LOS ANGELES -- It's a typical work day in Florham Park, New Jersey. Spencer Paysinger, a Super Bowl-champion linebacker, needs to prepare for another New York Jets practice, but something else consumes him on this midweek morning in August 2017. Warner Bros. executives are back in Los Angeles trying to sell a show -- his show -- to the networks, and Paysinger must scramble to produce a three-minute pitch video to seal the deal.
Paysinger convinces one of the assistant trainers, Ezron Bryson, to let him borrow Bryson's office for five minutes, then props his tablet on a pile of books and begins speaking into it. Five minutes quickly turn to 15, then suddenly 20. Paysinger can see the large digital clock on the weight-room wall continuing to tick down, knowing he will pay a $5,000 fine if it reaches zero and he's late to practice.
Thirty minutes have now elapsed. Players start scrambling out of the room. Bryson taps on the glass wall with noticeable urgency. Thirty minutes turn to 45.
Finally, Paysinger finds his rhythm. He begins by telling his imaginary audience that the central character of this potential TV series isn't rooted in fiction but inspired by the living, breathing football player sitting before them. He talks about the struggle of his adolescence and how, in spite of it, he is still here, in the NFL, living out his dreams, better for it all.
Then Paysinger jolts.
He rushes into an empty Jets locker room, grabs his jersey and a pair of pads, slips on one shoe, sprints down the hall and makes it onto the grass while his teammates stretch, finally exhaling with only seconds remaining on the giant clock.
"My heart was racing," Paysinger says now, "but I played it off like I had been there the whole time."
'It's a real story'
Paysinger, retired from the NFL since the start of the calendar year, is the inspiration behind The CW show "All American," which airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET and stars Taye Diggs and Daniel Ezra.
The drama series uses fictional names and takes some creative liberties, but it stands as a direct snapshot to the juxtaposition of Paysinger's adolescence -- a star athlete from a rough neighborhood in South Central L.A. who played high school football in the affluence of Beverly Hills and didn't seem to fit in either place.
Those who led the charge on this show -- people named Peter Roth, Robbie Rogers, Greg Berlanti and Dane Morck, among others -- used Paysinger's video to begin every pitch meeting.
It probably never happens without it.
"It's a real story, it's inspired by a true story, and so it's good to put a face to that story," Rogers said. "Hearing it from Spencer himself was very important."
Transitioning to life after the NFL
Paysinger never planned to play in the NFL beyond the age of 30. He overcame the drugs and violence of his hometown to earn a scholarship to Oregon, then landed with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2011 -- the lockout year -- and contributed on special teams for a team that won it all.
Four years with the Giants led to two years with the Miami Dolphins, followed by a training camp stint with the Jets, a three-month layoff, a three-week stretch with the Carolina Panthers and, on Dec. 29, 2017, the release that sent him into retirement.
"I remember sitting in my locker that day, packing all my stuff, smiling," said Paysinger, who turned 30 in June. "I never wanted football to be my highest peak."
Paysinger admittedly can't sit still for very long. He managed to do so long enough to grab coffee in West L.A. earlier this summer and talked about how retirement always "scared me to death," a fear that pushed him to create the type of safety net that eludes most NFL players.
Paysinger once attended the Athlete Transition U business combine in New York City, then sent a letter to commissioner Roger Goodell and executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, urging the NFL to adopt the five-day crash course.
Paysinger is officially a consulting producer on "All American," but he also opened a coffee shop in his neighborhood, Hilltop Café, and helps run an investment fund called Afterball LLC, which aims to help football players find themselves after their playing careers suddenly end.
"It's a form of PTSD that athletes go through after sports," said former Pro Bowl tight end Martellus Bennett, a friend of Paysinger's who has found his niche by creating a cartoon series for kids. "You have to think about it like -- that is their life's work up until that point. Like, you've been training from a young age, college, you go to college with the idea of going to the NFL, you make it, you get your dream job at 21, and then your dream job spits you out at 25. And then what?"
'I want it to be a career'
Paysinger's biggest passion is screenwriting, a love that began before high school, when he and his uncle would burn six hours every Friday and Saturday at the movies. Paysinger remembers the stress of his rookie season and how a trip to the cinema would quickly put him at ease. It became a routine. Every Tuesday, he went to the movies by himself.
Paysinger began writing his own material in 2014. He downloaded the scripts for his favorite movies -- the first was "Pulp Fiction," the second was "Pineapple Express" -- and studied the way writers crafted their stories. He began watching movies with subtitles, downloaded script-writing software, looked into UCLA classes and even began a website, cutandpays.com, to house his rough ideas.
"I don't want this to be one shot," Paysinger said. "I don't want this to be, 'Hey, you're the guy who had that one show. What are you doing now?' I want it to be a career."
