Steve McAllister sometimes mentioned Don Handfield might make a movie. Turns out, that day has arrived – and so has Ohio’s. Long respected as one of the country’s top high school football states, Ohio finally has a high school football movie to call its own. Move over Texas, Florida and California, Hollywood bares Buckeye colors this weekend. ‘Touchback’ kicks off Friday…
TOUCHBACK: OPENS THIS WEEKEND
Steve McAllister sometimes mentioned Don Handfield might make a movie. Turns out, that day has arrived – and so has Ohio’s.
Long respected as one of the country’s top high school football states, Ohio finally has a high school football movie to call its own. Move over Texas, Florida and California, Hollywood bares Buckeye colors this weekend.
Touchback – directed by Handfield, a 1994 Ohio State grad – tells the story of an Ohio high school football player who earns a scholarship to play for the Buckeyes but suffers a devastating leg injury in the state championship game, thus ending his football career. After struggling through marriage and life (farmer and volunteer firefighter), the quarterback passes out during an attempted suicide and wakes up back in high school with a chance to change his destiny.
The movie opens at select locations nationwide Friday (including Columbus and Cleveland) and has a heavy Ohio-flavor.
Touchback is a tribute to Ohio high school football and one born in part thanks to McAllister’s storytelling and the success of his favorite high school football team – Coldwater. There’s a reason the high school team in Touchback owns the same name. The narrative takes place in a “fictional” version of that town.
“The kernel of this idea came about while I was in college at Ohio State,” Handfield said. “I got a part as an actor in a film shooting at Miami of Ohio, and because it shot during the summer when school was out, I had no place to live. I was dating Tina McAllister at the time, and her family was gracious enough to let me stay in their spare bedroom while the film was shooting. While I was living with the McAllisters, Steve and Tina both told me these great stories about this small town called Coldwater and their football team. That summer almost twenty years ago was the beginning of this long journey to where we are today.”
Coldwater isn’t the only Ohio community to impact or be mentioned in the film. Columbus, Celina, Huber Heights and according to Handfield “a bunch of other places” are referenced or portrayed.
Most of the footage was shot in Eastern Ohio.
“We filmed all of the fall foliage beauty shots in and around Coshocton,” Handfield said. “We shot a bit of the downtown of Fredericktown. We shot an actual high school football game between Coshocton and River View and used pieces of it in the film. We also shot inside the Horseshoe during an actual Ohio State game, something that to my knowledge has never been done for a film before. We never shot in Coldwater, but the real Coldwater Fire Department was kind enough to loan us a jacket that Kurt Russell wore in the film.
“The film is, in a lot of ways, a love letter to Ohio.”
Ohioans love high school football and Handfield’s hoping they love this movie. He certainly loved making it.
“Ohio is known for football,” Handfield said. “It’s part of the culture here and I wanted to celebrate that. We’ve seen recent movies about Texas football (Friday Night Lights) and even Virginia football (Remember the Titans) – but nothing that celebrates Ohio football, which is very different and I think special, particularly at the high school level.
“I had to fight to shoot this film in Ohio and the Midwest – the initial aim was to shoot in California to save money. Anyone who has been both places can tell you they look absolutely nothing alike, and that contrast is even more stark in the fall. I felt strongly about the authenticity and the beauty of the Midwest being properly portrayed. Once the powers that be saw the beauty of Ohio in the fall and I took them to a real Ohio High School football game they were sold – immediately.
“I think Ohio is one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
This weekend, others will get to see that – and Touchback – on the big screen. Ohio’s going Hollywood.
MORE WITH DON HANDFIELD: QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
What makes sports so special is that the biggest, best player or the highest paid team with the most talent doesn’t always win. There is something else, something undefinable and magical that determines the outcome. I think that’s why the greatest sports movies seem to play off this theme and focus on an underdog story. The stories of Coldwater I heard always had that underdog overcoming adversity quality.
Talk about filming at the Shoe?
There was a specific sequence in the film that I wanted to shoot inside the Horseshoe, on the field. Typically these kinds of shots are done on ‘green screen’ using special effects, in other words, the Horseshoe would be created on a computer. I love special effects, but nothing is as good as the real thing. Because I went to Ohio State and knew what it was like to be in that stadium surrounded by over a hundred thousand people, it was important to me to have it be authentic.
Shooting in Ohio Stadium is a big deal, any way you slice it. If I had not gone to Ohio State, I don’t think it would have happened. I am incredibly grateful to President Gee, Gene Smith, Diane Sabau and Rick Van Brimmer from Ohio State who helped make it happen. They were kind enough to allow us to do something that to that point hadn’t been done. We were initially only going to be allowed to shoot on the sidelines, but when we got to the game, we were allowed to get onto the field during TV time outs, thanks in no small part to the wonderful Jerry Davis. I think it helped that Purdue was losing by like four touchdowns in the second quarter, so everyone was pretty relaxed! My brother went to Purdue, so I thank him regularly for his alma mater not having fielded such a great football team that year. (We shot that sequence in the fall of 2010).
What did you learn about Ohio?
I learned it was even more cinematic and beautiful than I remembered. It was also incredibly supportive and welcoming of this project from the very inception. This article, and the support of Ohio State and the people of Ohio even through the release has been overwhelming. There is a misconception that it’s more expensive to shoot on location in places like Ohio, but the reality is, people here are so gracious, so giving and so welcoming that I think it’s actually more cost effective in the long run.
What do you hope people take away from this film?
My hope is that people walk out of the theatre appreciating their life a little more than they did walking in.
Last impressions of the entire experience?
This has been an incredible journey for me that started over twenty years ago. I hit so many milestones with this experience – making my first feature film as a director, working with iconic actors like Kurt Russell and Christine Lahti, filming in the Horseshoe, but to be honest the thing that sticks with me most is spending a fourth of July in the Midwest with my family during filming. It had nothing to do with my movie, I literally just saw the families in their lawn chairs at the local church and was overwhelmed by the sense of community. We don’t have that in Los Angeles, and it’s something the world needs more of. I was grateful for the opportunity to share that and show that to my California born wife and daughter. It was a magical time.