The making of 'The Program,' college football's cult movie

Steve Lattimer scans a typed sheet displaying the ESU depth chart and sees his name at starting defensive end.

"Starting defense. Place at the table!" Lattimer shouts, before shoving through a crowd of players and slamming open a set of double-doors to the parking lot. There, he smashes his head through two car windows with two assistant coaches watching.

"Place at the table!"

"Starting defense. Whooooo!"

Andrew Bryniarski (Lattimer): Every day of my life, there's not a day that doesn't go by where someone doesn't yell, "Place at the table!"

1993 was a banner year for movies. Steven Spielberg ruled the box office with "Jurassic Park" and the Academy Awards with "Schindler's List." It also was a memorable year for sports movies with "The Sandlot," "Cool Runnings" and "Rudy."

But that same year, another sports movie, which made only $23 million at the box office and was temporarily pulled from theaters, told a different side of college football. And still eminently quotable 25 years later, boasting realistic game action the movie industry had never seen before, "The Program" would come to be loved by football fans and those who played the game.

Here's the inside story of college football's favorite cult movie:

The roster
David S. Ward -- writer, director
Craig Sheffer -- QB Joe Kane
Duane Davis -- LB Alvin Mack
Andrew Bryniarski -- DE Steve Lattimer
Kristy Swanson -- Camile Shafer, tennis player
Omar Epps -- TB Darnell Jefferson
Leon Pridgen -- TB Ray Griffen
Abraham Benrubi -- OT Bud-Lite Kaminski
Jon Pennell -- QB Bobby Collins
Mark Ellis -- football coordinator
Sparky Woods -- former South Carolina coach, 1989-93

Recruiting and training camp

Director David Ward, who won an Academy Award for writing "The Sting" and also wrote and directed "Major League," conceived "The Program" as a movie authentic to college football of the early 1990s. He wanted actors who could hold their own as players. So he cast the movie with that in mind, then put his "team" through a real training camp in Columbia, South Carolina, with 65 extras, who played the roles of ESU's on-field opponents (Georgia Tech, Michigan, Iowa and Mississippi State).

Ward: At that particular time there were a lot of things going on in college football. ... Players receiving gifts, players using PEDs, just a lot of things swirling around college football that I thought would be interesting. I always wanted to make a college football movie, but I didn't just want it to be about winning the big game. Recruiting was part of it. The steroid issue was part of it. The part of it where players would go to school, get injured, don't ever get to play pro football and don't wind up with an education, in the case of Alvin Mack.

Pridgen: The goal for David Ward, he wanted it to be the most impactful football film that anybody had ever seen. Wanted to be able to bring people into the action so they could get that feel for the game.

Davis: I was pretty pumped [about the movie] because I played college football. There's very few movies that you want that you get. This was one of the movies I really wanted.

Ward: I remember Willie McGinest was [in the USC locker room]. I remember walking into the locker room, and seeing this guy who was sculpted like a Greek god. I actually saw Alvin Mack.

Davis: There was a linebacker who went to Florida State. I based [Alvin Mack] on Derrick Brooks.

Ward: We wanted Johnny Depp for Craig's role. I had seen him in "21 Jump Street" and I thought, 'This kid is going to be a star, he has charisma, he's tough, he's good looking.' I thought maybe he'd like to do something different. But he didn't. I don't think he's a big sports fan so it probably was not a good fit for him.

Sheffer: I actually got cast by throwing the ball. I went out with David, and I don't know how far I threw it, but it was probably 65 yards or something like that. I threw it between two studios. ... Right on the Disney lot. I threw like three or four bombs, and he was just like, 'OK, this is cool.'

Ward: Joe Kane is based on a guy named Tom Bill, who played at Penn State, and the whole thing [the alcohol rehab] where James Caan tries to get Collins, the second-string quarterback, reinstated, that all happened at Penn State.

Pennell: David did tell me that Bobby Collins was based on the Colorado quarterback [Sal Aunese] who was with the coach's daughter, but then later was diagnosed with cancer.

