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“Football Is a Dark Place”: The Oral History of ‘Any Given Sunday’

Twenty years ago, Oliver Stone set out to make the sports version of ‘Platoon,’ flanked by a general in Al Pacino and a gunslinger in Jamie Foxx, and armed with a whole lot of brash, righteous attitude

Aaron Dana

Oliver Stone had always wanted to make a football movie.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s, he’d been mesmerized by the gridiron, watching quarterbacks Y.A. Tittle and Johnny Unitas throw passes on his black-and-white television. He latched on to the San Francisco 49ers and stayed loyal to them throughout the years, “although they would lose a lot,” he says. “You love them as a young man—looking up to gods and idols and football cards, too. It’s child stuff but it’s wonderful.”

By the early 1980s, Stone was putting his passion onto paper. He wrote a treatment called The Linebacker, loosely based on Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik, as a star vehicle for Charles Bronson, but it never gained traction. “I dropped it and moved on, my life moved on,” he says. Later in the decade, he found massive success with a string of movies—Platoon, Wall Street, and JFK—but his work struggled to consistently find mainstream audiences in the mid-1990s. Following two box office disappointments in 1995’s Nixon and 1997’s U Turn, Stone needed to find commercial success. “And that’s where the football movie came in,” says coproducer Eric Hamburg.

For a few years, Stone collaborated with numerous writers and producers on three football scripts, leading a loaded cast and top-tier athletes into a filmmaking process full of logistical challenges. The result was Any Given Sunday. Released 20 years ago this week, it remains iconic, brash, and full-throated—but it might also be the most prophetic football movie ever made, bringing to light countless issues within the sport that had yet to reach public discourse. At its base level, the plot tells the dual stories of Tony D’Amato, an aging head coach, and a backup black quarterback named Willie Beamen who learn to adapt to each other’s styles to save their team’s season. But under its surface, the movie exposed the darker realities of playing the sport.

Through its kaleidoscopic perspective, Any Given Sunday tells a tale of corporate greed, racial injustice, and medical malpractice, all while establishing the visceral and visual gut punch of a gladiator’s game. “I think Oliver tries to take an honest look at the humanity and point out the good and the bad parts of everything,” says assistant football coordinator Mark Robert Ellis. Despite pivoting toward a mainstream topic, Stone couldn’t shake his investigative roots and storytelling instincts, stirring more controversy within a bold and flashy sports movie. “I stepped in one cow puddle to the next,” he laughs.

But making a football movie like Any Given Sunday was never going to be easy. Below is the story of how one of the most polarizing directors put together a group of A-list actors and NFL legends and survived legal battles, raging parties, full-fledged fights, and extremely long nights.

Part I: “It’s Sort of Like Platoon on a Football Field”

Like most Stone productions, Any Given Sunday had numerous voices and sources that informed the story. That led to a complex and multifaceted screenwriting process.

Eric Hamburg (coproducer): We’re making this Nixon movie and we got a letter from a guy named Richard Weiner, a sportswriter. Richard’s father had worked for Nixon in California, and he believed he knew the identity of Deep Throat. We got into this whole discussion, and he was writing a book with Joe Montana called The Art and Magic of Quarterbacking.

Richard Weiner (technical consultant): He says, “Do you have any sports transcends life ideas that Oliver might be interested in making a movie about?” I said, “How about a North Dallas Forty of the ’90s?” Eric’s very calm. He’s like, “OK.”

Hamburg: Richard said Joe Montana wouldn’t want to do it, he’s sort of a private person. “Let me talk to this other [49ers tight end] that just retired, Jamie Williams.”

Weiner: Jamie had been working on a movie idea. He was working on this story about a young black quarterback. That was a no-brainer.

Jamie Williams (former NFL tight end, technical consultant): When Richard Weiner approached me about his connection with Oliver Stone’s people, I had just retired and had gotten into a doctorate program. I didn’t believe him. Weiner says, “No, this is real.” Hamburg said, “Well, can you put together a treatment for a story?” Of course! I did that, I faxed it to him. He hit me back and said Oliver looked at it and likes it and wants you to come to L.A. to discuss it the next day. How does that happen?!

Hamburg: Jamie had grown up in an era where black men were not considered to be quarterbacks. I thought that was a great script idea. Initially I had thought, because I had worked with Oliver for several years at that point, a football movie would appeal to him. It’s sort of like Platoon but on a football field.

Williams: We’re meeting in Santa Monica. I told Oliver, this is what you want to capture as a filmmaker—not just how the game is played through our eyes, but also: What’s the future of football? How is that changing? You want to be ahead of the game. Obviously Willie Beamen is ahead of the game.

Hamburg: Jamie and Richard wrote a script called Monday Night.

Williams: It was basically an aging quarterback who is replaced by a cool, hip, urban black quarterback, who could do things that were unconventional because he was a stud athlete. But he’s got an old-school coach used to tradition. Both have to change their approach to the game for the sake of the team.

Oliver Stone (writer, director, producer): It was trying to bring it up to date, trying to make it rich and hip and slangy and create the hip-hop elements that were starting to take place. There were new black quarterbacks and the game was starting to change.

Hamburg: When I started researching the football project, I had gone to a bookstore and I bought this book Rob Huizenga had written called, You’re Okay, It’s Just a Bruise that was based on the Raiders—he had been their team doctor. It was from that point of view, the abuse of medicine, and the abuse of the players. I gave it to Oliver and he was like, “Yeah, we should get the rights to this.”

Lauren Shuler Donner (producer): I went into Rob’s office and he had been on the phone with Sports Illustrated, who had called him because he was let go by Al Davis. He was dealing with this and said, “I’m thinking about writing a book about this. Do you think this would make a good book?” And I said, “Yeah it’d be great book and it’d be a great movie. I’m going to pitch the movie.” I went to Warner Bros. and we started to develop the script.

Rob Huizenga (former Raiders team doctor): She was like, “I don’t really like football, but this is going to be the greatest movie of all time.” I’m like, “What?”

Donner: The script went through a few writers. Gary Ross wrote a draft and Daniel Pyne wrote a draft.

Daniel Pyne (writer, screen story): Huizenga had this relationship with the orthopedic surgeon on the Raiders who he suddenly started realizing was incompetent. Huizenga was constantly trying to fix things that he was doing, trying to keep him from overprescribing medication or letting people play with serious injury. Huizenga had a draft of his book, so I used whatever I needed to from that. I know they went out to Dustin Hoffman [for the main role].

Huizenga: Right toward the end of the Dustin Hoffman thing, I’m reading the script and I’m like, “This isn’t really what happened. People need to know what really happened.” I said to Lauren, “Hey, the movie’s great, but I’ve got to write a book on it. I’m just so angry and what they did is so egregious.” So basically I wrote that book in a tizzy in about eight months’ time. Then the movie kind of sputtered for a little bit because they couldn’t get that major star, and at that very moment, Warner Bros. bought another movie studio.

Donner: Warner Bros. and Turner merged. Turner had developed Oliver Stone’s movie, which was really great. And so Billy Gerber, who was president at Warners at the time, called up and said, “Would you consider working with Oliver Stone and letting him direct the movie?” To which I said, “Absolutely!”

Stone: I read Monday Night and I read this doctor’s book; the idea came to me that it could be done if we combined these stories. So that raised quite a few complications, as you could imagine.

