Sometimes a story is better told through the eyes of someone who has lived and experienced it. There’s a genuine authenticity behind the statements and the intentions of the material.
That’s why when ESPN was looking for someone to work with executive producer Keyshawn Johnson in directing “Trojan War,” the latest installment of ESPN’s Emmy award-winning series 30 for 30, they turned to Aaron Rahsaan Thomas, a screenwriter, director and producer who attended the School of Cinematic Arts. As a grad student, he witnessed one of the most publicized times in college football: the Pete Carroll era and the rebirth of winning football in Troy.
“When I received the offer, I was excited and I knew that I could do it. I was such a fan of the series that I was excited they were going to continue to do more,” Thomas said. “It’s something I would have watched no matter what. To actually be a part of it is a real blessing.”
During his time as a student, Thomas says the vibe on campus was electric. With every snap of the ball he felt like something he’d never seen before would happen. The Bush Push is a play Thomas can still vividly recall.
“I remember watching in Santa Monica with a bunch of friends. I was at Barney’s Beanery on the Promenade,” Thomas said. “I remember exactly what booth we were in, and I remember the whole place went nuts when it happened. Everybody jumping all over each other. Spilling drinks everywhere and nobody cared. It was just one of those things, you couldn’t plan it. It was a magical moment.”
The national championship game against Texas is also well-documented in the film.
Two of college football’s original blue bloods colliding. One aiming for its third straight title. The other hadn’t won a national title in decades. There was passion on both sides. The stakes were unparalleled, making for an epic game and is arguably the greatest college football game ever by Thomas’s estimation.
Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, Thomas always loved storytelling and began taking writing seriously after documenting the adventures of his friends. As a teenager at the Pembroke Hill School he played football and and ran track. His passion for writing and sports continued to grow, and he started to realize what he wanted to do professionally during those years.
“If I had a choice between making films, making television or being the starting cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs, I would still choose the film,” Thomas said. “That’s my passion. Whenever I run into athletes that’s the way I look at it. OK, your passion was becoming a ball player, my passion was this. There’s nothing else I’d rather do.”
According to Thomas, there was a divide depending on which side of Kansas City you were from. This was during the East and West Coast hip-hop crossover into mainstream pop culture. The side of the city you grew up in dictated which coast earned your allegiance.
“If you grew up on the Missouri side, it’s more about Tim’s and bubble coats, EPMD and Biggie,” Thomas said. “If you grew up on the Kansas side, it was more about Dickies, Khaki’s, Chuck’s and low riders. We identified more with N.W.A. and Pac.”
One film in particular caught Thomas’s eye during his childhood. John Singleton’s early ’90s classic Boyz n the Hood was the movie he felt represented who he was.
“Spike is a legend. I love Spike. But Spike is decidedly New York. I love Do The Right Thing but it wasn’t my life. Boyz in the Hood was my life,” Thomas said. “Tre, the good kid in a bad neighborhood, that was literally me. Once I saw that John Singleton clearly exists, then I wanted to know where he came from.”
Once he learned Singleton had gone to USC, Thomas says it influenced his decision even more since he was already a fan of the producer and the school. He graduated from the University of Kansas and applied to the USC School of Cinematic Arts. He thought to himself, “Yes, NYU is cool, but I’m not a bubble coat or Timberland kind of guy.”
As a student at USC, Thomas said he learned to not worry about comparing his work to others because each person’s work is unique. He liked the fact that ESPN encouraged individuality. He also knew he had a great story that was different than anything anyone else had brought to the table.
“’The U’ had its own particular flavor. You’ve got the booty shaking, you’ve got Luke. That’s very distinctly Miami,” he said. “SMU had its own distinct flavor. You’ve got oil money; you’ve got Patrick Duffy doing the narration. That’s cowboy, go get ’em rough rider type stuff. But this is L.A. A whole different vibe,” he said. “I knew stylistically there were some things that we could do that would be very different from those two.”
Thomas believes 30 for 30 films fall into two categories: fun and dramatic. He knew the dramatic side wasn’t the approach he wanted to take. To Thomas, Southern California is dynamic and diverse. It’s sunshine and good times. It’s Hollywood.
Thomas aimed to take the audience on an engaging journey. He used a blend of subjects from the cinema school, combined with members of the football team and “controversial figures” to create a unique mix for the film.
Jeff Fellenzer, who teaches a variety of sports-related courses at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, is one of the people Thomas interviewed in the film. He was also a faculty member and worked with the Student Academic Services department within the Athletic Department during Carroll’s tenure. In the film, he was interviewed by ESPN’s Shelley Smith.
“Where I noticed that it seemed maybe questionable in some way was during the games, seeing how packed the sidelines were,” Fellenzer said.
On the sidelines he saw agents, celebrities and former players. Anybody and everybody seemed welcomed.
“It’s not likely that you can keep that under control once it starts,” he said. “When the sanctions came down, I thought that’s one area that’s going to be cited quickly. The practice and the games.”
After the NCAA launched its investigation of Trojan football, it cited the school’s lack of institutional control, and stripped the program of wins, scholarships and Reggie Bush’s 2005 Heisman Trophy. Regardless of his devotion to USC, Thomas wanted to tell a balanced and objective story. One of his main concerns was not coming across as the ultimate homer. If he wanted to be biased, he says he would have just made a recruiting video.
There will be questions, debates and criticism, all of which are part of a production of this nature, according to Thomas. He stands by their work and thinks it will be a fun ride for the audience.
“At the end of the day it was a great era, it was a fun era. It was entertaining and it gives me great memories,” Thomas said. “I just hope the audience can take away even a little bit of what I felt experiencing that era.”
“Trojan War” will first air on Oct. 13 at 6 p.m. PST on ESPN.