Ward: Lattimer was based on a kid named Tommy Chalkin, who went to South Carolina, and there was an article in Sports Illustrated on him ["The Nightmare of Steroids" from October 1988]; and what was funny about it, I read the article and I said we have to have a character like this. The whole thing about him headbutting the car and the window, that was all in a Sports Illustrated article.

Andrew was a body builder. He was a Mr. Teenage America. ... The real football players, when they first saw him, their first instinctive reaction was, 'This guy thinks he's tough, this guy thinks he can play football.' I saw this right away and I knew that he was going to be a target when we actually started running some plays.

Bryniarski: [Lattimer] was a cross between Gene Simmons and Howie Long.

Benrubi: They set up a football boot camp for about three weeks. We had some great trainers helping us diet right and get in shape and learn some plays.

Ellis: We found a city field that they only played on Friday night, and we did our training camp over there. At the open casting call [to play the extras] I probably saw 700 guys come try out. I think we were paying those guys more a week than what they were getting paid in the Arena League.

The actors were at the training camp every day. I'm like, these actors will dress like [the extras]. There ain't no trailer. They're in the locker room. They're part of the team. They're going to hurt, they're going to be sore, they're going to sweat.

Davis: You know how actors are. If you ask an actor if he played football, he's going to say yes. The majority of the actors had said they'd played football at some level. But because I'd actually played football, David wanted me to do the majority of my stuff. Even though I had a stunt double, I did the majority of it. Banging like that every day is like going back and playing college football again. I jacked up my hand pretty good. I pinched a nerve in my neck. It was a grind.

Ward: Duane, as it turned out, actually played middle linebacker for Missouri, so he was a football player, and he wanted to do his own stunts all the time. I had to limit him. I just said, 'Duane, come on. I can't afford to have you get hurt.'

Pennell: I didn't even play football all the way through high school, I played soccer and so [the training camp] was a big-time eye opener. I remember having to take Naprosyn because I had basically thrown out my elbow because they had me faking so many snaps and so many throws.

Epps: Football was my first love. In my mind, I was gonna be a starting running back for the [Dallas] Cowboys. So I was living out a dream.

Ward: Omar looked good and Sheffer could throw a little bit, Duane could obviously play. Andrew, even though he hadn't played football, he was big and we did a lot of work with him in terms of just teaching him certain techniques, how to rip, how to swim, how to do some of the moves that defensive ends do.

Sheffer: For "A River Runs Through It," we went up and fished for a month, and that was great too. But this was just so much fun for me. The training camp, I loved it. Of course, it was all the good stuff, running routes -- it wasn't like the grueling high school and college practices where they'd run you until you couldn't move.

Ward: Craig very badly wanted to really run the plays himself rather than have the stand-in. Most of the time we had the stand-in [former South Carolina QB Mike Hold] throwing because he was incredibly accurate, and he looked like a passer. Craig's throwing motion was a little wonky. I said, 'OK, Craig. I'll let you run the ball one play with the real players on the field.' The guys who were playing, they were selling out. They were hitting, so Craig ran the play, and the two safeties went to hit him, and they hit each other, basically knocked each other out, barely touched Craig, and Craig still came out of it with a neck injury. He had his neck in a brace for two or three days.

Sheffer: I took some big hits. Some of it's on film. I got upended and did a full 360.

Ellis: Nobody's supposed to play football 12 hours a day, freaking three, four weeks at a time. I mean, these guys were hitting every day that we were shooting.

Bryniarski: I got a full-on stinger at one point. There was one scene that they lined me and this running back up like 20 yards apart and just had us go right at each other and hit in the middle. It was a massive collision. It gave me a stinger. I almost was paralyzed and tried to shake it off. It felt like fire up my spine and I couldn't feel my toes and fingers after that.

Sheffer: They kept us, for the most part, from taking big hits, but in the opening scene when we're in the rain, it was a real 300-pound guy who landed on me like three or four times. ... I got killed.