Hamburg: Later, through a whole series of events, there ended up being another script that was written by John Logan, who at that time was an unknown playwright.

Stone: It was a very small, spare movie about a lonely football coach. It was, in my mind, a TV movie.

Hamburg: Logan came in as more of a professional screenwriter and came up with this script—and that became Any Given Sunday.

Clayton Townsend (producer): Oliver would take information from a bunch of sources and merge them together as a puzzle master. My role was sort of just helping facilitate the access to varying points of view.

Stone: I was in charge of the script. Jamie helped me, so did Richard, so did John to some degree, although he didn’t know as much as we did at that point. It was blending two different ideas: The doctor’s exposé, which was hated by the NFL, and this small character study of a coach, which I got Al Pacino interested in. I expanded it even further and made it about the owners. I had all these characters, the players’ stories.

Pyne: I heard that Dr. Huizenga was frustrated because his movie was nearly made and then it sort of slipped away. It’s his original story, it’s about him, and it’s very personal.

Hamburg: Pyne ended up getting a story credit or something, Huizenga felt that he’d been cheated or something.

Stone: Huizenga had his beef, I don’t remember all the details of that beef.

Huizenga: There’s probably eight different groups that at one time or another did a rewrite, including Oliver. He does the last rewrite. In showbiz, you have to write 33 percent of the words to get a screenwriting credit. So I probably did 15 to 20 percent, it was determined. We didn’t get any screenwriting credit. So that was a kick in the pants.

Williams: It’s like the Serengeti. Everybody wants a piece of the carcass. The fact that it was a compilation of three scripts, it is what it is. It’s like getting it to the end zone. A lot of time you can carry it down the field and make all the plays and then fumble the ball inside the 2-yard line, some lineman jumps on it, and he gets credit for the touchdown.

Even more challenging was negotiating the rights to use NFL logos and facilities, a battle they partially won.

Townsend: Initially we started some talks with the NFL. They—for obvious reasons and Oliver’s reputation as a conspiracy theorist—were a little bit dubious. We just started to proceed with getting permissions to film and research stadiums on our own without any approval in place. We were getting locked out of some venues. Owners and organizations were a bit dubious to get involved without the NFL’s blessing. So we opened up a conversation with the league. I went to New York to talk to the honchos there at the time.

Stone: Clayton Townsend and I would go to New York, and he would do a lot of the negotiating with [NFL president and COO] Neil Austrian.

Townsend: Neil and I met a couple times, then Oliver and I and Warners’ corporate lawyer went to New York. We were proceeding gingerly and ultimately they wanted script approval and editorial aspects, which was something that ultimately led us to separate.

Stone: At that time, the commissioner of football [Paul Tagliabue] was an asshole. God, what an arrogant asshole, I’m sorry. The NFL’s attitude is: “This is our domain and no one can fuck with us.” They’re all private and they have billionaire owners and they’re pretty tough. They didn’t want anything to do with the movie. It was like the Pentagon on Platoon.

Paul Tagliabue (NFL commissioner, 1989-2006): I don’t recall having seen the movie.

Weiner: Oliver’s agent at the time, Mike Ovitz, sent a script straight to the league office and the league sent letters to everyone not to help us.

Stone: They really put a memo out saying “Don’t cooperate with these guys.”

Townsend: Jerry Jones was super open to it. We had some great help from the Dolphins, the Broncos, and the 49ers, who opened their doors to us for research. The fact that we were able to make inroads was gratifying.

Sal Totino (cinematographer): Up until a week before we filmed we had two sets of uniforms. We had the ones that are in the film and then we had NFL uniforms. I think the NFL made a huge mistake in not sanctioning the film.

Mark Robert Ellis (assistant football coordinator, quarterbacks coach): Are they going to be the Miami Dolphins, or are they going to be the Miami Sharks? It became self-evident that we were going to be a fictitious team.

Dennis Quaid (Jack “Cap” Rooney): They even delayed the start of the movie for a week—we had to make new uniforms.

Mary Vernieu (casting director): [Costume designer] Mary Zophres came up with the solution once we couldn’t get the logos from the NFL. She was very instrumental in that.

John C. McGinley (Jack Rose): Wardrobe and everybody had to come up with stuff that was not NFL. It really hurt the film. It takes away what we perceive as the authentic top of the food chain.

Stone: I mean, really, that whole Christmas I was working my ass off. I finally got the green light to spend big money and secure stadiums in January, and we started shooting right around then. It was pretty hairy. I couldn’t have pulled that off earlier, but I’d had enough experience in the game of studio politics to pull that off.

Warner Bros.

Part II: “We Have Like 70 Characters in This Movie”

In the midst of securing locations and finalizing scripts, the production began to cast the main roles and looked for the biggest names in Hollywood.

Vernieu: When you’re starting to cast a movie, you always make lists and try to figure out who’s actually available. Al Pacino was already attached.

Hamburg: He had been attached to another movie that Oliver was going to do called Noriega, about the dictator of Panama. He and Oliver decided the tone wasn’t working.

Al Pacino (Tony D’Amato): We read Noriega out loud with a lot of people. Once we heard it, it was clear what to do. You can tell a lot about a film when you read a script aloud for the first time. We decided afterward to move to something else.

Hamburg: The problem with that was Pacino was already what they call “pay or play,” so he was entitled to get his full salary even if the movie didn’t get made. He very graciously agreed to an arrangement where he would waive that on the condition that he do another movie with Oliver in the future. That ended up being Any Given Sunday.

Stone: I had worked with Al on Scarface and almost on Born on the Fourth of July. I liked him a lot and admire him as an actor. For me it was a natural to go to Al. I was talking to DeNiro much earlier, he wanted to do it with me, but he asked for quite a bit of money, which shocked me because we didn’t have that money in the budget.

Weiner: We brought Pacino to the 49ers. As the 49ers break a practice, we’re walking into the wave of players. I’ve got Pacino on one side and Oliver on the other and Garrison Hearst walks past, looks at Pacino, and says, “Say hello to my little friend.”

Pacino: I hear that a lot. I do remember Steve Mariucci. Mike Shanahan was amazing. I had these great coaches helping me—I had Bill Parcells talk to me forever.

Stone: Jim Brown would become a wise counselor, a man who remembered the older league, the way it was played and the insubordination you feel from the black player’s side.

Jim Brown (Montezuma Monroe, Hall of Fame running back): It was a privilege to play a coach and play with Al Pacino. He would be the ultimate actor in my life to play a coach and have authenticity to it. I had a small part but a lot of good situations to react to. It was a great opportunity to get some things off my chest.

Donner: I remember Oliver calling me and saying, “Should the owner be an older woman or younger, and should it be Cameron Diaz or should it be Ann-Margret?”

Stone: I just thought a woman was pretty radical for that era in football, but the situation seemed real.

Vernieu: Cameron was somebody that we cast pretty early on. She kind of came in and walked in the room with Oliver. She was so cool, and nice and very talented. And, I think for her it was something that she hadn’t done before in this point in her career, to work opposite Al Pacino.

Stone: She was great. I liked her.

Townsend: There’s Something About Mary had just come out and she was getting a lot of notice on that. She came with Oliver out to an early game. We flew up and went to a 49ers game and she was a real sports fan, there was no doubt about that.

