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THE 1920S were the golden age of sport—Jack Dempsey in boxing, Bobby Jones in golf, Big Bill Tilden in tennis, Babe Ruth in baseball—and in professional football, Johnny Blood. Never heard of Johnny Blood? Neither had I. Yet this obscure NFL Hall of Famer became the inspiration for Leatherheads, the movie starring George Clooney and Ren�e Zellweger that opens nationwide this weekend.
The idea for the film was conceived in the stacks of the library at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. It was 1986, and I was a reporter at SI. That week I was fact-checking an article about the Duluth Eskimos, a charming but hopeless team that folded in 1927, seven years after the NFL was born.
What caught my attention were the outrageous stories about Johnny Blood, an amazing halfback and defensive rover on a terrible team. (His real name was John McNally; he used an alias so his NFL paychecks wouldn't cost him his eligibility at Saint John's University in Minnesota.) During Eskimos games—sometimes four a week—he bent the rules and ran trick plays every chance he got. He was always dirtier, bloodier and more gung ho than his steelworker and coal miner teammates. There was always a twinkle in his eye. Off the field he was an incorrigible rogue, never without a drink in his hand or the perfect comeback on his lips.
As I sat on the floor of the library, newspaper and magazine clips piled around me, I wanted to know more. I wanted to see Johnny in action. I tracked down a documentary on the early days of the NFL called Old Leather. Grainy black-and-white footage shows Blood in the 1920s. When this hell-raising, skirt-chasing, bon vivant blew a kiss at the camera, I fell in love with the dude. At that moment I knew Johnny Blood needed his own movie.
Because of Blood's gregarious nature, a film inspired by him had to be funny. For a project born at SI, it seemed only natural to turn to Rick Reilly, one of the funniest humans on the planet. In the mid-1980s we worked college football together, he as a writer and I as a reporter and fact-checker. Neither of us knew how to write a movie, but that didn't faze us. We spent a week hashing out an outline, and over the next year sent versions of the script back and forth—he lived in Denver, I was in New York City—to edit and rewrite each other's ideas.
Inspired by some of our favorite comedies (His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Thin Man), we started with two great characters who have opposite approaches to the same game. Dodge Connelly, based on Johnny Blood and played by Clooney in the film, survives on raw athleticism and instinct. The younger Carter Rutherford, a fictional character played by John Krasinski, succeeds through hard work and determination.
Rutherford (named after my hometown of Rutherfordton, N.C.) is everything that Connelly isn't—he lifts weights, drinks milk and is in bed by nine. Connelly and Rutherford hate each other's style, but as teammates they need each other. To see who would win on another playing field, we threw a sexy, wisecracking girl (Zellweger) at them and let the rivals fight it out.
In 1990 director Steven Soderbergh, who was married to my sister Betsy at the time, read and liked our work. The first thing Soderbergh did, however, was teach us how to write a screenplay—to avoid overediting our jokes, to keep the writing tight. The next thing he did was march the script straight to Casey Silver, then the boss of Universal Pictures, in 1991. Universal bought it immediately.
Reilly and I thought we had made it in Hollywood. Little did we know that it would take another 17 years for Johnny Blood to reach the screen. Mel Gibson, Michael Keaton and Alec Baldwin all cozied up to the role before eventually walking away. Most of the time we never found out why the project had fallen apart. But I did learn that sports movies are a tough sell in Hollywood. Because of the growing importance of the international market, studios shy away from topics that don't play well overseas—like American football.
In retrospect, the delay was a blessing. Clooney found our script in the late 1990s and never let go. If anybody is perfect to play Johnny Blood, it is Clooney. He's smart and athletic, and Johnny's teammates would recognize the twinkle in Clooney's eye.