Making college football

Much of the movie was filmed at the University of South Carolina, though some of the campus shots were at Duke University. To capture real-game atmosphere, Ward and the producers brokered a deal with South Carolina to shoot ESU game-footage during halftime of the Gamecocks' game against Tennessee at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Ward: One of the things that was difficult was getting a school that would allow us to shoot at their facility, because there was a feeling that the film was slightly anti-college football.

Michigan allowed us to use their name as long as they won. They refused to participate if they lost. Mississippi State was fine with it, Georgia Tech. But most of the big college football programs did not want to be involved.

We wanted the Alabamas and the Oklahomas and those kind of schools, but they didn't need [the publicity].

Woods: I was concerned about doing it. But they talked about all of the benefit that would come to Columbia and small businesses and the university, so we said OK. And they worked hard to try to really stay out of our way.

Benrubi: The most amazing part of the whole film experience was running out onto the field during halftime in front of 80,000 screaming, real-life football fans. That's not something that very many people get to do in life and I'll never forget that.

Davis: It was packed and running out on that field, you couldn't help but get hyped and get into the environment because it was just electric.

Ellis: The thing that was different about "The Program," using the NFL Films guys was huge on that. With those long lenses, we brought those cinematographers in, and then they can shoot that stuff. The ball was spinning in the air slow motion. Cinematically, if you look back at some of the history of those football movies, that was one of the first ones to really use those NFL Films guys, and obviously that gave everybody in the theater that authentic look.

Ward: One of the things that we really prided ourselves in the movie was that everything was going to look real. ... Allan Graf was an ex-USC [Southern California] lineman, and he came and choreographed all the plays for us.

Ellis: We all knew who was going to make the tackle, who was going to make the interception, who was going to score the touchdown. ... We realized right away you couldn't fake the hits. The hits were going to be full speed.

Epps: What was so cool about the peripheral guys who weren't speaking characters, they were part of the teams. These guys are players, played in college and all that. And they didn't make it easy.

Ellis: There was always another team waiting in the tunnel to come on. ... For five days we had practiced with the camera guys for camera positions. We knew exactly what plays we were going to run, what we wanted to put in the movie, everything. Each camera station -- seems like we probably had seven or eight cameras -- was huge. This was a televised game, so we had only a few minutes before we had to leave the field. It was unbelievable, the pressure. I've been involved in a lot of two-minute offenses. This was worse. ... There's no Take 2, nothing.

Epps: It was so exhilarating. We had a bunch of plays that we had to do, but the biggest one for me was the punt return. We had the result sort of rehearsed, but we don't know how we're gonna get there. So I'm moving, and juking, and putting on the burners, I'm trying to score.

Ellis: I bring in Mike [Hold] to take the hit and make the throw [that was the final play of the game]. This is the end of the movie. This is the last play. It's supposed to be a touchdown pass, and we've only got one shot. ... Mike goes to pump fake and the ball falls out of his hands. I'm thinking, 'That's it. We've lost it.' ... And I'm thinking I'm fired. But the ball takes two bounces and the second bounce comes right back up in his hands. Mike throws [the ball] three-quarter arm, takes the hit right in his mouth.

Epps: We had [the final play] drawn out. It was like, here's the play. You do the spin move and go get it.

Ellis: Omar goes up. You should see his adrenaline, how high he got. This is an actor. Somehow he makes the catch right in his gut. The feet get in bounds. And the stadium erupts.

"Put the women and children to bed and go looking for dinner." Craig Sheffer's favorite Joe Kane line

Epps: The crowd went crazy. And you know we were just in that moment, as actors just really living in that moment. And we pulled it off.

Woods: I can remember that the halftime went a little longer. But we won the game. And it was the first time South Carolina had beaten Tennessee maybe ever (since 1903).

The scenes

Having worked together before, the relationship between Davis and Bryniarski showed through with Mack and Lattimer, including the movie's grossest scene.