Weiner: The first time we brought her on the field was at a preseason game at Candlestick and we’re just trying to hide prominent people. We’re not on the sideline more than five minutes and she’s got a sports photographer’s hat on backwards, looking through his lens, taking pictures. In real life, that’s who she is. She nailed that role.

Vernieu: Oliver’s the kind of director that everyone will read for, because he’s so amazing and everyone wants to work with him.

Matthew Modine (Dr. Ollie Powers): Oliver asked me to read You’re Okay, It’s Just a Bruise, and told me I’d be playing a doctor like the book’s author. I was representing the next generation of sports medicine type doctor versus James Woods’s character. He was the kind of doctor who’d spit on a cut, rub some dirt into it, and then call the athlete a sissy if he didn’t get back in the game.

Stone: We made [Woods’s character] much more aggressive. I love his speeches in the film, I love watching him. He makes the thing go round. “We’re in a business, this is the way it works.” I love the way Cameron Diaz and him interact.

McGinley: Oliver asked me to play [sportscaster Jack Rose] and I said, “Absolutely yes.”

Stone: He was based on a sportscaster [Jim Rome, who] was quite the pain in the ass at the time.

(Jim Rome did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.)

McGinley: He kept calling the quarterback Jim Everett “Chris Evert,” and then Jim Everett finally snapped and went after Jim Rome on live TV.

Vernieu: When Dennis Quaid came in to meet, we just sort of knew that he was the guy. He felt like an American guy, in every way. He was at the right place in his career, as well. You want to be able to build in what their persona is to the public.

Stone: I went to George Clooney first on that role. Clooney turned it down and told me, “I thought you were going to rewrite it for me.” I tried to tell him we have like 70 characters in this movie, it’s impossible.

Quaid: Oliver said he had a part for me playing Cap Rooney. At that time you could say there were three or four quarterbacks he was like, and it was an interesting role, a guy at the end of his career. He’s having misgivings and insecurities, things like that.

Weiner: He was a lefty, so we had him work with Steve Young.

Quaid: I was at San Francisco training camp, it was 120 degrees. But to stay back there and see that wall of violence coming at you, hands raised up in the air, jumping. That wall is about 10 feet tall really, and it’s coming at you, and you don’t even see where you’re throwing. You’re throwing it to a spot. But I’m sure Steve Young saw a lot more than I do.

Pacino: I had dinner with Dan Marino. I said, “What is it like playing quarterback?” He said, “Think of the freeway, and you’re walking up the freeway with traffic coming at you trying to read Hamlet.” When you get the insights from the actual players and coaches, it helps. Still, it’s a language you have to learn.

In casting Any Given Sunday, finding athletic actors who could effectively portray football players was just as important, especially in the main role of Willie Beamen. The production held a small workout session at the Coliseum to scout everyone before moving to Miami.

Williams: They were trying to figure out who was going to be quarterback and what actors could move like an athlete—and what athletes could handle acting.

Weiner: All these actors showed up that Oliver talked to—he was just throwing them all together. Cuba Gooding Jr. goes out and gets some beer for us in the middle of the field and Tom Sizemore showed up, and Ving Rhames, all these guys that were thinking about it.

Bill Bellamy (Jimmy Sanderson): They wanted to see if we could catch and run the routes. I was able to do all that cool stuff because I was always an athlete as a kid.

Williams: Will Smith wasn’t interested. That’s who they wanted first. And then P. Diddy was a pick.

Stone: Warner Bros. was in love with him because of his music deal. He was pulling big money on concerts. I thought we could try him because we didn’t have somebody. Puffy was not an actor but definitely movie material. So I worked with him, and I got him an acting teacher in New York. He really worked at being an actor, and I did a couple screen tests with him. And he got better, no question. The problem was when he threw the ball.

Weiner: He just couldn’t throw.

Williams: If you can’t throw, you’ve got to make it look like you can throw. You’ve got to look like you’re a gladiator. I remember telling Oliver, “I don’t know about this guy.” He was like, “Well, he has an audience and Warner Bros. wants us to look at him.”

Warren Moon (opposing coach, Hall of Fame quarterback): They had me work him out and try to teach him how to look like a quarterback. I remember J.Lo came to watch, because they were seeing each other at the time. He just didn’t have the right release as far as how you could throw the ball—it just didn’t look natural.

Allan Graf (football coordinator, second unit director): He couldn’t throw 3 feet. Oliver goes, “Are you shitting me?” He says, “Allan, you think you can get him to throw?” I said, “Well, in about six months I guess we could start shooting.” That was the end of him.

(P. Diddy did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this article.)

Hamburg: He came in with a huge entourage, was a big rap star, huge ego, and Pacino was very turned off by that and basically told Oliver it’s either him or me.

Pacino: As an actor, you’re always looking for credibility. It’s sort of like doing Shakespeare—you need to understand it on a certain level before you can even enter it.

Hamburg: So Oliver got rid of Puff Daddy and brought in Jamie Foxx, who at that time was only known as a comedian on this TV show In Living Color.

Vernieu: I had cast Jamie in a movie called Booty Call. We basically had to film Jamie playing football in the park, and I showed Oliver a bunch of movies on him. We filmed him kind of throwing the ball, so that he could see, because we’d already done the football camp at that point.

Stone: Jamie Foxx had been in the wings, I liked him a lot. I knew he’d been a high school quarterback. He was saucy, smart, had a great TV show, there was no problem with Jamie. He was up next and he took the job. And he delivered big time.

Townsend: He just was electric, he had a real grounding in reality and the confidence, the cockiness, that came through. It just worked immediately.

Williams: I remember being in Jamie’s trailer, this was Day 1 or 2 in Miami. He comes up and says, “I just want to hug you, man.” He’s like, “I’m here because of you. I had to audition X number of times to get this position, and this is the position for me. I played quarterback in high school. … If you don’t stay on Oliver and get this movie done, I am doing Booty Call Part 4. This is my opportunity to show I have chops beyond comedy.” It almost brought me to tears.

Quaid: The movie was a great thing for Jamie, it really gave him a career. He’s such a talented guy. And he really brought it, he really did. It was one of those things where his career matched the character’s career.

Pacino: He was great to work with, absolutely. He was so ready, so up for it, so generous. What I sensed from him was he was looking around and learning. I could tell that he was a natural.

Vernieu: Lawrence Taylor was a little bit of a back and forth there when we were casting him.

Mark Lepselter (sports agent): I remember in late October of 1998, I had Lawrence doing a corporate appearance for Lucent Technologies in New Jersey. Two or three days later, my friend says, “LT was arrested last night for a cocaine bust.” He ultimately ended up in a federally mandated drug rehab center. Literally three days after he’s arrested, I’m in my office, and I get a call out of the blue from Richard Weiner. He says, “Oliver would like Lawrence Taylor to come audition. … He doesn’t care that he was arrested three days earlier.”

Weiner: We had a contingency plan with Lawrence Taylor because we literally pulled him out of rehab to meet with Oliver.

Lepselter: Lawrence was in this place, “Honesty House,” in the middle of New Jersey, and around Halloween, we had to get him a pass to go to the Tribeca Film Center to audition. Lawrence walked in with two drug counselors in tow, because they wouldn’t let him leave by himself, and we go up an elevator and Oliver Stone meets us off the elevator.

