The Ballad of Johnny Blood

Leatherheads, George Clooney's film about the early NFL, was born at SI
April 06, 2008

THE 1920S were thegolden age of sport—Jack Dempsey in boxing, Bobby Jones in golf, Big BillTilden in tennis, Babe Ruth in baseball—and in professional football, JohnnyBlood. Never heard of Johnny Blood? Neither had I. Yet this obscure NFL Hall ofFamer became the inspiration for Leatherheads, the movie starring GeorgeClooney and Renée Zellweger that opens nationwide this weekend.

The idea for thefilm was conceived in the stacks of the library at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. It was1986, and I was a reporter at SI. That week I was fact-checking an articleabout the Duluth Eskimos, a charming but hopeless team that folded in 1927,seven years after the NFL was born.

What caught myattention were the outrageous stories about Johnny Blood, an amazing halfbackand defensive rover on a terrible team. (His real name was John McNally; heused an alias so his NFL paychecks wouldn't cost him his eligibility at SaintJohn's University in Minnesota.) During Eskimos games—sometimes four a week—hebent the rules and ran trick plays every chance he got. He was always dirtier,bloodier and more gung ho than his steelworker and coal miner teammates. Therewas always a twinkle in his eye. Off the field he was an incorrigible rogue,never without a drink in his hand or the perfect comeback on his lips.

As I sat on thefloor of the library, newspaper and magazine clips piled around me, I wanted toknow more. I wanted to see Johnny in action. I tracked down a documentary onthe early days of the NFL called Old Leather. Grainy black-and-white footageshows Blood in the 1920s. When this hell-raising, skirt-chasing, bon vivantblew a kiss at the camera, I fell in love with the dude. At that moment I knewJohnny Blood needed his own movie.

Because of Blood'sgregarious nature, a film inspired by him had to be funny. For a project bornat SI, it seemed only natural to turn to Rick Reilly, one of the funniesthumans on the planet. In the mid-1980s we worked college football together, heas a writer and I as a reporter and fact-checker. Neither of us knew how towrite a movie, but that didn't faze us. We spent a week hashing out an outline,and over the next year sent versions of the script back and forth—he lived inDenver, I was in New York City—to edit and rewrite each other's ideas.

Inspired by someof our favorite comedies (His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The ThinMan), we started with two great characters who have opposite approaches to thesame game. Dodge Connelly, based on Johnny Blood and played by Clooney in thefilm, survives on raw athleticism and instinct. The younger Carter Rutherford,a fictional character played by John Krasinski, succeeds through hard work anddetermination.

Rutherford (namedafter my hometown of Rutherfordton, N.C.) is everything that Connelly isn't—helifts weights, drinks milk and is in bed by nine. Connelly and Rutherford hateeach other's style, but as teammates they need each other. To see who would winon another playing field, we threw a sexy, wisecracking girl (Zellweger) atthem and let the rivals fight it out.

In 1990 directorSteven Soderbergh, who was married to my sister Betsy at the time, read andliked our work. The first thing Soderbergh did, however, was teach us how towrite a screenplay—to avoid overediting our jokes, to keep the writing tight.The next thing he did was march the script straight to Casey Silver, then theboss of Universal Pictures, in 1991. Universal bought it immediately.

Reilly and Ithought we had made it in Hollywood. Little did we know that it would takeanother 17 years for Johnny Blood to reach the screen. Mel Gibson, MichaelKeaton and Alec Baldwin all cozied up to the role before eventually walkingaway. Most of the time we never found out why the project had fallen apart. ButI did learn that sports movies are a tough sell in Hollywood. Because of thegrowing importance of the international market, studios shy away from topicsthat don't play well overseas—like American football.

In retrospect, thedelay was a blessing. Clooney found our script in the late 1990s and never letgo. If anybody is perfect to play Johnny Blood, it is Clooney. He's smart andathletic, and Johnny's teammates would recognize the twinkle in Clooney'seye.

With Clooneyonboard to star and direct, Universal green-lit the movie in September 2006.Five months later cameras started rolling in Tigerville, S.C., 45 miles from myhometown. A few weeks ago I saw the completed movie for the first time. For meit is the proverbial dream come true. The original magic of Johnny Bloodsurvived the sausage-maker Hollywood development process, and that's a miracle.Credit Clooney, who understands Johnny Blood as well as I do, and who has ateeny bit of clout.

We were allperplexed, though, to learn that the NFL refused to let Universal use the nameof the Duluth Eskimos in the film. Why? Because there's drinking in the movie."Oh, they don't drink in the NFL," said Clooney. "I couldn'tbelieve it. I think I was watching a Bud commercial [when I heard]." Heprobably saw it during an NFL game. As a result, the Duluth Eskimos are out ofthe movie and the Duluth Bulldogs are in. The Duluth Bulldogs? As a formerfact-checker, I'm disappointed.

Last April, I tookmy mom and dad to visit the set in Charlotte. Clooney was shooting a gamesequence in which 22 players were covered head to toe in mud. All you could seewere the whites of their eyes, and my 82-year-old mother kept tugging my sleeveand asking, "Which one is George Clooney?" It was a surreal moment:Johnny Blood, who'd been living in my head for 20 years, was coming to life.Watching the scene, I realized that football and Hollywood aren't so different.Great performers and magnetic personalities always find an audience, on film orin the muck of a rain-soaked field. I'm glad Johnny finally found his.

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"Football and Hollywood aren't so different. Greatpersonalities always FIND AN AUDIENCE."

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONPHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND PHOTOUNIVERSAL STUDIOS/PHOTOFEST (CLOONEY) PHOTOMELINDA SUE GORDON/© 2008 UNIVERSAL STUDIOS (ZELLWEGER)

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