On Sept. 29, 2000, “Remember the Titans” enjoyed its nationwide release in theaters. Compared to other Disney-made, Jerry Bruckheimer-produced movies, it was small. It wasn’t expected to do much. A passion project. Two decades later, it’s still played on cable. Clips are shown in stadiums across the United States. Lines from the film are ingrained in pop culture.
“It tells the story of something that’s really going on right now, and even before the pandemic and during this pandemic,” said Donald Faison, who played Petey Jones. “We’re still dealing with fear in America. And that’s all that s— was.
“[Gerry] Bertier says it best when he’s laying in the hospital bed. He said something like, ‘When I met you, I hated you. But I was hating my brother because I was afraid.’ And that’s what we’re still dealing with to this day. We’re dealing with fear. Fear of change. And I think that’s why this movie still … I think that’s why it holds up.”
It created a legacy, one where so many people indeed remember the Titans — a story that came close to not being told.
[Editor’s note: Some quotes were edited and condensed for length and clarity. ‘Remember the Titans’ is now streaming on Disney+]
How it was made
Gregory Allen Howard had just finished writing “Ali” and wanted to get out of Los Angeles. He didn’t like it. So he moved back east and found a place where, as a Black man, he noticed something different.
Gregory Allen Howard, screenwriter: I moved to Alexandria [Virginia] sight unseen, which is right across the bridge from D.C. When I got settled in and started looking around, the place was really integrated, which I thought was kind of amazing. The integration that caught my eye was that it was socially integrated. So I started asking questions about how is Alexandria so socially integrated. And a guy told me, several people told me this. They said, “You won’t believe this, but a high school football team integrated our city however many years ago.” I said, “I don’t believe it. I’ve never heard anything like that.”
Howard started researching and met Herman Boone and Bill Yoast, the coaches from T.C. Williams High School. He convinced them to tell him the story. Then he returned to Hollywood to sell it. He tried it as a pitch first, and it didn’t work. Undeterred, he went back, wrote the whole script on spec and tried again.
Howard: I pitched it to every entity in Hollywood, which is the truth, and they all rejected it. Several of them said, “We can do it as a football story, but you have to take this race s— out.”
Chad Oman, producer: At that time our studio passed on it. We had a small discretionary fund, but I didn’t have enough money in it to make a big offer. I made a small offer. They passed, went to the rest of the town, and what I was hoping for is that it would come back to me.
Jerry Bruckheimer, producer: It was one of those scripts that when I read it, it was so emotional that I had tears in my eyes a number of times. That’s rare for somebody who has made as many movies as I have and has been through so much. It was that emotional kind of underpinning of the script that was so important for us to get this made.
Oman: When I read the script, I felt like there’s an opportunity to tell a story about racism in a way that it is not like medicine. It’s a way that people will enjoy it and a lot more people will see it.
Jen Worthington, associate producer: Jerry, Chad and I fought with Disney to try and buy it. They didn’t want it.
Boaz Yakin, director: What drew me to the script is that I’ve always been moved by civil rights pieces. I respond to that stuff emotionally almost more than anything. If I watch a documentary on the Globetrotters, I’ll start crying, right? By the time I got to the end of the script of “Titans,” even though it’s about football and not normally a subject I care about, at the end of it I was moved.
Oman: When “Armageddon” opened, it opened really big, and that Monday morning I sent the [“Titans”] script to [then-Disney executive David] Vogel a third time and said, “You made enough profit Saturday morning to pay for this whole movie. It’s important. You have to do it.” A day later, he called and said, “OK, do it for $20 million, cut out all the swear words.” And I went over to his office, went through two pages of swear words, tried to fight for a few of them, don’t think I won any.
Howard: When I wrote the original, it was R-rated. The N-word was flying, MFs and everything else. They said, “No, you’ve got to take all that s— out.” I said, “Really? Jerry, these scenes aren’t going to work.” Jerry said, “It’ll work.” I said, “No one is going to want to see a sanitized version.” Guess what? It didn’t matter a bit.
Denzel Washington, who played Titans coach Herman Boone (to “Entertainment Tonight” in 2000): I don’t think it’s a football movie. I think it’s a movie about the potential of the human spirit.
Washington was attached to the movie early, one of the reasons it was greenlighted. The rest of the cast, on a small budget for Hollywood, needed to be found.