Lawrence Taylor (Luther “Shark” Lavay, Hall of Fame linebacker): Shit, the audition didn’t last more than 20 minutes.

Stone: He’s a complicated man, but I really liked him.

Lepselter: Because he had violated probation, they made him do drug rehab for 60 days. They were going to start filming in January and it was November. Can LT get out of rehab in time and be prepared for the rehearsals?

Vernieu: We couldn’t figure out if we were going to actually be able to get him out and down there, and if the judge would let him. And then at the last minute he did.

Lespelter: I sent Lawrence the sides they sent to me—it was really for the role of a big offensive lineman. LT, he’s a sharp guy, he reads it and he says, “Mark, this is for a white guy, this ain’t for a brother.”

Andrew Bryniarski (Patrick “Madman” Kelly): Originally my character was going to go into what happened to Lyle Alzado. That pretty much got transferred to Lawrence Taylor’s character in a lesser way.

Taylor: I didn’t get caught up in whether or not the film was tackling issues. I had my own issues to worry about. I just wanted the opportunity to be part of the production.

Lepselter: Michael Clarke Duncan was going to be Luther “Shark” Lavay and when they started filming, athletically, he didn’t have the authenticity that Oliver was looking for. They had Lawrence there for the technical component.

Taylor: Originally, they wanted me to be a technical director with a small part. Oliver asked me to throw on a helmet and shoulder pads for a particular scene—he flipped, and it kind of cost Michael Clarke Duncan his part.

Ellis: But it worked out for the better: Michael goes back to L.A. and if he wouldn’t have been in L.A., he wouldn’t have gotten the call for The Green Mile. One door closes and another one opens.

Townsend: We were all worried that Lawrence would go off on a crazy bender at the time, but he was amazingly professional and awesome.

Lepselter: I believe that movie for LT had so many offshoot positive effects. He got the hell out of New Jersey, he started a new life. I don’t think LT would be alive today if he hadn’t changed a variety of things in his life 20 years ago.

Taylor: Any Given Sunday gave me hope as I began to move past a dark period. I made Miami home and changed some things in a positive way.

Warner Bros.

Part III: “It Was Literally a Three-Ring Circus”

On an Oliver Stone production, the set is often held hostage by the director’s whims. With so many moving parts, and tons of waiting, each day was an adventure.

Totino: It was funny, the first day of principal photography, Oliver said to me, “Welcome to Vietnam.” I was like, “What the fuck is he talking about?”

Donner: Oliver is supposed to be a general and he’s at war—and that’s basically what it’s like.

Townsend: Oliver’s not a guy that likes a calm set. He thrives on chaos.

Stone: The nature of the project, you have to wrangle so many actors every day. You have all these turn-around clauses. You have stadiums to think about. You have the sunlight. You have so many roles. You’ve got to be very organized to shoot something like this, but it’s chaotic. We crammed everything we could into that amount of time. We could have easily spent 20 more million dollars, but Clayton and I had been around a while together and saved every buck we could.

Townsend: I tried my best to allow the creative aspects to happen within the confines of our schedule and budget. Just a lot of elements, a lot of egos, a lot of moving parts.

Weiner: He’s like a mad scientist. It’s 4 or 5 in the morning and he’s shooting the B-roll on the sideline and he’s cackling, he’s like, “This is saving me 17,000 dollars a day so I don’t have to reshoot this stuff!”

Williams: He reminded me of coaches I’ve been around. Every day is not their best day but they know how to win, they know what needs to be done. When I was around him he would do crazy stuff. He would fire people on the spot and things like that.

Bryniarski: It’s the Oliver Stone show. It’s a massive undertaking trying to recreate a special football league in a film. Getting everything shot with that many people, that many pieces of the machine …

Ellis: Oliver would come to set and sniff the air, and whatever he was in the mood to do, we were going to do.

Quaid: He would make up shots on the spot and he had it all in his head. He had his cuts in his head. It’s like three different movies: The movie he wrote, the movie he made, and the movie he edited.

Stone: A football game is like shooting a war, but it’s even tougher because you don’t have guys crouching, you have them standing on the sideline. It was really hard, and I remember being exhausted moving from one sideline to the next, and all up and down the field and chasing the sun. The sun goes down, drops behind the stadium, one thing after another. Sometimes you end up shooting at 4 o’clock in the afternoon—we’d be shooting on the 5-yard line pretending it was the 50. Always being creative.

Totino: Oliver was playing football in a way. He wanted to change things. “No, I’m not going to do that, we’re going to do this right now.” He was calling the audible, and by calling the audible, he created an edge.

Ellis: I think that he believes that environment keeps people on their toes. That was all part of the madness that was Oliver—that was also maybe brilliance.

McGinley: The only tricky thing with Oliver is it’s almost like a Kentucky Derby horse with blinders on, and if you fit inside those blinders, which is his vision for the piece, then it’s artistic nirvana. If you insist on dancing outside those blinders, you’re dead, and that’s where you get people with horrible experiences.

Weiner: It was literally a three-ring circus. Oliver will push people. Oliver will make a movie and some actor will come out and say he’ll never work with him again—but he got a Hall of Fame performance out of him. James Woods bailed before that shoot was over. ... I know because I got his cigars.

Totino: I came home with PTSD. I remember having these crazy headaches and calling my doctor like, “I think I’ve got brain cancer.” You start questioning yourself: Who am I? What am I doing with my life? What’s going on? I lost 20 pounds making the movie. You don’t think of these things, you’re just in the middle of it all at the time.

Pacino: The one good thing about being an actor is you stay out of things. You like the dinners at night, you like the camaraderie, but you stay away from the skeletons in the closet.

Taylor: I enjoyed being on the set. I just hated all the sitting around that comes with filming a major motion picture.

Stone: After a few weeks, I guess the actors were getting tired of waiting. So the rebellion broke in and they’d play golf. Lawrence would go off—sure enough four or five of them would play golf together.

Townsend: LT was very open about the fact that he wasn’t good just being idle and doing nothing. Just coming off his substance issues, he was like, “I’ll take a beeper, I’ll be on the golf course; when you guys need me, beep me, I’ll come.” He’d be playing 36 or more holes a day because “if I’m not going to be playing golf, I’m going to be smoking crack.”

Ellis: LT and Dennis would play golf and bet per diem.

Quaid: And Jim Brown. We would be over at Doral Country Club every morning at 6 playing golf. We’d call the production office about every 30 minutes to see if Oliver had left yet. We would play 18 holes every day. It was good: You’ve got the best defensive player ever to play the game, the best offensive player ever to play the game, and it could get really heated. LT would come out there in shorts and flip-flops and hit the ball a mile.

Brown: He was a good golfer, great competitor.

Ellis: This is a goal-line play, and we’re in Dallas. We call “rolling,” and I look at the monitor; Shark’s being Shark, and we’re on him and he’s pointing, “Strong left, strong left.” I looked down, I go, “What is ...?” He had his full uniform on and still had his golf shoes. You can’t help but crack up. Like really? Somebody go to his trailer and get his cleats.

Bryniarski: He’d never take off his golf shoes.

