In 2012, the New Orleans Saints were at the center of a controversy that became known as Bountygate. An NFL investigation revealed that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had created a program in which players were awarded bonuses for particularly violent hits, and especially for injuring opposing players—$1,500 for a knockout; $1,000 for a cart-off. “Kill the head,” Williams was captured on tape telling players. “The body will die.”
The story of Bountygate could be a sequel to Any Given Sunday. But when Adam Sandler looked at it, he saw a real-life Mighty Ducks. That’s because after (now former) Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for a year for his role in the scandal, he headed to North Texas to serve as an “offensive assistant” for the Liberty Christian Warriors, his son Connor’s sixth-grade team. “Obviously it’s a completely different element,” Payton said at the time. “Yet you get just as excited to see the team you’re a part of do well.”
Until recently, Kevin James never knew about that part of Bountygate. He didn’t hear about it until his friend asked if he’d want to play Sean Payton. “Sandler called me a few months before we made the movie and he said, ‘This story happened and would you like to do it?’” recalls James, a lifelong Jets fan. “And I was blown away by it. I was like, ‘I had no idea that he did this.’ I was like, ‘This is the greatest story of all time, man.’”
Home Team, directed by Charles and Daniel Kinnane, premieres on Netflix on Friday. It lightly touches on the Bountygate fallout and the family strain caused by Payton’s career, but mostly it’s a kid-oriented sports comedy along the lines of Little Giants.
Before Home Team’s release, James spoke to The Ringer about becoming Payton, watching him work on draft day, and moving beyond Bountygate. And no—James didn’t know that Sean Payton was about to step down as the Saints coach. Or, at least, if he did, he was very good at keeping a secret.
I’m just imagining being a 12-year-old and being like, “Sean Payton is my coach.”
It’s insane. I would think about all the parents trying to bring their kids in there and trying to get them in front of Sean. It must have been a crazy show. But what really impressed me was the relationship Sean had with the coaches. He became friends with them and with the whole team.
Sandler introduced the concept to you, but was Payton on board? Was he a tough sell?
First question I had for Sandler. I go, “I love this, but is Sean on board with this? Because I don’t want to do it if he’s not.” And he said, “Yeah, he’s in.” He loved the idea of it. We talked and we met a few times and then hung out in New Orleans. He took me to the Saints facility and we went around there during the draft. I got to see all the havoc—the master running everything.
Was there anything specific from that experience that surprised you?
Well, just how casual he was and how much fun he had. I’d be panicking like crazy. Because everybody’s coming up to him, they’re meeting him, have questions for him. “How about this [draft prospect]?” “I like him. We could bring him in. What’s his history?” I was asking him questions about [the Jets] quarterback Zach Wilson. He’s like, “He’s going to be good. He’s going to be good.” He knew everything about everybody. It was just amazing to watch a master operate.
NFL coaches are mythologized as workaholics. You sort of get into it in the movie. What was it like being around that?
It’s decision-making. That’s really what it comes down to for coaches like that. Like, he doesn’t waiver much. He’ll admit when he is wrong, but he just has this innate knowledge to go, “Boom, let’s do this, we’re doing this. All right, we’re going to run this.” Seeing that live in action, you soak it up. I was like, “Man, this is the good stuff right here.”
How does one become Sean Payton?
I had a hair piece on, so I looked like Sean. I tried to focus in on the way he spins his whistle, holds his clipboard, walks around, talks, how he is, how he makes his decisions. All these little things to try to bring them into the character, to try to make it him and make it pleasing to him, you know? The accent was the toughest because it’s all over the place. There’s definitely a little drawl there, but it comes in and out and it’s just hard to pinpoint where he is exactly from. That was nerve-racking, him on set, watching me with the headset on, listening to me trying to do him. It was kind of weird.
Was Gregg Williams ever going to be a part of this movie?
No, because the story really takes place after. It wasn’t about the scandal. It’s got nothing to do with that really. I mean, that was the catalyst that started it. I knew about that other stuff, but that to me wouldn’t be an interesting story. What was amazing to me is that this guy got suspended for a year and decided to turn it into a positive thing and make his life better, and make his kid’s life better.
Did Payton bristle at any of the movie’s mentions of Bountygate?
He was never like, “Don’t say this. Make me look this way.” He wasn’t. He really wasn’t. And it was our choice to say, “Hey, listen, we’re going to go this way.” And he could have been like, “I did nothing. And don’t …” But he did none of that.
You’re a comedian. What was his sense of humor like?
He is funnier than I am in the movie. He literally is. I wish I could have been as funny as him. He’s very sarcastic.
I’m assuming you probably had to tone the language down for a kids’ movie.
So, you mentioned Sandler. Who do you think he would play in the NFL world? I’m thinking he has a little bit of the Roger Goodell look.
That’s pretty good. Goodell for Sandler. I like that. That would be a good one. He could’ve been [Mark] Gastineau when he got in shape for Zohan. He had the abs and everything.
That’s an amazing one. I feel like Gastineau probably has what, like, half a foot on him or something?
Yeah. A little bit taller than Sand Man. But Sand Man got in shape. Sand Man was the real deal for Zohan.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.