Ronna Kress, casting director: By the time they got to me, they were seven weeks out from shooting. I had to cast everything. Denzel was [already] cast, and we had to pull the rest of the movie together.
Worthington: Remember, Hayden [Panettiere, who played Sheryl Yoast] wasn’t a big star at that time. Kate Bosworth [who played Emma Hoyt] wasn’t a big star at that time. A lot of these, I say kids, well, Hayden was a kid but the rest weren’t. They weren’t big stars at the time. Ryan Gosling [who played linebacker Alan Bosley] wasn’t an A actor then when we cast him. It was very fast, but one of Jerry’s fortes is casting.
Craig Kirkwood, who played Titans quarterback Jerry “Rev” Harris: They sent me a script, and I read it in my apartment. I had a roommate at the time, and I remember reading this and I was like, “Dude, I will get coffee on this movie. I’ll be a PA on this movie. I will whatever.” The script was so good compared to a lot of the stuff I was reading at the time. A lot of the stuff wasn’t written by Black writers, and I’m sorry, they just don’t know how to write for Black characters when that’s not your culture. I just loved the script, and I told my agent, “However you can get me in this room, get me in the room” They originally read me for Donald’s part, for Petey. I read for Petey and they said, “Yeah, that’s cool, but we’re thinking about somebody else.”
Donald Faison, who played Titans running back/linebacker Petey Jones: I went in on the audition, wore a tank top and shorts, cargo shorts. I wore the tank top because I had been a football player and I had been working out and stuff because it had been pretty much all I could do at the time. I remember Boaz saying, “You work out, huh?” In my mind, I was like, “Check.” First part of the audition, check, look the part. We went through the audition and he said, “Very good.” I went outside, and I remember running into Anthony Anderson and he was like, “Who are you auditioning for?” I said, “I’m auditioning for Petey.” He said, “You should be freaking auditioning for Julius, man. Look how big you are.” I’m like, “Whatever, dude!” He was auditioning for the assistant coach, Coach Hines. He said he wanted to audition for Julius but they were saying he’s too old. He and I are about the same age. I remember thinking, “Aw, man. I didn’t get the part. I’m going out for Petey Jones, and if they think Anthony’s too old, they definitely think I’m too old.” And then right away, it happened.
Panettiere: I can even remember what the room looked like and our director, Boaz Yakin, being really excited about my performance. I walked out feeling like I had gotten the job, and in all my years in the business, that was one of the only times I had ever felt that sure of myself.
Bruckheimer: The kind of glue, even though all the kids were great, was Ryan Gosling. I know we had a hard time getting him.
Oman: Boaz laid across the tracks for him. We weren’t against Ryan. It was [an issue with a work visa since he is Canadian]. We cast him. Boaz really wanted him. Ronna really believed in him. It wasn’t a big part.
Kress: I remember Jerry saying to me, “He doesn’t look like a football player.” I said, “I know, but he’s so good.” [We had to] somehow try to make that work, so we did. There is Ryan Gosling in that movie, which is crazy.
Kirkwood: The cast was really strong. These are really good actors. They were just really good. We were very competitive, and they made us do that stupid football camp beforehand and almost broke all of us.
While Washington, who declined to be interviewed for the story, was the first actor attached to the script, getting him was a process.
Worthington: Jerry slid the script to Denzel, which, once you have a major lead actor, it makes the sell a lot easier.
Howard: They sent him the script but he wouldn’t commit, and Jerry told me, “Hey, he got the script and he’s mulling it. Since you know him.” I don’t want to overstate and say I had a relationship, but I did know him. I was really, basically, the only Black screenwriter at the time, and I met him when I was flavor of the month. So I went to him, but not only that, he wanted me to write something. He was hemming and hawing and had just done a sports movie, finished one, in “Hurricane,” and he said, “I don’t know if I want to do another sports movie,” but he gave it to his wife, and his wife loved it. So we got him.
Bruckheimer: When we met with him, the script had looked like his dog had eaten part of it. It was all pages turned, stains on it.
Oman: He came in, he sat right next to me, and I think we did it at least four days a week for two weeks and just would turn each page and he had notes on every page. That was my first experience with Denzel. I knew every word and why every single thing was done, so it was basically me explaining it and talking it through with him for two solid weeks, every single day, every line.
As the cast was set and ready to descend on Georgia for football training camp and filming, there was a level of excitement about working with Denzel.
