Will Ferrell rarely makes public appearances. Sure, you will see plenty of him in the coming weeks as he promotes his upcoming film Semi-Pro, a comedy set against the back drop of the ABA's 1976 merger with the NBA, but chances are you won't really see Ferrell, but his character in the film, Jackie Moon, the bombastic owner/play/coach of the fictional Flint Tropics.
Unlike Moon, Frank "The Tank" or Ron Burgundy, the real Ferrell is nothing like the over-the-top characters he plays in his films. Sitting in his hotel room overlooking Los Angeles last week, Ferrell was soft spoken and reflective as he talked about playing soccer with his sons Magnus and Mattias and running marathons with his wife, Viveca. Truth be told, he's actually a shy homebody until you put a camera on him. Thankfully, the cameras were turned off when we sat down with Ferrell recently to discuss his newest sports movie, his failed attempt to walk-on to the USC football team and how Pete Carroll helped him realize his dream nearly two decades later.
SI.com: You were about 9 years old when the ABA ceased operations in 1976, do you remember the league at all?
Ferrell: Oh, yeah [laughs]. No, not really. I do remember that Anaheim had a team, the Amigos. They played at the old Anaheim Convention Center. I don't have too many memories of the ABA, but do you remember the World Football League? You're probably too young, but they were similar. They had those crazy names like the California Sun. But, no those memories are very hazy.
SI.com: What was the inspiration for the team name, Flint Tropics? I'm sure the folks in Flint, Mich., would be the first to admit there isn't much tropical about the small town.
Ferrell: I think that was something Scott Armstrong, who wrote the script, and our director, Kent Alterman, loved. I think they loved the idea of a Midwest kind of town with an odd name. When you look back at the ABA, it had the Kentucky Colonels and other weird out-of-the-way places that had teams. Flint made sense because it was a small market and why would they have a team? The reason that it's the Tropics is because teams would move almost every year. In the first year of the league, the Minnesota Muskies had the second-best record in the league and they still had to move. They moved down to Florida and become the Floridians, so stuff was in transit all the time that it made for a funny combination.
SI.com: You conveniently find a way to show off your stellar physique in all your movies. You showed some restraint in Semi-Pro, although we do get a closer-than-comfortable look under your short shorts while you are on the free-throw line. What was the goal of the groin cam and do you think the NBA will implement a similar camera angle now?
Ferrell: They will if they're smart. I knew going in I wanted to have the nice tight shorts because it was first, historically accurate and second, just stupid looking. That close-up shot came about to focus on Jackie Moon's form in the classic, granny style free throw. It was all about capturing that moment.
SI.com: What did you think when the Lakers played in the short shorts for the first half of their game against the Celtics a few weeks back?
Ferrell: I heard about it. I didn't see it, I heard they were extremely self conscious and that the audience half cheered and half laughed and didn't know how to react to it. So I don't think they'll be going back to the short shorts anytime soon.
SI.com: This is the fourth sports comedy (Kicking & Screaming, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Blades of Glory) that you've done now. What is it about sports that make for great comedies?
Ferrell: Well, I think they're fun, but I didn't plan for this, it's really been a coincidence. Obviously Talladega Nights was our idea. Then the next script that came around was Blades of Glory, and I was like, "Oh, figure skating, are you kidding me? No one has made fun of that." So I had to do that, and then Semi-Pro came, so it was just lined up that way.
SI.com: Speaking of sports films, your online bio says you make an uncredited cameo in Kingpin with your Semi-Pro co-star Woody Harrelson, is that true?
Ferrell: No, I didn't. I guess it's listed that you can hear my voice. I have to rent Kingpin now to see what they're talking about, but, no, I was never on the set of Kingpin.
SI.com: You've said before that your love for sports began in the third grade when your mom signed you up for soccer. Do you still play soccer in your spare time?
Ferrell: I play with my son, and kick the ball around with my wife. I played in college some. We love it. It was like my first introduction to team sports. My mom signed me up to AYSO and loved it. I wrote an essay in the fourth grade about how I wanted to be a professional soccer player and a comedian in the offseason, so those where always my two loves, sports and comedy. I still regret that I never played soccer in high school. I chose basketball over soccer.
SI.com: You didn't play soccer at University High (Irvine, Calif.), but you did letter in football, basketball and baseball. Any highlight from your athletic career in high school?
Ferrell: I was the kicker on the football team, I was the captain my senior year on the basketball team and our baseball team won our league during my senior year. The highlight was probably making the varsity football team my sophomore year as a kicker. Well, wait, no, the highlight of my sporting career was my freshman year. I was the MVP of the basketball team and I was the co-MVP on the football team. I played center as a freshman on the basketball team and I played safety and wide receiver on the football team. Then they moved me up to varsity because I was kind of tall. I was almost as tall as I am now, but only 160 pounds, so I was getting killed. I was like "can I just kick instead" and they said OK.