Lepselter: That’s probably why he showed up to games 15 minutes before kickoff because he didn’t want to hang around the locker room. That’s probably why Parcells didn’t give a shit because he knew how the guy was wired.

Graf: When I was shooting, they would hit golf balls inside Texas Stadium and hit them away from us. They’d be on the 50-yard line hitting them towards the goal line, seeing how close they could get to knocking it over the goal post.

Pacino: Just too early for me to go play golf. And I don’t know how to play golf, either.

Warner Bros.

Part IV: “I Thought He Snapped His Neck”

The daily chaos on set eventually bled into some of the movie scenes as well, which nearly threatened to shut down production. During two crowded house party sequences in the film, players snort drugs, get into arguments, and even cut a car in half with a chainsaw.

Williams: Oliver had been waiting for that party scene. Everyone knew it was going to happen. Oliver strategically shot it towards the end of our stay in Miami.

Weiner: It was a three-night shoot, and the first night was so crazy. The casting directors had for months been going around these clubs all over Florida inviting beautiful women to what they thought was a party for Oliver Stone. So the first day, they were basically party girls. Second night, most of those women were gone. But that first night was literally insane.

Stone: Obviously we were hiring all the models we could and all the best-looking girls in Miami. These are young guys in the prime of their life, right? You can imagine they were going out pretty late.

Hamburg: Oliver is a guy who likes to burn the candle at both ends. His motto is he works hard and he plays hard.

Halsted: Oliver throws a good party. I felt sorry for the ADs.

Williams: There’s a lot of scenes in there taken from my experience. There’s some partying and people trying to get into the bathroom, and you go in there and there are guys doing coke on girls’ tits. That was real. It’s that light and dark. They’re superheroes, and they’ve got this other side that balances things out.

Totino: The impromptu scene was the cocaine in the bathroom. Bill’s getting a blow job, and one of their wives walks in. He’s like, “Get out of here!” That wasn’t scripted. Oliver is constantly putting you in those kind of weird positions.

Bellamy: I mean, guys were doing coke, guys were partying hard, they were living life like there was no tomorrow. That wasn’t anything that was out of pocket for them. You’re in Miami, you’re the belle of the ball, with the hottest team in the NFL, you know what I’m saying? And we were the kings of that city, so the women, the lights, the drugs, all that stuff was there. Access, it was crazy.

Bryniarski: Later on in the party, I’m clearing the table of plates and teaching a girl fellatio on a bottle of champagne. Oliver’s not going to micromanage every scene and tell every actor what he sees. He wants you to bring that character off the page.

Modine: It was crazy because it was an actual party. It was more like a documentary.

Weiner: There was debauchery going. The cameras were rolling all over the place. He kept putting these guys in a hot tub with beautiful women. There wasn’t a lot of sleep.

Williams: Oliver comes up and says, “I need you in the hot tub.” I said, “No, I cannot go in the hot tub. I may go into politics one day.” He’s like, “No, I need you, I can’t do this scene without you in the hot tub.” I’m sitting there going, “Jesus.” I knew the topless girls were going to come. I just wanted to be in the party and dance. When they shot it, I was almost submerged.

Weiner: LL at one point just puts on his clothes and goes, “I’m married, I gotta get outta here.”

Totino: There’s a scene in the movie where Jamie Foxx and LL Cool J have a fight on the field, and Al Pacino breaks them up.

Ellis: The idea was they botched the handoff. LL’s character’s like, “You didn’t give me the ball.” And Jamie’s like, “I put it right in your stomach. I put it right there!” That argument is supposed to escalate, and then Al’s role was to hear it escalate, get mad, and then go over and break it up.

Townsend: There was a competitive spirit between LL and Jamie from the beginning. A lot of testosterone.

Bryniarski: LL Cool J said something disrespectful to Jamie and actually reached over Al Pacino’s face and gave him a smack. It wasn’t a brutal smack, but it touched him. Jamie came back forward and he said, “If you want to do this, we can do this.”

Totino: LL’s like, “I’m improv-ing.” Jamie’s like, “Well, if you’re going to improv, let me know if you’re going to hit me.” We came back to shoot the reverse. What does LL do? He hits Jamie. What does Jamie do? Fucking hits him back. Al Pacino is in the middle of the scene acting, doesn’t know that a real fight’s going over his head.

Stone: I didn’t get too involved because it was on the field. Al was trying to break it up and he was thrown around too. It was kind of a fun mess.

Bryniarski: LL Cool J, his eyes broke character. I saw Al Pacino’s eyes got wild, and, “Oh shit, guys guy guys!”

Pacino: I don’t know what got into me, but I went to separate them. I must have been the coach. They were at each other.

Ellis: Al shows up in front of me three seconds later with a look on his face like, “the hell with that.”

Pacino: I had some sense.

Bellamy: It was like, “What are you guys doing?” Everybody realized, “Wait a minute, this is a little bit too far. This is not the script. It wasn’t supposed to get physical.”

Totino: The crew, everybody, just comes onto the field, breaks up the fight, calms everybody down, and I think, “OK, everybody’s calm, we’re going to shoot again.”

Bryniarski: Jamie Foxx was standing next to a camera crane on the field, and I watched LL Cool J sneak up to Jamie from behind—and Jamie had his helmet on, but he was not paying attention. LL stalked him like a panther, got close to Jamie and smashed Jamie’s head against the camera crane.

Totino: Fucking massive punch hits Jamie in the face. Jamie goes back and hits the push bar on the techno-crane. I thought he snapped his neck. Jamie pops up, full-blown fight going on. Punches are flying everywhere.

Townsend: I jumped in between the two of them as they started trading blows. They were both in full pads and helmets; I unfortunately was not.

Bryniarski: Oliver grabbed my arm and said, “Andrew go do something!” I’m like, “Fuck.” So I tackled LL Cool J, pinned him to his stomach, and I told him, “LL, you gotta chill out. You’ve got to chill out. You can’t go killing a 150-pound actor in this film. If anything happens to Jamie Foxx and he can’t shoot for a couple of weeks, this whole movie can go down in the fucking toilet.”

Bellamy: Every time we shot the scene, I never got a chance to say my line, because they started fighting. It was hilarious.

Totino: Everybody storms off the field, and we decide to wrap. Afterwards, Oliver says to me, “Did you get that?!” Did you get it?” I’m like, “No.” He says, “What the fuck? Why weren’t you fucking rolling? What the fuck’s wrong with you? You should have been rolling.” I was like, “Oliver, they were underneath the camera. They were killing each other.” He goes, “Ah, we should have fucking rolled on that.”

Pacino: They’re young actors. I think they started mirroring their roles in the film, antagonistic with one another. I think it just carried over.

(Through representatives, Jamie Foxx and LL Cool J declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Townsend: There’s a lot of pressure overall for everybody on the shoot and a lot of morphing in and out of reality and fantasy. This was a moment that tindered.

Totino: Those are the type of challenges that we were dealing with all the time. All the time!

Part V: “The Hair on Everybody’s Neck Stood Up

For Stone, authenticity on the field and in the locker room was paramount, and led to a unique visual style—and some genuinely surprising moments.

Graf: Anytime they cast a football actor, we had them come in to learn their plays. They had to come to our football camp, too.

Townsend: It was right before the shoot. Oliver did that back on his war films as well. It was a good way to train the cast and get them working as a team.