Faison: I was very excited. I couldn’t believe it. I remember running into Stacey Dash at some party at the Skybar and her being, “Yo, you doing that Denzel Washington movie?” I was like, “Yep.” She was like, “You motherf—er.” I was like, “Yeahhh.”
Nicole Ari Parker, who played Carol Boone: It’s like you jump up and down, you call your parents.
Kirkwood: Anticipation, dude. Denzel Washington was like a personal hero of mine, being African American and being an actor. That guy was like, “Oh my god, it’s like Black Jesus. Wow.” And he didn’t disappoint.
Faison: Denzel was always great, so if you got a scene with him, you got to step aside and work on this stuff with him. He’d be like, “Let’s run it. Let’s go.” And you’re running scenes with Denzel, and this is Denzel Washington, you’re more excited than you’ve ever been in your life.
Ryan Gosling, who played cornerback Alan Bosley (to “Entertainment Tonight” in 2000): You sort of just get used to his celebrity and think of him as Denzel, but when you actually work with him, I think you appreciate him for just the artist that he is. He really kind of commanded all of us, you know.
Bruckheimer: You hear horror stories about actors being late or not caring. He’s the exact opposite. He’s on time. He knows his lines. He’s ready to go to work and he demands excellence from everybody around him. And he’s completely focused.
Gosling (to “Entertainment Tonight” in 2000): There wasn’t a whole lot of acting involved from us because, like, when Denzel is looking at you and he’s yelling at you, you’re scared, you know, and you just do what he says and you don’t have to act, really. He just makes you sort of be there.
Ethan Suplee, who played offensive lineman Louie Lastik: That movie, I don’t know if any of us really got to know him. Denzel and Will Patton [Bill Yoast] were the authoritarian roles, and then it was a s— ton of young guys. So that was nerve-wracking. That definitely added a layer to the anxiety for sure.
Faison: Since then I’ve seen Denzel out so much, and he’s such a great person. … He is the dopest person you will ever meet. He is just so cool. When making the movie he was very hard on us, though. He was very much Coach Boone. I remember us being like, “Let us get pictures with you.” He was like, “After we’re done, all of that is going to be available to us. But let’s finish this first, guys.” And I remember thinking, “Wow, that sucks.” But then after it was done, he kept his word.
There was, perhaps, one exception to Denzel’s focus: Panettiere, then a 10-year-old child actor.
Panettiere: Denzel loved to try to make me laugh when the camera was on me. There’s the scene when he comes to our house to speak to Will Patton’s character about him getting the head-coaching job, and I say, “We’ve got 11 offers and certainly no time for you.” I’m supposed to be very serious in the scene, and during my close-up, every time I opened the door he would make funny faces at me, trying to make me laugh. It became a game to see if I could keep a straight face or not. To this day I’m not sure if he ever let me get through one take without doing that.
Faison: After the movie came out, he said some of the most complimentary things about all of us. He’s like, I feel like a lot of y’all are going to be stars because of this. And he was right. People went on to be movie stars and television stars and whatever it is. And he built a lot of that confidence in us because it was us versus him when making the movie.
Before they could film, they needed to train. There were the actors, many of whom had not played much football before, and the extras as football players, who were high school, college and semipro players recruited from an 800-person open call in Atlanta for the film.
Mike Fisher, football coordinator: You’re bringing together a half-dozen, 10 actors that don’t know each other and have maybe never played football. The one thing about football camp and football in general, it can make you feel absolutely miserable. I mean, you’re sweating. You’re dying out there, and somehow there’s nothing like misery to bring people together.
Suplee: We weren’t rehearsing anything really. We were just training, and I was pretty much incapable of doing that. I would get through the stretching portions and I would be completely exhausted for the day, just from stretching. Then continue for hours and hours and hours doing whatever the hell football training is, throwing balls and hitting pads and running and all of that stuff, which I would just be too tired for.
Kirkwood: It was terrible. I had to keep reminding people that we are actors. This is not real. Stop hitting me. No, stop it. What are you doing? Some of those hits, they forgot themselves because we had semipro players out there, you know. And they were hitting, dude.