An idea comes to life
The process for "All American" began in 2015, when one of Paysinger's friends, former NFL tight end Schuylar Oordt, introduced him to his roommate, Morck, who at that point was still trying to find himself as a producer. They met at an apartment complex in Mar Vista, California, during Paysinger's bye week in October and hit it off when they realized they played against each other in a big rivalry game between Beverly Hills and Palos Verdes Peninsula high schools.
When Morck asked what it was like growing up in Beverly Hills, Paysinger corrected him.
"I don't want this to be one shot. I don't want this to be, 'Hey, you're the guy who had that one show. What are you doing now?' I want it to be a career." Paysinger, whose new show "All American" airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on The CW.
He told him he got into Beverly Hills High through the multicultural program and described his commute to school each morning, which included 4 a.m. wake-up calls.
Paysinger told him about that time gunshots rang out after a championship baseball game at a local park. And that time his mom became exceedingly concerned because Paysinger wore the wrong colors to school. And all those times he had to sleep at his grandparents' house because it was too late for him to ride a bicycle into his neighborhood.
"One of the things that I always found interesting about Los Angeles was the stark contrast in communities that are just sitting side by side," Morck said. "That was always interesting to me because you grow up here and you kind of stay in your pocket, and you kind of dealt with what was in front of you. I also realized at the same time I was talking to someone who had found success in a hard space, and he was a modern-day kind of hero in his path, in his journey, and that really appealed to me."
Paysinger kept sharing stories as the year went on. He soon got a call from Morck's childhood friend, Rogers, a producer and former professional soccer player whose fiancé at the time was Berlanti, one of the biggest TV producers in Hollywood.
Soon, Paysinger was meeting with Roth, the chief executive at Warner Bros., and writing treatments about the struggles he faced. The CW bought the rights in the second meeting. They found a director, Rob Hardy, and a writer, April Blair. They identified a premise -- "an outsider in two worlds" -- and assembled a cast and crew. By April 2018, they shot the pilot.
Paysinger watched it on a couch in the studio lot and "nearly passed out."
"I'm holding my wife's hand and I feel like I'm about to break it because my heart's beating so fast," Paysinger said. "Think about it -- if this s--- sucked, how am I going to show this to people?"
'Football players are not dumb, at all'
Ezra, a young British actor, plays Paysinger in the show. His character is named Spencer James, and, like Paysinger in high school, he is a star wide receiver who finds a coach (Billy Baker, played by Diggs) who gets him into Beverly Hills High, igniting turmoil. (It's basically "The O.C." meets "Friday Night Lights.")
The fictional names helped Paysinger separate himself from the show and approach it from a bird's-eye view.
His main objective was to shatter stereotypes of the inner city.
"I wanted to tell the story of, 'We're a lot more similar on these different sides of the track than you guys think,'" Paysinger said. "Being from South Central, and knowing how South Central is portrayed in Hollywood as this desolate area with gang violence, drugs, everything -- they have to realize that the sun shines there as long as it shines in Beverly Hills. The one thing I want the viewers to see is South Central is also a beautiful place. It's a wonderful place. It's a place that I call home to this day. I think we've been able to do that."
Paysinger drove Diggs and Ezra around his neighborhood as they prepared for their roles, taking them to his house and his schools and his barbershop and his local swap meet.
While still an active player, Paysinger read scripts and helped Blair write some of the football scenes. Now he is a full-on, ever-present member of the crew with his own director's chair (Ezra's chair says "Spencer;" Paysinger's says "Real Spencer").
In the show, Paysinger can often be seen patrolling the sidelines as a nondescript assistant coach. But Paysinger also provides Ezra with occasional insight as to how he would have approached certain situations. He sits in the writers' room to contribute anecdotes. He participates in the production meetings to learn as much as possible.
"They've really welcomed me into the creative process," Paysinger said, "and I appreciate that."
"That's why when I got cut, I wasn't sad. It wasn't surreal to me. It was just like, 'Man, I'm ready for this.'" Paysinger, on the time he started writing a script during a defensive meeting.
Paysinger wants to eventually lead other projects, including one on mental health among athletes. He wishes to someday create works like Donald Glover, the multitalented actor, director and musician who inspired Paysinger with his hit show "Atlanta."
"Being a part of this project has really helped me dispel a lot of stereotypes when it comes to athletes and sports," Diggs said. "Football players are not dumb, at all. But there is that perception."
When it all clicked
Paysinger can vividly remember a Thursday defensive meeting while he was with the Panthers late in the 2017 season. An idea popped in his head for a story about a kid whose barber suddenly goes missing, a big deal in Paysinger's community. Paysinger began writing about all the hurdles the boy went through to locate his barber. He started building the character, created several subplots, and before he knew it, six pages had been filled out.
His defensive coordinator, Steve Wilks, was on Page 16 of the install, while Paysinger remained on Page 3.
"That was the moment I knew I was ready to walk away from this game," he said. "That's why when I got cut, I wasn't sad. It wasn't surreal to me. It was just like, 'Man, I'm ready for this.'"