SI.com: How did you become close with Pete Carroll?
Ferrell: He introduced himself to me at a Lakers game. He asked if I went to USC, and when I told him I did, he said, "Come on by, come on by whenever you want." Here's the irony: I always feel like I don't want to go by and bother them, they have stuff to work on. But he's always like, "Seriously, anytime, I don't care, whenever you want." So then my agent surprised me one year when I was still on SNL. I came home one day and my good friend Mike was at our house and I'm like, "Mike, what are you doing here?" and my wife said, "Just go with Mike," and we get into a town car. I kept asking, "Where are we going?" and Mike said, "I can't tell you."
We drove to Heritage Hall and I was like, "OK, what's this?" So we went down to the locker room and they dressed me up and they had surprised me. Coach Carroll had this idea to announce to the team that they just got this walk-on tight end. So, they drove me out in the golf cart and they were practicing for the Rose Bowl against Michigan for the national championship and I could see the guys looking and thinking, "Who is this guy?" Then I stepped out and took off my helmet and they all start laughing.
We then ran a play. We ran a go-pattern, yeah, I know the terms, it was just down the sideline and [Matt] Leinart threw the ball, but he kind of underthrew me so I had to sort of lay back. It was silent for a second and then when I made the catch I got a weird, pathetic cheer. Carroll was just laughing and he said, "I was afraid [Darnell Bing] was going to lay you out."
SI.com: USC Sports Information Director Tim Tessalone said you made a bad career move because if you had stayed true to your sports information degree at USC you would be in line to be the school's next SID. You worked in that office for a couple of years. Any moments that stick out during your time at Heritage Hall?
Ferrell: I got in trouble for not properly answering the phones. I quickly learned you were supposed to answer the phone, "Hi, sports information....Tim Tessalone?.... let me see if he's available." My first day I said, "No, problem, let me get him." And Tim's saying, 'Who is it, "Who is it?" and I'm saying, "I don't know," and he would say, 'Always ask who it is and then you say, Let me see if he's available.' I was so nervous, I just said, "Ah, yes, OK, I'm sorry."
SI.com: Signing day just passed. What was it like answering the phones during that time when you were at school?
Ferrell: I never worked an actual signing day, but I do remember calls from people just calling in because, at that time, 'SC was recruiting Curtis Conway and they would call and be like, "Any word on Conway?" And I'd be like, "Um, I don't know," or I'd just say, "Yeah, it's looking good. It's looking real good."
SI.com: You and your wife ran in the New York Marathon and the Boston Marathon a few years ago. What was that experience like, and do you think you'll ever do something like that again.
Ferrell: Oh, don't forget about Stockholm. Don't leave the crown jewel of marathons out. [Laughs] All three of them were insane. They all have different personalities and different experiences. New York was the first time I had run one, and it was the first week in November, so we're talking six weeks after 9/11 had happened, but the city was having the marathon no matter what. So you had all the policemen and firemen out there cheering you on and it was a very emotional and painful race for me. I was out there for like five hours.
Stockholm was a different thing because you're in Europe and they're a little more like [in a Swedish accent] "Hurry up; if you don't finish in six hours, you're done." There's none of these human interests stories where it's like, "And 22 hours later, he crossed the finish line." Nope. They're like, "The follow-up van will pick you up." But it was kind of cool because you do your last lap in the Stockholm Olympic Stadium that hosted the Olympics back in 1912.
I did my best time in Boston, which is the coolest race of all. I broke four hours. I did 3:56 and people cheered me the whole way, and that was crazy because in New York people didn't even notice me. But by the time I ran Boston, Anchorman and Old School had come out, so I had guys running next to me with a full beer, and I was constantly running with people trying to take photos. I was running with this one guy and people were holding signs like, "Frank The Tank" and this one guy was like, "Who are they cheering for?" and I was like, "I don't know, some guy." That was intense, but a lot of fun.
SI.com: When people shout things out to you what's the most popular phrase or name you hear these days?
Ferrell: It's always changing. We were just on the road and I was getting "Ricky Bobby." People are just yelling, "Ricky Bobby." For a long time I had, "You're my boy, Blue," and "Let's go streaking." I had a bunch of those. Here's a weird one. I was just in Ireland for two weeks and Anchorman is huge there. It's like a cult classic. So I had people in their Irish accents saying, "I want to be on you," and "Milk was a bad choice."