Faison: Denzel came one day and got on the sled, and we had to push him 100 yards, nine of us, just so he could see what it would be like to be the coach. I remember being like, “Ah, man, I love you Denzel, but I wish you weren’t here right now. I really wish you were gone right now, dude.” All that stuff … they taught us how to do up-downs, taught us how to do where it’s three players and one jumps over the other and rolls and then jumps over the other person. It’s called monkey rolls or something like that. We had to learn how to do all of that so when we got to shooting, we would be able to do it. We were in such good shape by the time we were shooting.
The Gettysburg speech, a scene Bruckheimer called the “touchstone” of the film, was shot while they were at Berry College in Rome, Georgia. In the movie, it brings the team together. It was one of the first scenes they shot.
Oman: It wasn’t in the script, the whole Gettysburg thing. Greg had a similar thing in just a nondescript location, and I’m sure he would back this up, I just had this idea, let’s do it at Gettysburg and make the setting the theme and the importance of it. Have him wake them up in the middle of the night and take them down there. Because he kept writing the speech, but it kept coming out and didn’t have much gravity to it.
Howard: Chad called me and said, “You can’t. You have to find another place for it because it’s such a great speech.” It was a speech, but it was on a football field. “You’ve got to find another place for it because the speech is just great, and every time I read it, I cry.”
Bruckheimer: That scene, for me, was one of the most important scenes in the movie. This is how he turned his players, how he got them to bond, how he got them to change, and you have to give an enormous amount of credit to Boaz and to Denzel. Because that’s not an easy speech.
Faison: We were in the middle of the woods running around, and the [director of photography] has these lights up and they are shaped like moons, first time I had ever seen it, like big balls in the sky. So it looked like nighttime. … It looked like the moon was out and it looked natural, you know what I mean.
“I don’t think [‘Remember the Titans’] is a football movie. I think it’s a movie about the potential of the human spirit.” Denzel Washington
Kirkwood: It was amazing. It was early, early morning. Had the fog machines going, and I remember reading the script, that was the scene that really made an impression on me. So to be in it at the time was a culmination of a lifetime of work up to that point.
The scene where Suplee’s character, Louie Lastik, is in the cafeteria and sings in front of the team is another early highlight.
Faison: All of us were waiting for our moment to do our scene with Denzel. We each have a moment in the movie. Every character. Ethan was the first one to get the scene done, if I remember correctly.
Kirkwood: The energy was incredible because there were so many extras. There were like 40 extras, something like that, and watching Ethan and Mr. Washington do their thing, it was fun, man. It was amazing, to this day, I got paid to do that, sit and watch that and egg him on.
Suplee: Terrifying. It’s one thing, I think, to sing like in a car or in the shower or when you’re cooking in your kitchen or something like that. It’s even another thing to f— around with your friends and sing a song around a few people. This was a packed room, mostly with people I had never met before and wasn’t going to get to know. It was singing in front of a very, very large audience, and I’m not even including the crew. That was a scene where every extra in the entire movie was being used to fill up that cafeteria, and so it was like performing in front of a few hundred people, which made it extra nerve-wracking. I thought it came out well, but I definitely croaked the first few times we tried to do it.
Faison: By the time Ethan got to shoot that, I remember we were all laughing and we were pissed because we couldn’t sit next to each other. The movie is about segregation turning into integration, right? They kept segregating us, and we’d turn around and it’d be on Denzel and Ethan. We’d all switch sides and go and sit with each other because we were all friends at this point.
The hospital scene
One of the seminal moments in the film is when Ryan Hurst’s character, linebacker Gerry Bertier, gets in a car accident. Wood Harris, who played defensive end Julius Campbell, liked to get actors together to rehearse. Harris did not respond to messages for this story.
Faison: He would do things like, “Do me a favor, Ryan. Lie down on the floor and pretend that you’re dead so we can sing ‘Na na na na, hey hey, goodbye.'” So we could feel the emotion in that s—. And we would all be like, “All right.” So Ryan would lie down on the floor and we’d be like, “Na na na na.” Then you’d feel that, like, “Oh my god, OK.” And you look up and Wood’s got tears coming down his eyes. You’d be like, what the s—? So the hospital scene, when we got to that point, I remember the rehearsals for all of this stuff, so we’re all very melancholy in that scene. It really did feel like one of our own had gotten injured and wasn’t going to be able to play in the game with us.
Suplee: It was almost like a day where you’re actually going to a funeral or something. Or a day where you experience some loss. Everybody’s sad.
