Editor's note: This story is part of the Star's Aug. 27 college football preview section.
The movie opens with a clip from LaDainian Tomlinson’s stirring Hall of Fame speech …
“Football is a microcosm of America. All races, religions and creeds living, playing, competing side by side. When you’re a part of a team, you understand your teammates — their strengths and weaknesses — and work together toward the same goal, to win a championship.”
It pans to the Sonoran desert, the University of Arizona campus, the Wildcats football team practicing for the 2017 season. The title of this “Major League”-esque film is “Almost All-Americans” … get it? It works on so many levels.
The ’17 Wildcats are not composed of four- and five-star prospects who rolled into Tucson off the recruiting assembly line. They are devoid of preseason all-conference picks, let alone All-Americans. And one of them is from South Africa, so they aren’t all Americans, either. Get it?
Gerhard de Beer, the discus thrower-turned-offensive tackle who at first didn’t know how to put his pads on, is just one of the oddball characters in this ragtag cast. Players of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds have come together to prove their whole can be greater than the sum of their parts.
America might be divided now, but whatever racial or political differences exist, they don’t resonate in the UA locker room, weight room or practice field. These Wildcats are united for a singular cause: to obliterate the memory of last season’s 3-9 record and ensure that that specific slice of history doesn’t repeat itself.
“I know all that other stuff is going on outside here. But here, it’s all just a brotherhood,” senior defensive tackle Luca Bruno said. “We love each other. You bleed together out there on the field. You learn a lot about guys. All that other stuff doesn’t matter.”
Several months before the film is green-lit, a pitch meeting for “Almost All-Americans” is underway …
“This story has everything. It will appeal to sports fans and comedy fans alike. It will tug at your heart. It’s relatable. It’s a truly American tale about real American people.”
The screenwriters will have to spice up the star tailback’s dialogue, because he isn’t a smack talker. He isn’t “Wild Thing.”
The star tailback is humble, hardworking redshirt freshman J.J. Taylor — all 5 feet 6 inches of him.
Taylor had only one other Pac-12 offer, from Washington State, coming out of Centennial High School in Corona, California. That’s an absurd notion to anyone who saw him roll up 265 rushing yards in seven dazzling quarters before suffering a fluky season-ending injury last year.
Did Taylor’s height, or lack thereof, dissuade schools from pursuing him? In typical Taylor fashion, he won’t take that bait.
“It possibly could have,” he said. “It possibly couldn’t. Who knows?”
Taylor said he doesn’t use slights about his height as motivation. He doesn’t view them as put-downs.
“I just happen to be smaller than the rest,” Taylor said. “You’ve just gotta deal with it and do what you can do.”
Taylor can do a lot with a football in his hands. His jump cuts are reminiscent of his role model, Barry Sanders. If both remain healthy, Taylor and senior Nick Wilson should form one of the most dynamic tailback duos in the country.
But this idea that Taylor is “small,” well, UA coach Rich Rodriguez isn’t having it.
“He’s short, but he ain’t small,” Rodriguez said. “I think there’s a difference.”
All quality sports movies feature an eclectic supporting cast. How else could you have provocative clubhouse banter and wacky antics?
Besides The Diminutive Tailback, here are some of Arizona’s other intriguing personalities:
The Intimidating Defensive Tackle. JC transfer Dereck Boles got kicked out of Boise State after getting into a fight in which he bit off part of a teammate’s ear. (He was charged with felony mayhem but found not guilty.) He’s also a gregarious half-Jamaican who didn’t play football until high school. He’ll play a big role on defense.
The South African Lineman. That would be de Beer, who’s as deep a thinker as you’ll find on any college football team. The story about him not knowing how to put on pads is true; he came to Arizona to throw the discus. The senior is battling for the starting job at right tackle.
The Former Bonus Baby. Quarterback Donavan Tate enrolled at Arizona this summer after spending the past eight years trying to make it to the major leagues. The No. 3 pick in the 2009 MLB draft ran into injuries and off-the-field problems. He’s now 26, married and a father of three.
The Groundbreaking Defensive End. Freshman My-King Johnson is believed to be the first openly gay Division I football player. A promising pass rusher, the Tempe High School product likely will redshirt this year to add bulk to his 6-4, 225-pound frame.
The Coach’s Son. Rodriguez describes son Rhett as “worldly.” The heady quarterback arrived on campus knowing most of Arizona’s playbook. What else does he know?
“I almost feel bad for him because they’re already treating him like an extension of the staff,” Rich Rodriguez said. “It’s like, ‘Rhett, what’s going on today?’ (As if) he’s going to have the inside scoop. I’m not going to tell him any more than anybody else.”
The Red Rifle. Someone’s gotta have a catchy nickname, right? Quarterback K’Hari Lane has a captivating backstory too. Despite putting up crazy numbers at a tiny high school in Georgia, he didn’t have a single FBS scholarship offer until Arizona discovered him (with the aid of in-depth Bleacher Report feature entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight.”)
The Legacy Kid. Freshman defensive end Jalen Harris is the son of former Arizona team captain Sean Harris, who played seven seasons in the NFL. His mom, Cha-Ron, played basketball for the Wildcats. Although he weighs only 215 pounds, the 6-4 Harris might be too talented to keep on the bench.
“Look in our locker room,” Rich Rodriguez said, “and the mixture of folks of different races, religions, hometowns, personalities. It’s all there.”
The camera zooms in on Brian Knorr, one of Arizona’s new assistant coaches, who is telling his position group about all the underdog fights he has fought …
“I’m only 5-10, but I played quarterback at the Air Force Academy. In my three years on the varsity, we won 30 games. Thirty! In our second year at Indiana, we made a bowl game for just the second time in 22 seasons. We had to win our last two games on the road to do it, and we did!”
Everybody loves a good underdog story. Arizona is, as Bill Simmons would say, this year’s “Nobody Believes in Us!” team.
Jon Wilner, the longtime chronicler of all things Pac-12 for the San Jose Mercury News, predicted Arizona would go 4-8 and repeat its 1-8 conference mark from a year ago. In the annual Pac-12 media poll, released in late July, the Wildcats received the fewest votes.
If you don’t think the players are aware of these snubs, well, check out Bruno’s reaction to the poll:
“That is a good thing. That is a motivator. We are underdogs. That’s got a chip on everyone’s shoulder. We are not going to stay at the bottom. I know that already.”
Rodriguez wants his team to be a little hungrier, a little edgier after sensing that the losses last season didn’t sting as much as they should have. He doesn’t want the Wildcats to forget 2016; he wants them to feel that pain and use it as fuel.
“If they’re not pissed off about what happened,” Rodriguez said, “they’re the wrong dudes, you know?”
Rodriguez likes what he has seen since spring. Wildcats of all creeds and colors have put in the work.
But will “Almost All-Americans” have the uplifting ending that all sports movies must?
“We’re going to shock a lot of people,” sophomore safety Tristan Cooper said. “Everybody knows we’ve got to prove something. Everybody knows we’re gonna prove something. I don’t think people on the outside think we’re going to. I’m taking it to heart. I don’t like that at all.
“If they think we’re going to have another 3-9 season, a bad season, a negative season, they’re ignorant.”