They may be younger, bigger and sweatier than typical movie critics, but the high school athletes at Football University’s Top Gun camp fit the target audience of the film, “23 Blast“. When a particularly hard tackle is shown, the audience roars in the auditorium at Jerome High in Dublin, Ohio, briefly drowning out the soundtrack.
Because he is blind, Travis Freeman will never “see” the movie, but having lived it, he was pleased at the audience’s reaction.
“When I first saw the movie, I was blown away, I was speechless,” Freeman said. “The second and third time I saw the movie, I was able to set aside the fact the movie was me and get inside the story of the movie. About then, I started thinking, this could potentially do something. The response we got today just confirmed everything.”
“23 Blast” is about how Freeman, because of an infection, went from 20/20 vision to being totally blind, yet went on to play center for the high school football team in Corbin, Ky., and details his friendship with fellow player Jerry Baker. The independent film is the directing debut of actor Dylan Baker (“Secretariat”, “The Good Wife”, “Anchorman 2”). It’s due out in October, but players at the Top Gun camp were given a sneak peak last week.
Toni Hoover, who wrote the screenplay, is from Corbin, and her son, actor Bram Hoover (“Classy Ink”, “Buried Alive”), who plays Jerry in the movie, had been a freshman on Corbin’s football team when Travis was a senior.
“About six or seven years ago, Toni came to me and my parents and said, I want to write a movie,” Freeman said. “I want to write a screenplay and I want Travis’ life to be the focus of it. I’m like, ‘Sure whatever.’ She literally Googled how to write a screenplay. I never thought anything would happen.
“A year or two later, she called us and said, ‘We have a director and producer and we’re coming to Corbin and they want to meet y’all because we’re going to film a movie.’ Even at that point, in the fall of 2011, I was like, they’re here, they’re saying they’re going to film a movie but is this this really going to happen? They showed up in April of 2012 and started filming. They filmed for 23 days. That was over two years ago. We’re just honored that they wanted to make a movie about my story. We’re just blessed this has made it to this point.”
Dylan Baker, who plays Travis’ father in the movie, also wasn’t sure it would come to fruition.
“Toni and my wife (Becky Ann Baker) had been high school cheerleaders together,” Baker said. “She came to us and said, ‘Would you two act in this movie together?’ We said sure (thinking) it would never get made. Then as she got closer, she asked for help with the script and I started helping her shape it some more and then she started asking me for help casting the movie and finally, she said, ‘Well, why don’t you direct it?’ I had never done that before but my daughter had just gone away to college for the first time and I said, ‘I have some time I can spend a few months doing this.’ That was 34 months ago and I’m still working all the time on it and I have to say, I’m really enjoying it. The experience I didn’t think about is the responsibility of taking on somebody’s life story and having that on you. Once I met Travis and his family, I really cared about how people would respond to it. I cared about the Jerry Baker family as well.”
Movies that use high school football as the plot or subplot are not that uncommon. In August, “When The Game Stands Tall”, the story about the legendary football program at De La Salle (Concord, Calif.), is expected to be released. In the past decade, two other high school football movies, “Friday Night Lights” and “The Blind Side”, did well at the box office.
“The market is saturated with films and it is hard to find your way through it,” Baker said. “The nice thing about our film is that football is just one aspect of it. The journey of Travis is the real film. That positive message, I think, could break through. There are so many negative things thrown at kids these days that I am proud that this film’s message is go forward, go for your dreams and you can achieve.”
The film was filmed in Corbin and the town’s cineplex opened most of its eight screens up for the movie’s premiere.
“The city of Corbin really threw the doors open to the film, embraced it and wanted to be a part of it,” Freeman said. “They were excited about the filming and the initial sneak peak we did and they’re still excited about it. I get asked about it every day in Corbin. ‘When is the movie coming out?’ When I lost my sight. I couldn’t have accomplished everything I accomplished if I didn’t have the support of my parents, my family and friends and the city of Corbin.”
Several residents of the town landed acting roles in the movie, including Freeman, an adjunct professor of religion at the University of the Cumberlands who plays his adult self as a preacher in a dream sequence.
After the screening for the Top Gun camp, the players had a lot of questions for Freeman. Was his girlfriend as hot as the one in the movie? Did he really drive? How many referees did he accidentally run over?
The answers: No, yes and one, that he knows of. But most movies based on true stories take some artistic license. For those who want all the actual details, Freeman is coming out with his autobiography, “Lights Out: Living in a Dark World“.
“Obviously, (the movie) is a shorter time frame,” Freeman said. “I didn’t have (actresses) Crystal Hunt and Alexa PenaVega chasing me around in high school. Those things didn’t happen that way. That’s why I am excited about this book that is coming out. This movie captured the spirit of my story. This book is actually going to be the complete story of how I lost my life, playing football, going onto the University of Kentucky and Southern (Baptist Theological Seminary) and doing what I’m doing now, teaching at the University of Cumberlands. I just love what I’m doing there. That’s why I am excited about the book.”