Howard: When I interviewed [Bertier’s mother], she had that deep Southern accent. I said, “Well, what happened in the hospital?” She said, “Well, they were all sitting in the lobby and then Big Julius came in. Big Julius was crying.” It was her talking, and she wiped his face and said, “Big Julius, don’t cry. Tears won’t make my baby walk.” One of the things that a good writer will do when someone tells you something like that, you put it in a script or put it in a book. You don’t change it. There’s nothing I could do more raw and more honest than “Tears won’t make my baby walk.”
Oman: In the preview, the only scene that scored poorly was that one, the hospital scene. People didn’t like it. What I realized was they weren’t saying they didn’t like it. They were saying that they didn’t like what happened and they were sad. Because they loved it. They just hated that it happened.
The championship game
One of the discrepancies between real events and the film, along with the fact that Bertier’s accident actually occurred after the season, was the championship game. In reality, the game was a blowout; T.C. Williams played one close game all year. But the movie needed a climax, and a 27-0 win over Andrew Lewis wasn’t going to do it. So they used the one close game the Titans had, a 21-16 win over Marshall, as the state championship game.
Bruckheimer: We’re not making a documentary. We’re making a dramatic film, and you got to entertain the audience. If the drama’s not there we’ve got to add it, unless it’s totally unrealistic.
Yakin: Their hardest game didn’t come at the end of the season. It came at some point in the middle against a very tough team, and they only won by doing this trick play that we sort of embellished and re-created at the end of the movie. Something like that play had actually won them that game. It was, well, obviously we’re going to put that at the end.
Derrick Lassic, football advisor and former Alabama and Dallas Cowboys running back: We were shooting at Sprayberry High School [in Georgia] and the scene came together and everything just clicked. We were doing one-take plays, and it is hard to do a one-take play. We did like four or five of those out of 15 plays and I said, “The football scenes are really coming together.” Once that thing happened, I said, “This may be a good movie.”
Fisher: On the last play, [Yakin] kind of waited and he said, “I don’t really care how this happens, but all I want is to make sure that Kip [Pardue, playing quarterback Ronnie Bass] is leading Rev down the field on the play. So the quarterback has got to lead the way down the field blocking.” … I said, “OK, so I got to get my quarterback in front of my wide receiver going down the sideline to run like 70 yards.” That’s where we came up with the whole reversing with Kip leading the way.
Kirkwood: I was sick as a dog. I was super-duper sick, had the flu. I was like “Ehhhh” while running. We did those takes over and over and over again and I’m bolting down the thing, but it all worked. To be in the moment running the play with the cameras rolling, it felt real, you know what I’m saying. I wasn’t a football star, I was a thespian. To have that moment and to have it feel real, to this day it’s one of the most amazing feelings. I just ran the touchdown to win the title for my high school. And it was one of those things to where you really believe it when you’re in it.
Faison: It’s the best football movie I’ve ever seen, in my opinion. Now, granted, the action might not be the best, but as far as story goes, come on. You can’t touch it. You can throw any movie at it that you wanted to. None of it has the heart “Remember the Titans” has. And I can say that because I didn’t write it. I just was in it.
Howard: I was two-thirds of the way through the script and I didn’t have a title, and in the movie business, the title is very important. It’s not as important in TV. I had “All for One” and all these corny titles. I started to get worried because I had just 20 pages left. I said, “Oh s—, I don’t have a title. That’s bad.” I was at Sheryl’s voice-over at the end, and if you’re a writer, you realize it’s really not writing, it’s listening. I was writing her voice-over at the end, and that little girl talking, and she spit out these words in my brain and there was my title. I didn’t have a title until the last page, the last bit of voice-over.
The movie wrapped and went through the editing process, including the addition of what would become an iconic score. It was one of the biggest premieres in Hollywood history at the time, held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
Yakin: They filled it up and had like five drive-in-sized screens. They filled it up with like 30,000 high school students. I remember jets flew overhead and there were people parachuting down into the stadium. There was a moment where my girlfriend was like, “Is that for the premiere?” I said, “I don’t know.”
Howard: They bused in all these high school football players from all over and told them to wear their jerseys. It was breathtaking.
Fisher: Hayden Panettiere was a little girl, and we were standing before we take our seats and there’s a big crowd there and she’s kind of like, “I can’t see anything.” I remember I picked her up and held her so she could see. I just remember that. She’s this little girl like, “I can’t see a thing. I’m too little.” She’s someone, obviously she didn’t play football, but she was someone when we were filming the movie that I’m like, “This girl is going to be a big star.”