Bryniarski: We had co-starred in "Necessary Roughness" for Paramount two years earlier. We were already very familiar with each other and friends, had survived a football film already together. Duane was easy to work with 'cause he was a real-deal guy.

Davis: I always have to tell people that, because it's the first question I get asked, 'Did you really spit in each other's mouths?' No! It's computer-generated.

Bryniarski: It was emulated enough that I cringe when people tell me. And I'd say, 'You know we faked that.'

After "The Program" was released, football players at all levels would paint their faces like Lattimer.

Bryniarski: My grandfather predicted that would happen. I just tied the Road Warrior Animal into more of a football thing.

Bryniaski's push-press scene also became legendary among the cast.

Bryniarski: I wanted to do it that way and I could do it that way. David Ward would want to adjust the lighting and do it again. I'd be like, 'David, this is 465 pounds on the bar.' He didn't understand muscular failure or nervous system failure. It was absolutely the real deal.

The characters

By the time "The Program" came out, James Caan had long been a star. Swanson was in her acting prime. Sheffer was coming off "A River Runs Through It" with Brad Pitt, and was auditioning for another big movie while on set. Halle Berry, however, was not yet the household name she would soon become.

Ellis: When Halle walked on set, it was like parting the Red Sea. Everything stopped.

Epps: [Being her romantic interest] was everything that every guy would dream of. I just had a blast. Getting to work with her every day was amazing.

Pridgen: Halle is one of the coolest people. She is and was at that time, like the "It Girl." And she had a way of being able to make folks feel comfortable. She would crack jokes.

Epps: "The Godfather" is one of my favorite movies of all-time. And James Caan was that guy. I remember a couple of conversations we would have about the business, and he would give a little advice - "think about this, think about that."

Benrubi: I went out and bought this VHS box of "The Godfather" to get James Caan to sign it. He was like, "Yeah, no problem, kid."

Pennell: I don't know [Caan's] method, I don't know his technique, but it certainly felt there was a little method acting going on there. Cause he never looked at me, he never talked to me. I just figured, "Well, that's what he's doing because obviously he despises me in the movie and there I am sleeping with his daughter and he's not happy about that." So he's going to just maintain this relationship on and off the camera.

Swanson: I remember I had a lot of down time while we were filming, where I didn't work for several days or something, so I was a little bit lonely and off to myself. I made really good friends with the teamsters on our film, all of our drivers. Mike, he was one of our teamsters, and he had to drive the honey wagon, which is a big, huge truck full of dressing rooms. He had to drive it from South Carolina to North Carolina because we were moving to shoot up there. I said, "Mike, can I drive with you?" Everybody's flying up there, but I really wanna drive. So I went up in the honey wagon with him just for a little road trip.

Sheffer: Kristy is such a sweet person. Just really sweet and sexy and cute and all that stuff. She was really fun to be around.

Benrubi: I remember going to Craig Sheffer's apartment one night to pick him up for a meal. It was completely dark inside and he had a headlight on his head. He was reading a script. That's the kind of actor he was. He wanted to set the mood to prepare for whatever he was auditioning for. It was "Schindler's List," believe it or not.

Sheffer: Spielberg was supposed to fly down that weekend and screen test me in Columbia for the part of Liam Neeson's character. But that weekend, Steve Ross, the head of Warner Brothers, died so [Spielberg] didn't come down. They changed some days so I could fly back to L.A., and I spent three days on the set of "Jurassic Park." Liam played the straight, heroic guy. I played it like I was as dark as them when I was with the Germans. Very clever and undercutting them but still being on their side.

I had just done a very muddy scene on "The Program." We were actually shooting the scene with the rain and the mud. And I had come back from that, and I was soaking in the bathtub, and the phone rang, I picked it up, and it was [Spielberg]. And then I spent literally an hour on the phone just talking, mostly about Schindler. I was in the bathtub while he's telling me why he was [casting Neeson].

