live the pro football dream, but they have to really adjust to all the rule changes," Kinnon said. "They have to adapt. It's almost a fish-out-of-water thing."
Just making it through the open tryouts is challenging on its own, as the club only selected two guys out of 200 for further looks after one particular tryout. Kinnon said that reinforces how serious a level of competition the CFL is, something he heard repeatedly from players.
"These players said straight up, 'This is not a corny league.'"
There's always a lot of turnover in CFL camps and tryouts, and Kinnon said that meant the players weren't the only ones under pressure, as the Hail Mary staff also had to be quick to adapt.
"In a documentary series, you have no idea what's coming next," he said. "You've always got to shift your target. You can script things to the best of your ability, but the next day it all can change."
Kinnon said that element made this an interesting challenge for him, as unlike work with game highlights or an individual feature story, the changes here were more dramatic.
"You've got to be ready and on your toes," he said. "You don't really know what the general manager's going to do."
This is just the latest of the bold new moves in CFL filmmaking over the last couple of years. Since The Extra Yard, TSN's made a documentary examining John Candy's impact on the CFL and is producing eight documentaries about various CFL figures and moments in advance of November's 100th Grey Cup. The CFL itself has also gotten into the act with behind-the-scenes web documentaries such as their one about John Surla at E-Camp. It's interesting to see Anaid, known for shows like The Rig and The Liquidator, also entering this ring, and it's particularly notable that this is for Rogers Media and CityTV, which aren't CFL rightsholders. That suggests that awareness of the remarkable stories available in the CFL is growing. Hail Mary looks like an ambitious effort, and Kinnon said he's quite happy with what they've accomplished.
"It's shining a light on players in a way I don't think has been done."
You can find some sample clips from Hail Mary here, here and here. The first episode will be shown Saturday, Sept. 15 at 10 p.m. local time on most CityTV stations, and it can be seen on CityTV.com, on the go with the CityTV app and in more locations starting the next day. More information's available here.