Panettiere: I remember feeling like a princess. The premiere was massive. We got to ride around the stadium in golf carts, waving at the crowd. It was like being a Disney princess for a 10-year-old.
Worthington: When Herman Boone walked onto that field, it was pretty … the crowd erupted in a way that … extraordinary … hard to put into words. He was way older at that time, an old man. It was a pretty magical moment.
Kirkwood: My dad was there. He works nights and he’s just a hardworking guy. And to see him there sitting next to me, eating popcorn, watching his kid on the big screen, again, was kind of a culmination of a lifetime of work. That’s what I had always wanted, to have my dad see my work and go, “Yep.” Who doesn’t want that?
Howard: When I sat down and watched it at the Rose Bowl, I [realized] all this sprung from my imagination. I had an idea to do this little story sitting in my apartment, and it’s turned into this. It was just amazing. I still kind of pinch myself, and it’s because I held true to my beliefs that you could do a social drama sports movie.
“Remember the Titans” ended up making more than $136 million worldwide, according to IMDB. It launched the careers of countless actors, including Gosling, Panettiere, Faison, Suplee and Bosworth.
Worthington: This is the one movie that when people hear that’s what I did for a living, this is the one movie that every single person from sort of Gen X, everybody has this movie memorized. My daughter, who is 20 years old, her friends have this movie memorized. The grandparents have this movie memorized. It’s just one of these seminal movies that crosses every generation and people watch it over and over again.
Yakin: I always had so many mixed feelings about making a commercial movie and making a football movie, and it wasn’t the kind of thing that I wanted to do. It haunted me for years afterwards — my most popular movie is a movie that in some ways has nothing to do with the kind of work I’m interested in. It always kind of bothered me; [it] took a year to reconcile myself to the fact that, “You know, you made f—ing ‘Remember the Titans.”‘
Trevor Rabin, composer of “Titans Spirit”: I used to go to Lakers games, and when Kobe was there, [the “Titans” theme] was the introduction music for the Lakers. So it really had legs. It was used as the Obama theme for his campaign and the inauguration. It’s also been used the last 15 years for the last three, four minutes of the Olympics.
Kirkwood, now an attorney: I’ve had cops, been cross-examining police officers on some issue, and a lot of these guys are athletes and they are young. I had a cop come up to me afterwards, after I just barbecued him on the stand, seriously, come up to me after and say, “Hey, aren’t you Preach?” That’s what they always say, “Preach?” No, dude, it was Rev. And they want to take a picture. In uniform. After I basically called them liar, liar, pants on fire for 40 minutes.
Panettiere: It was a one-of-a-kind movie. People have tried time and time again to re-create “Remember the Titans.”
Kirkwood: We don’t have to be the same to work together. You can do your thing and I can do my thing and we can still come together and actually get s— done. That’s possible. That there is a world that it is possible, even if it’s fictional at this point.
Bruckheimer: This movie is educational for kids. It’s shown in high schools and shown everywhere to show how racism has no place in our society. Period.
Faison: This is something that has been going on forever, and these guys were able to overcome it and it took football for them to be able to do it, but they were still able to overcome hatred and fear and anger and racism on both sides. And I think that’s why this movie is so special and that’s why I consider this the best football movie. Other football movies are just about football, and, you know, this movie was about way more than that.
Oman: Anywhere I am in the world, [when] it just comes up, like, what do you do for a living? I’m in filmmaking and I’m a producer, and I usually say “Remember the Titans” first because it’s probably the thing I’m most proud of. For me, it’s just very meaningful that it’s revered and it’s liked and it has the thematic message that it has about friendship and family.
Howard: How you can work together racially. That will last, and that’s why it plays even to this day. You can find a classic if I watch it 30 years after it was made, does it feel dated? “Titans” doesn’t. It’s a classic.
Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home
On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.
Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.
Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.
The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.
“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”
Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.
“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.
Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.
“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”
The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.
“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”
That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.
The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.
On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”
There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.
“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”
For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.
“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”
Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.
“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”
There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.
“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”
Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.
Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.
“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”
With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.
“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”
Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.
Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment
The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.
Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.
“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.
The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.
Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.
“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.
Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”
The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.
Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.
“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”
Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.
The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls
With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.
At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.
What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
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