FRENCH LICK, Ind. – If a pudgy, bratty, 5-year-old boy taunted a frustrated football coach, mocking him with, “You’re gonna lose. You stink,” while obnoxiously waving his hands as elephant ears and holding his nose, a punt might be the next play called.
Justin Scheller, the first-year head coach at Springs Valley, just smiles. He’s heard that line thousands of times. It’s his line. He made it famous.
Scheller’s name might not be instantly recognized, but fans of the classic 1992 baseball movie A League of Their Own (starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell, and directed by Penny Marshall) will immediately remember Stillwell Gardner, the little horror who annoyed manager Jimmy Dugan during the film.
“Stillwell Angel” — as his mother Evelyn called him in the movie — grew up. Scheller left that character behind to pursue a real life. Now 29, he’s worried about kids who struggle to block and tackle, and his moment of fame as a child actor — something he did not pursue or enjoy —vanished.
Larry Bird is still the biggest celebrity in French Lick. If not for constant reruns on cable television or instant viewing on streaming services like Netflix, people in the quiet Southern Indiana community might not know they have a “star” in their midst.
“A lot of kids wouldn’t know that movie existed if he wasn’t in our school,” Valley superintendent Tony Whitaker said. “My children got a kick out of that. It’s kind of neat, when you know who he is.”
Scheller would prefer to remain anonymous.
“I don’t try to avoid it, but it’s not something I go spouting off or bragging about,” Scheller said. “I don’t mind talking about it when people find out, but It’s not something I mention. Most of my friends do it for me. That’s how it’s been my whole life.
“It’s not something I’m ashamed of by any means. It’s just not something to brag about.”
As a shy kid, Scheller didn’t realize he was surrounded by Hollywood and entertainment royalty. Hanks, destined to win Academy Awards, was just a guy who played pitch-and-catch with him between takes. Madonna, at the height of her singing career, was the cool girl who had a knack with the kids and played video games.
“I didn’t know who those people were,” Scheller said. “Rosie O’Donnell was great, everybody was really nice to me and my mom, who went everywhere with me. At the same time, they were just another person who was nice.”
Scheller was not a serious actor. He got the part during a casting call at Central High School in Evansville, winning the role during a 10-minute tryout (after an eight-hour wait) that was more impressive than any of the 400 others who tested for it.
His overall experience on the set soured him on that lifestyle. Days were long, 12-14 hours starting at 5 a.m., and he missed school for almost six months. He was tutored to keep up. He was usually nervous, hoping to please everyone and afraid to mess up a scene that would cost the $40 million production time and money.
“My parents thought it was too much for a kid my age,” Scheller said. “It wasn’t something my parents thought a 5-year old boy should have to do. It was hard for a kid, because I was really shy. When child actors today get into drugs and alcohol, a lot of it is because they haven’t developed any social skills. Their entire life has been on a movie set, so many hours a day, and it’s difficult.”
Many scenes were shot at Evansville’s Bosse Field. The most memorable involving Scheller features Hanks, fed up with Stillwell’s taunts and behavior, firing a baseball glove at his head and knocking him down to the dirt — much to the delight of everyone in the dugout.
Movie magic usually isn’t instant. That scene took about20 takes – partly because Hanks was afraid to throw the glove too hard — until Scheller’s reaction was perfect and captured. Another Scheller scene required him to be covered in chocolate, and he still won’t touch that candy.
Scheller still has a copy of the script (somewhere) and a picture of himself with Madonna. He hasn’t watched the film in years.
“Oh, gosh. From start to finish, I can’t tell you the last time,” said Scheller, who still gets royalty payments when it is broadcast. “It’s been forever. I might flip it over to watch a second. When I see myself as a little kid, it’s no big deal. I hate seeing myself now way more than I did back then.”
Scheller did not play baseball in high school and acted only once after that (as a singer during a junior high production of A Fiddler on the Roof). Football is his profession and passion. His players seem amused about his childhood past.
“He’s probably the greatest actor I’ve ever seen,” Valley junior Hunt Reynolds said without hiding his intended sarcasm. “He’s awesome.”
Once friends reveal his role, Scheller is usually asked to repeat his famous line.
“I just laugh, because it happens a lot,” he said. “I just shake it off. I tell them it’s copyrighted and I’ll get sued if I do it.”
His reaction is more tactful than others might be, especially when coaching a team (1-5) that is struggling.
“I would probably hit them,” Valley senior Austin Schaber said. “A little kid like that? I’d probably have to hit them.”
Justin Sokeland can be reached at (502) 582-4059.