Bryniarski: It was on the equator, 105 degrees in Miami. It was basically all day instead of two-a-days. Everybody was hungry. It was definitely a demanding camp.

Bellamy: I remember we were exhausted. We were running every day in that Miami heat sweating, and just like, “Oh my God.” I was in the best shape of my life. I never ran so many sprints in my life.

Quaid: I didn’t play football in high school or anything like that in college. I wasn’t big enough and didn’t have the killer instinct for it. I did Everybody’s All-American, and then coming out on the field just for practice then, it was a completely different story 10 years later. It’s a young man’s game, it really is. I even thought about quitting at one point. I felt like I was too slow, I felt like I couldn’t throw a cat out of a window, and it had been a long time since I’d thrown a football. But I persevered and I’m glad I did.

Ellis: Oliver showed a clipping of Saving Private Ryan. When they were taking the beach he basically said, “This is the way I want the football to look.” Literally.

Totino: I jumped on top of the dolly and I start shaking the head, and the camera operator looked at me like, “What are you doing?” I said, “Just keep shooting, this is fucking great.” I realized at that moment, it was adding that little thunder to it, creating this vibration within you. It was like being on the battlefield.

Levy: Oliver’s marching orders were, “I want the camera to sound like it’s at the middle of the field the whole time, surrounded by players and crowd.” He wanted it to feel like he was in the game, that sense of mayhem. I think through lots of distortion and volume and animal sounds and crowd.

Salmon: The flashy stuff and the frenetic stuff, it was timely. It was often imitated. Even Friday Night Lights did it.

Townsend: There was that infamous scene in the locker room where Cameron goes in and there’s all these naked men. That was an interesting choice that Oliver made.

Williams: There’s a different dynamic when the boss comes in and disrupts that culture. When we were rehearsing for the scene, Oliver’s like, “OK, the owner’s going to come in, and I need to see who’s willing to be naked.” A couple guys raised their hand. This one guy was a human tripod.

Ellis: One of my guys, specifically, who was a badass linebacker, let’s just say he was well endowed.

Williams: That’s realistic from my experience in the NFL for 12 years. The owners, their kids, they may walk into something they’re not ready for. I’ve seen that. She kind of invaded that locker room without permission even though it’s her team. And the players are like, “Well you’re coming into our domain, you need to see everything.”

Robert Klemko (Washington Post sports investigative reporter): There was a defensive back in Baltimore, Bernard Pollard, who I observed during my first couple of seasons covering the NFL, who would do press scrums in the nude if a woman was present. It got so bad, one teammate remarked, “You’re not even dick-watching; you’re dick-showing!”

Hamburg: Oliver likes to include the most extreme things he can in his movies. He’s a provocateur.

Bryniarski: The Matthew Modine [scene in the beginning] was just classic. I’m getting IVs for hydration and asking for a bunch of drugs. Matthew Modine’s not comfortable. And then I was like, “Pull the pipes, I gotta go, call of the wild.” I’ve got the IVs in my arm, so he’s gotta chase me with the IV bottles on the stand. I pull down my pants and blow up the entire toilet.

Modine: It was pretty much just like you see it—and feel it—when watching the film. Just be glad you couldn’t smell it.

Hamburg: There was a scene with an alligator in the locker room.

Totino: That was just funny.

Weiner: People got upset with the alligator in the shower, like that would never happen. Well, actually it did. They pulled that out of some scene. There’s pranks all the time.

Bryniarski: The alligator was young—it might have been a caiman. It occurred to me that the challenge was going to be to get him low and slide him on the tile, but to be sure not to send him into the wall too hard because if we don’t get the take, I’m going to have to have that alligator handed back to me, and I’m sure his primordial brain can register my scent as the asshole that just threw him into the wall.

Bellamy: Yeah, there were always camera guys in there because they wanted to hear that real banter and us talking crap about each other and getting ready for the game.

Graf: I had to bring in this rubber stuff that looks like tiles in the shower so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.

Bryniarski: I learned that some of my friends and coworkers really didn’t like alligators being thrown at them while they’re naked in the shower.

Near the end of the movie, in the Texas Stadium locker room, Al Pacino delivers one of the most revered and replayed motivational speeches in sports-movie history. He was devoted to his portrayal of an aging coach, a change of pace for the veteran actor.

Williams: I remember talking to his girlfriend, Beverly D’Angelo, because he hosted a small party during a break we had. He had us over to watch some heavyweight fight. She walks over to me and says, “This is so awesome for Al. To play a head coach, this is so important to him.”

Graf: He really gets into it. He does his homework.

Quaid: He was a really sweet man. He was very generous with everybody. I really admired that about him. He had notes, he was always referring to things.

Williams: He had his assistant come get me and he says, “Did you see that last scene that I shot? Did I seem like a coach?” I remember thinking, “Are you kidding me? You’re killing it.”

Pacino: When you hear football spoken between people who really know what they’re doing, you can’t understand the language. But it has a sort of lilt to it and it’s extremely poetic. I only got about a third of it. I loved it. I loved learning how they move on the sideline. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was moving! I liked it. Then you realize the reality of being coach. It’s deep. No vacation.

Bellamy: Al was really a leader on the set and a mentor to all the younger guys. He’d pull us to the side and give us some real good intel about the business, or filmmaking. He was very open.

Williams: Because I played football for a long time, a lot of guys wanted to work out with me, so we’d go out every day and I would be the quarterback and throw these guys NFL routes. I remember Pacino running a slant route and me tossing it to him—he ran full speed, caught it, and kept running. I said to myself, “Nobody would believe this. Al Pacino is out here running pass routes.”

Pacino: You say, “Hey, I’m over here, throw it!” And they’d throw you the ball, and it zips at you. You are catching something you’ve never caught before in your life. “Whoa! I got the real thing here. This is how the world works!” To get it from them, it was a different ballgame.

Hamburg: D’Amato comes into contact with Willie Beamen, who comes from a different generation from a different world. He can’t relate to him the way he can to Cap. He’s trying to connect to this guy and he can’t. There’s a lot going on.

Klemko: So much of the movie is overstated, so it feels really special when something is really subtle. That’s how the “Go to the Buick” scene feels to me. Pacino’s attempts to relate to his QB on an emotional level by channeling his impression of life in the hood is a nice way to illustrate the disconnect that can exist between coaches and players from different worlds.

Pacino: Yeah, I loved that scene. I remember going to a Buick [as a kid], running for a ball and going to a Buick. All I ever wanted to be was a quarterback—never happened. Everybody would be quarterback but me, even when I got older.

Moon: He was perfect for the role. That’s how those coaches used to be back in those days—Lombardi, and people like that. Just tough, gritty coaches that said what was on their mind and cursed and screamed. He was even more old school than the movies.

Hamburg: That locker room speech that he gave has become so epic. It’s replayed so often at sports games. “Life is a game of inches.”

Stone: I used to talk about that when I did the lecture tour as a writer-director. I called it “6 inches in front of my face.” I used it with students and stuff, talking about life.

Hamburg: The Al Pacino character really deals with the toll that football takes on somebody’s personal life. “I’ve lost everything that a middle-aged man can lose. I’ve pissed away my money and marriage, and my kids are alienated from me.” His whole life is football.

