Hail Mary, the Anaid Productions/CityTV documentary series on players trying to make the Edmonton Eskimos, has been highly promoted by both the producers and the Eskimos, and for good reason. It's not particularly easy to make a show that's compelling both to football diehards and neophytes, but the series' first installment last week worked on both those levels, and it's well worth watching online if you missed it. We'll see if the second episode (Saturday at 10 p.m. local on most CityTV stations; check your local listings) can maintain the quality of the first one. Here are some quotes from the first episode, which focused on open tryouts in Cincinnati, and thoughts on what it did well.
—Unsurprisingly to those familiar with the CFL, Eskimos' general manager Eric Tillman's a good quote as always. His early remarks on what the team's looking for in players were particularly notable, though, especially what he said about attainability being crucial. "It's not just finding the best players, it's finding the best players you can get." That's more about the draft and the negotiation list than the open tryouts (as players at those, by definition, are rather eager to play in the CFL), but it speaks to why this league needs open tryouts. It's not always easy to grab talent for the CFL, so teams often have to look a little deeper.
—Another notable comment from Tillman was the way he admitted open tryouts are for players who are extreme long shots.
"It's about pursuing your dream," he said. "It's a chance for them to come in and compete one last time. Are the odds against them? Absolutely."
—Tillman's a known quantity to many CFL observers, but Eskimos' assistant general manager Paul Jones is in the spotlight less often. The segments focusing on him and how he ran the open tryout were particularly interesting, though. You really get the sense of how much this guy loves football when you see him spending hours on end putting over 100 prospects through their paces. Perhaps the most fascinating scene of the whole first episode came after the tryout wrapped up, where Jones and other members of the scouting staff were discussing the prospects over food and drinks at a local bar. Of the 123 guys who came out, they didn't see anyone immediately worthy of a training-camp invite. They only saw two guys really worth keeping an eye on down the road. Yet, it didn't seem to be a discouraged discussion at all, but an optimistic one, with the scouts excited about the two guys they did find. That really reinforced the needle-in-haystack nature of these tryouts, and it was an impressive look at just how difficult CFL personnel staffers' jobs can be.
—Speaking of which, the documentary showed impressive access throughout the first episode, but that scene in the bar was the most notable by far. Esks' president Len Rhodes said it wasn't easy to get his football staff on board with this, and you can see why; these are the kinds of discussions that don't tend to come out publicly, and it's not difficult to imagine the Eskimos' personnel staff concerned that this might give other teams information they could use, either about the specific players discussed or (more likely) about Edmonton's general approach. Still, this kind of access is absolutely vital to making this show interesting for hardcore football fans, and it's great that the Hail Mary staff received it.
—That's the football side, but there's also a human-interest side to Hail Mary, and it's quite notable as well. The documentary goes in depth with the two players the Eskimos said they'd keep an eye on, Demetrius Hicks (a star receiver from Union College in the NAIA) and Stan Warrenhuffman (another receiver from the NAIA's Campbellsville University), and it's a fascinating look at just how much this means to them. Hicks said he sees football as a way to provide for his family.
"I've got to take care of my family, my brother, my sisters," he said.
Warrenhuffman said his journey to this point hasn't been easy.
"The road so far's been a rocky one," he said. "My mom's worked in three jobs. It's been kind of a rocky transition from my dreams to my reality."
—The documentary got some great footage of Warrenhuffman walking around a basketball court in his hometown and talking about what it meant to him and other kids.
"My father passed away when I was young," he said. "A lot of guys' fathers either left, or... these are broken families. Basically, we raised each other on this court."
He also had some emotional comments on what it's like to sit around waiting for a team to call.
"Waiting is the worst," he said. "You get excited, but at the same time you're kind of tough on yourself, 'Did I do enough? Did I do what I needed to do?'"
—The Hail Mary cameras caught both Warrenhuffman and Hicks receiving calls from Jones saying that they weren't invited to camp, but that the Eskimos would be keeping an eye on them, and the combination of disappointment and hope they felt was profoundly displayed. In a lot of ways, that's the theme of this show so far. The odds are staggering for these guys, but there's so much on the line, and even just getting a second look's impressive given the odds. It's a part of the CFL we don't often see, as much of the focus up here is not just on the guys who made rosters, but the ones who have become superstars. This documentary tells a different story, one that shows just how difficult even getting noticed by the league is. Combine that with its impressive access, candour from team executives and inside stories of players, and you get something that's an enjoyable show for both diehard football fans and those new to the game. It's a show that's well worth keeping an eye on.