The controversy

The original cut of the film had a scene where Kane, Jefferson, Mack, Collins and Kaminsky lay in the middle of a road as cars go by and Kane reads a Sports Illustrated article about himself. In separate incidents, a teenage boy in Pennsylvania and New Jersey recreated the stunt and were killed and two others injured in both incidents. Disney pulled the movie from theaters and cut the scene before re-releasing it.

Ward: It was very painful to me to have that happen and to have people say that I was responsible for a kid getting killed. Then when I found out later that these kids had been doing this before. I did not argue to put the scene back in because I just didn't want to get that phone call ever again. No movie is worth someone's life.

Sheffer: I don't know if David Ward would say it, but I didn't want to do the scene. I refused to do the scene. They called my agents and they were like, "He's got to do the scene."

Davis: I can remember saying to David, "I don't believe Alvin Mack would lay out in the middle of the street." He's got too much to lose. He didn't care about academics, he didn't care about the college experience. All he cared about was getting to the next level. I never saw Alvin laying out in the middle of the street. David didn't listen to me but he was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, lay down." We still had to do it.

I will tell you that after the first week after "The Program" came out, we were in Minneapolis shooting "Little Big League" and I look and there were kids laying out in the middle of the street. I will never forget that.

The legacy

Sheffer: Is it the most artistic football movie ever? No. But David packed all these different things that are issues in football, and worked them all into one script. Ultimately, this sport never changes. You're always going to have people trying to cut corners, and get their guys off and cover up whatever problems are going on.

Davis: There never had really been a movie, at least with somewhat of a serious approach about what was going on with football. Even the title "The Program." When you think about it, it's heavy because all that stuff is still going on today. I never thought when I was playing that there'd still be serious thoughts about paying players. The PED use. All these things, even the pressures of what head coaches go through. What players go through. The movie has a lot of relevance of the issues that you hear about in sports every day.

Ellis: This was my first movie. ... But I cannot tell you over the years, even after I did "Varsity Blues" and "Any Given Sunday" and "The Replacements" and "Jerry Maguire" ... I can't tell you how many [players] over the years have come to me and said, "[It] was the movie, we all, as a team, watched The Program, and it fired us up.'

Swanson: I was at a golf tournament last summer in Chicago, and I met a lot of the San Francisco 49ers, who were there. They knew exactly who I was, and they knew that movie forward and backward. They loved that film, and it had been released before they were probably born. But anyone you meet that has a football connection has seen the film, they love it.

Benrubi: I guarantee you if I'm out in public on any day, somebody will be like, "Bro, 'The Program'! Dude, 'Git Along, Little Dogies'!"

Epps: The Program has a very defined audience. There's no in between. The people that talk about that movie, it's a very personal. Like, "That movie right there? That was my joint."

Davis: I was doing a baseball movie called "Little Big League" and we were in Minneapolis and it was the Twins' last game of the season and they were playing Seattle [Mariners]. One of the guys that was in the movie saw Ken Griffey Jr. and they started talking about movies. He said that Ken all of a sudden said, "Have you seen that movie, 'The Program'?" And my buddy laughed and said, "One of the guys from 'The Program' is doing this movie." And I guess Ken said, "Not the linebacker." My buddy said, "Yeah." And from that day on, Ken and I have been friends.

Bryniarski: Howie Long told me I was his son's favorite player when he was starting his NFL career. There's a lot of badass alpha-males out there who cut their teeth on Lattimer and I'm proud of that.

Davis: I've had so many kids, I've had coaches, I've had players still gravitate toward Alvin Mack. I ran into a guy years ago, he said, "You don't know how that movie changed my life." He said, "I was Alvin Mack. I got hurt and it really made me reevaluate what college is all about and I went back and got my degree." You never really know what character you play or what movie you do may inspire people. I've had more people come up to me about Alvin Mack than anything I've ever done.

Ward: The fact that the film has lived on and that people still watch it, football fans still watch it, it makes me feel great.