Ellis: We shot that in the visitor’s locker room in Dallas at 12 o’clock at night. I get a call from the AD at base camp—the cameras are set up. “Al wants to see you in the trailer.” OK, I’m going to the Godfather’s trailer. We start going through it. He’s still running lines and we’re running camera there in 15 minutes.

Williams: I remember he stumbled a little bit because it’s a long speech. Oliver comes over and says, “Hey, are you OK?” He said, “I can do this.”

Taylor: Al was rehearsing, he would fumble different lines, and then it was like BAM—they started rolling and he absolutely fucking nailed it.

Ellis: I’m standing over there in the corner and we called action and I’ll tell you, the hair on everybody’s neck stood up.

Williams: He does that speech three or four times, exactly like what you saw. We were like, are you kidding me?

Totino: You’re so tired after such a long week, and you get all set up to do this speech, you’re barely awake, every ounce of energy you’re just trying to focus. And then Al starts his speech and it’s like you got this burst of energy. This renewal, like “holy shit.” It was power beyond belief.

Pacino: Oliver was great to work with and he gave me a couple of chances, and he covers it beautifully. I remember Sidney Lumet used to like to do more takes than he usually does with me to get me tired. He thought he’d get a better performance out of me. Maybe that was Oliver’s thought.

Bryniarski: When you’re in that room, it’s echoing in every chamber of your head, off of every wall surface back at you. That would fire him up and fuel him even more. We’d get louder and louder.

Bellamy: That room was electric. It was absolutely electric. Every time he did the scene it got hyped, and he just kept delivering it. Even if you watch it now, you’ll be in your house screaming.

Quaid: Everybody was like, sit back and watch Al Pacino work. We were like audience members.

Modine: We all knew he was going to deliver an amazing performance. Al is the real deal. What we didn’t expect was the emotional nuance.

Stone: He absorbs it and gives it back in a way that makes me cry. He put his heart into it.

Pacino: It was a very good speech as it was written. Sometimes you go in and you sort of massage the speech—you work with some people and figure out how to do it, how to make it flow and genuine and in a way that you can say it—take the acting out of it.

Levy: There’s moments where we have jump cuts on Al Pacino—we cut to him and his voice is continuing, and he’s not talking on camera. They’re so incredibly emotional. Even though there’s an obvious level of artifice there, it gives you a moment to sort of really listen to what he’s saying. It draws your attention in that much more.

Williams: We open the door and run out to the field, and there’s nobody there, just an empty space. The cast is like, “Are you kidding me? We need to go play somebody!”

Stone: At the end of the movie he says, the great thing about football—the team—is looking downfield together, all 11 men looking in the same direction. It’s a feeling of camaraderie and purpose and will going to battle or war. Bringing the team together to achieve. I suppose that’s what the speech is about. We’re losing but we could be winning. Individuals will die, but as a team we can win, and we can all have a great moment.

Pacino: Maybe some of the teams that are waning, I can come in there and give them a speech. I’ll need some writers.

Part VI: “Football Is a Dark Place”

Any Given Sunday’s legacy is tied to the plethora of issues it exposed and share with audiences, prompting many ethical debates about the nature of the game—in the moment and over the next two decades.

Williams: I remember telling Oliver that football is a dark place, and if you can’t go there, don’t do the movie. The guys who played will laugh you off the stage if you don’t go there.

Hamburg: This movie is telling it like it is. This is not the BS corporate version on TV. This is the real thing.

Brown: What I saw in the writing of that script was people that really understood the business and commercial aspect of the game.

Williams: Obviously Willie Beamen is ahead of the game. You see a lot of Willie Beamens on Sunday now. I do think that the movie helped open the door for a different type of leader on the field. I think Lamar Jackson, I think Kaepernick, I think Russell Wilson.

Pacino: I watch this guy Lamar Jackson. There are occasionally these players that are inspiring because you can see the game that they play is a game, and you can actually sense the joy they have in what they do. That’s inspiring. Watching Lamar Jackson is an inspiration to actors. Finding that pocket, finding, where is that joy that gets under you and brings you out? The freedom to let go of the conscious, and get it to the unconscious and fly like he does?

With Willie Beamen, he was put in the background. Lamar was waiting behind Flacco, and I don’t see how he got overlooked. What Lamar’s doing was always there. You can clearly see it. Then you watch how he throws with such accuracy. He seems so comfortable throwing a football, like he’s been doing it all his life.

Weiner: Tony Dungy wasn’t allowed to play quarterback in the NFL. The Steelers put him at defensive back. That was the era he came out in. Warren Moon had to go to Canada to get into the NFL. He wasn’t even drafted and he’s in the Hall of Fame. It wasn’t that long ago.

Moon: I can relate so well to that because of my first few years in Houston. Jerry Glanville takes over. He wanted to be more traditional, just run the football and play defense. I was this guy just ready to burst and throw the football all over the place. It didn’t feel like I was being used right.

Klemko: Beamen talking about his last coach having him play cornerback —”He had me tackling 250-pound motherfuckers. I don’t do that type of shit.”—speaks to the black quarterback experience as well as anything I’ve seen in film. We know from a cursory examination of the high school scouting rankings that a much larger proportion of white high school quarterbacks end up finishing their careers as quarterbacks than black high school quarterbacks. It’s a constant struggle for just about every young, athletic black QB, as Lamar Jackson recently experienced.

Weiner: You’ve got white owners, white coaches, who for decades were uncomfortable having a young black man run their team on the field.

Williams: People used to say to me, “How is it that you’ve never been in trouble, you’ve got graduate degrees, but nobody’s talked to you about being a general manager?” There’s no black owners. Can you be a GM and still be yourself? Can you be a leader and have an opinion? When you have a leader calling players “sons of bitches”? That’s upside down.

Ellis: How much has it changed? There’s a reason Oliver showed Ben-Hur. How far away are we from the Roman Empire? These guys are modern-day gladiators. These are highly paid athletes, yes. For our entertainment, yes. But are they damn sure almost killing themselves for it?

Stone: Ben-Hur, I liked that little touch. Charlton Heston shows up as the commissioner of football later.

Williams: I was very proud of the scene when it’s just LT and Jamie. They’re sitting in the sauna. He knows he’s at the end of his road, and that Jamie is the future, and he’s trying to, in his inarticulate way, give him some wisdom. I can’t tell you the number of times I saw that in my career.

Totino: I remember it being really quiet around. It was one of those times that it was very somber around set.

Williams: In that moment, LT is not Shark anymore, he’s just the guy. They express their fear, their insignificance in the whole scheme. They really understand their significance to the juggernaut, the league, the game.

Weiner: The injuries were always there. The players were always pieces of meat. It’s what they did. The LT arc, that’s real. You get these guys and they’ll sign one or two more years because where else are they going to make that much money in that short of time?

Huizenga: There’s something to be said that you sign on to be a gladiator and you know you’re going to take some damage and that’s how you’re going to get your kids into private school, and live in a bigger house—you’re willing to take that damage. My big point was it’s one thing if an adult understands the risk and agrees to take it. It’s yet another when the true risks are withheld from the players and not fully discussed.

Moon: I had six concussions. There wasn’t a protocol up until I had my last one in Seattle in like 1997. I remember before that, I had one in Pittsburgh—they made me look at the scoreboard, they asked me what the score was, they had me answer what city we were in, all that type of thing, and once I answered those questions, they let me go back in the game. I should have never been out there.

Pacino: I remember there was a discussion about “should an eye come out?” It’s almost tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time, it’s saying how profoundly dangerous the game is.

Bryniarski: They found a guy with a glass eye who was willing to dress up and play it out like a stunt that he would lose his eye. They gooed it all up and made it nasty.

Hamburg: There’s a scene where Oliver uses a song by Bill Withers, “Use Me,” and that applies so perfectly to NFL players. The team keeps using them until they use them up.

Pacino: I still don’t go to football games. I don’t want to watch it because the combination of the game itself and you hear that sound when they hit each other, it’s intolerable. But there’s always distance when you’re watching it on television. Sometimes I say, “I gotta stop watching this. I don’t know why I watch this thing.” But there’s such a reward in it, it’s such a wonderful sport. I believe it’s making progress, the National Football League, I believe that. But I want to separate between my belief and what’s really going on.

Klemko: Bill Withers’s “Use Me” fades in, and Rooney just starts slinging the football and moving chains, culminating in that gorgeous, slow-motion spiral that slams to earth, overthrown, reminding a stunned Rooney that he really, truly doesn’t have it anymore.

Quaid: It’s very corporate that way. They’re out; 400 other people want their job. It’s a players’ movie in that way. Even the accumulation of the little hits. These players say they wouldn’t want their kids playing. Before that, the NFL gave their support to North Dallas Forty, and Nick Nolte was getting so beat up all the time, and nobody ever thought of it. That’s how things have changed in 20 years between North Dallas Forty and Any Given Sunday.

Brown: One of the things I did as a player was retire on top and at the right time. It’s romantic to continue to be on top and want to play more and win championships and all that stuff and hurt yourself forever. The decision the business asks of you is they need to get every little ounce of your ability out of you, because you have a name, you have a background, you have a reputation. One of the things I pat myself on the back for is that I had nine years and I left on top and I didn’t want to milk it, didn’t want to push it. But even your wife might tell you that you’ve got three more years. [Lauren Holly’s character] challenged Cap—“Don’t you dare talk about quitting”—and hit him in the side of the head. Somebody was thinking when they wrote that. There are people that will tempt you because they don’t understand, and it can ruin a person for life.

Warner Bros.

Part VII: “It’s the Best Football Movie Ever Made”

Any Given Sunday was released in late December 1999 and earned $100 million worldwide during its theatrical run. It struck a nerve with audiences, invented a new visual language, and continues to maintain its relevance on a variety of topics.

Totino: I saw it at the premiere. I was like, “Holy fuck.” I was in shock on how incredible the film was, how it was really made to feel what it was like to be on a football field and off the football field.

Weiner: Y.A. Tittle sat behind me at the premiere in Hollywood and gave the thumbs-up. When you get the nod you did it OK, then I knew we had done something good.

Graf: The amount of football that we did was unbelievable. In all my years, this was the biggest we ever did.

Levy: The first cut that we watched was five and a half hours. I remember specifically the first football game was over an hour and a half. There was a lot of material, well over 100 hours.

Townsend: Something I really admire about Oliver is that we go beyond the surface of what audiences expect, really go deep into the psyche and background and the sport of the players—and to really integrate that into the film, which I think he did a really good job of.

Hamburg: He was also happy it made money.

Stone: In the football world, they loved it. Some people thought it was ridiculous or not realistic: “I don’t play football like that.” I heard the same shit after Platoon, but the point is movies are bigger than life and they transcend it and they try to show you on a different level what’s going on.

Pacino: This is the good thing—that they make films about it. You start to understand. There’s a certain consciousness of what’s going on.

Brown: Oliver Stone did one of the best jobs directing that kind of film. Those of us who were athletes and activists loved it. It wasn’t a matter of race or gender, it was a portrayal of things that were going on in real life, and somebody was smart enough to present it. It was entertaining and authentic.

Klemko: The medical community has learned so much more about how the brain works, and since this movie we’ve come to realize that the big danger isn’t some countdown to paralysis, as Taylor experiences in the film, but a slow and cumulative effect on long-term brain health from each and every hit. Still, that Any Given Sunday even went there at all made it way ahead of its time.

Ricky Watters (running back): It’s just a really tough transition. You can’t go into the regular job market when you are in pain, when you can’t sleep, when you have anxiety, when your hours are all screwed up and you’re waking up because your shoulder is bothering you, your knee is bothering you. Now you’re taking opioids and stuff like that and now you’re getting really off base. I started doing other things to free my mind from thinking about football all the time. That’s the anxiety that you have that people don’t know.

Pacino: They get concussions on every play. What are you supposed to do with that? We don’t watch war, do we? You know there are things that will come out, but you can’t think about that, can you?

Huizenga: We turned a corner on understanding the long-term effects of concussions, and I think we have done a good job in trying to educate individuals. There’s always room for more improvements, but I think that the awareness level is way up in terms of what’s going on and why players felt pressure.

Moon: It made the players’ association become more aware of player safety a little bit more after they saw all this information coming out.

Modine: I think there’s a better understanding of ensuring the health of the athletes for their postprofessional athletic lives. And that is wonderful and so important.

Huizenga: I think clubs shortchange themselves when they don’t get the very best doctor. Back in my day, you used to get a salary. Now the teams will get money from the team doctor because the team doctor is there as a promotional thing for his hospital or clinic or whatever. Times have changed, and I’m not sure for the better in that regard.

Klemko: I’d challenge anybody who doesn’t feel this movie is realistic to find one scene that doesn’t have an equally outrageous analog in recent NFL history.

McGinley: The guy on the Washington Redskins coming out and saying, “You misdiagnosed my cancer …”

Klemko: We’re given an example of a player who abuses his spouse, a topic the NFL wouldn’t confront meaningfully for another decade after the movie. Media hot take culture hadn’t ballooned into what it is now, but we’re shown a media figure who is able to get under the head coach’s skin with half-baked opinions. The emotional stress coaches put on themselves and their families through for the job is something we’re way more conscious of today, yet the movie nails it. The list goes on and on.

Williams: Individually there were people that cared, there were trainers that cared, there were coaches that cared. As a system, it just kept rolling. The NFL didn’t necessarily want this movie done just because it was portraying what was out there. It didn’t mean every player was like that but it showed that it did reflect society.

Stone: [Hollywood is] going more corporate now. You’ve got Disney and Marvel, there’s no individuality anymore. They just want to keep making the money with big stuff. They don’t want to get individuals. Individuals are a pain in the ass; they cost money.

Townsend: Oliver asks a lot of questions and puts a lot out there that has the audience asking questions or looking further, and I feel like this was a good example of that.

Quaid: I think it’s the best football movie ever made as far as the visceral experience, of being on the field, the hits, and how tough it really is out there, and how confusing—the fog of war.

Hamburg: It sort of has a cult following to this day. In this industry, it really put Oliver back in the pocket.

Townsend: He loved the game of football and wanted to make a movie about it. It became not only a football story, but a metaphor for the world.

Stone: That film was done in ’99, and I think it’s the story of America too. Corporations become so enormous, you kind of know you’re in their grip. I still watch football, but with a little bit more skepticism.

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.

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