'Little Giants' turns 25: The cast and crew give us the inside story

Warner Bros./Everett Collection

It was 25 years ago that a group of unathletic, misfit kids in rural Ohio captured our hearts through their seemingly unachievable journey to build a competitive football team.

The movie "Little Giants" was released in theaters Oct. 14, 1994, and while it didn't break any box office records, the movie has turned into a cult classic over the years. From Icebox to Spike, Danny and Kevin O'Shea and all the characters involved, it was a unique movie derived from a television commercial aired during the Super Bowl that turned into an inspirational fan favorite.

Its ties to football went past its origins as a young executive by the name of Roger Goodell helped orchestrate the NFL's behind-the-scenes involvement to help promote the league and sport.

On the 25th anniversary of the film's release, ESPN spoke with a number of key performers -- both in front of the camera and behind it -- who helped create the enduring myth of the beloved film.


Bob Shallcross -- original story and screenplay writer, one of the ad execs: [Jim Ferguson and I] were partners back in the day. We were creative directors of Leo Burnett in Chicago. McDonald's was one of our clients, which was cool because we'd get Super Bowl assignments. There was a period of about three or four years where every year we had a Super Bowl assignment. We did that Bird-Jordan commercial, too, "Nothing but net." I don't know if you remember that commercial. Michael and Larry. We did that one year and they wanted to do a sequel to that, which I fought and fought and fought because I don't like sequels.

And then we had to do another one one year. And so we're trying to figure out what the heck to do, and we were thinking about how do we do this and not necessarily go the celebrity route and all that stuff. ... I was sitting on a train one day. I'm a big observer and I was looking out the window, and we stopped and made a lot of stops and at one of the suburbs, I looked out the window and there was this pee wee football practice going on. And it just struck me at that moment that this is kind of interesting and this is kind of where it all starts. Might be kind of interesting to do a tribute to pee wee football and be watching that on the day of the Super Bowl when you're watching the best athletes that play the game, et cetera, et cetera.

You know so many kids will never get there. It just kind of went from there and I came back in the office the next day and I said to Ferg, "I just thought of this spot on the train. What do you think?" And we started writing it and rolling with it and it just kind of came together. It was nice because they bought... I think it was a 90, the original spot was 90 seconds. You get a little time to tell a story. The production was interesting. We shot most of the Florida scenes and the Super Bowl was in January. We had a tight deadline.

Jim Ferguson -- original story and screenplay writer, one of the ad execs: We'd never written a screenplay. And we came in on Monday, and our secretary -- this is when they were still giving you those pink slips telling you who called you, there's no voicemail or anything like that -- and she said Steven Spielberg called, and you initially think it's a joke. Yeah, sure. Everybody knew Spielberg but it had that number at Amblin productions. And I said, that's his production company. We both knew that. In the return phone call, we talked to a lady named Deb Newmyer, never forget that lady.

Bob Shallcross: ... she was like, finally, I've been trying to track you guys down. And she said Steven loves this commercial and he wants to talk to you guys and wants to know if you're interested in turning it into a film. So that's kind of how it happened.

Meeting Spielberg

Jim Ferguson: I think the first meeting we had with Steven, Bob couldn't make it, and I was in L.A. and drop out there and sit and talk with him, and he told us what he was looking for. One of the things he said is, "Yes, you get it." When you look back at it, that was a 90-second commercial in the Super Bowl. There aren't too many of those, right? Most of them were 30s and 60s, very few 90s.

Extremely, it was extremely expensive then. Yeah. But (Spielberg) said, if you can do this in, he said 60 seconds, if you guys can do this in 60 seconds, let's see what you can do in 90 minutes. So Bob and I met with him again a few weeks later and we told him we had never written a screenplay. We have no idea what it looks like. And he basically told us it's a three-act thing, it starts here and basically gave us a brief history, a little lesson on writing a screenplay -- Spielberg.

Bob Shallcross: And I remember Steven looking over to Lucy and saying, "Do you think we should get these guys help?" She said, "No, I think we should let them write it." And so that's kind of how it happened. And then Steven said, "You're going to need an agent." Next thing you know, we had an agent and we were writing. We wrote for a year, maybe. So we had our jobs, and then about 7 o'clock at night, we would start writing the screenplay until midnight, 1 in the morning. And then I'd get on the last train out of Chicago at 12:30 at night and get home at 2 in the morning and get up at 6 to catch a train back and did that for a year or more.


Jim Ferguson: It was originally called "A Perfect Season," and the two brothers had been competing for years. There were only enough boys in the town to play one game and they based their whole life on this one game. Everything, they were such competitive brothers. And originally, Bob and I found there were things we really didn't like about the movie.

At the last minute, we got a phone call, and the NFL had gotten involved. The NFL put a lot of money in that movie. That's why they became the Cowboys and the Giants. They were originally Notre Dame and USC based on these guys' businesses. And then a really close friend of mine now was telling me about it. Roger Goodell. I ran Young & Rubicam and we were the largest ad agency in New York City and the NFL was our client. I got to know Roger. Roger and I played a lot of golf together. We got to become good friends and I told him I had written this movie and he said you know we were really involved in that, and I had no idea. I didn't know why it was suddenly the Cowboys and the Giants and we brought Emmitt Smith and all these other guys in there. And John Madden who was originally not in there.

Duwayne Dunham -- director: I had always wanted to put a scene in where we either had semi-pro football players or pro players that visit these kids and some of those pros like Emmitt Smith talking about he wasn't the biggest, the fastest, the strongest. He was always the smallest, but he had the biggest heart, biggest fight. And so Lucy Fisher called me one day, and this is the beginning of May. And she said, "Good news, bad news." I said, "OK let's have it." She said, "The good news is the NFL is looking to promote the sport to the young kids, and they have come with financing and they wanted to know if we had a project. We said, 'Yes and it's Little Giants and you're going to make the movie.'" I said, "That's fantastic. ... What's the bad news?" She says, "Bad news" -- now remember this is about the 4th of May -- "The bad news is we have to be in the theaters October." I want to say it was October 11th to get that financing. You're talking May, June, July, August, September -- you had five months to shoot this movie and put it together.

We had a story that was, it was a great story. I love the sensibility of both those guys from the Midwest, and those values were inherent in the story, and it's just a fun story. That original script was really more about the brothers. One was a USC fanatic and the other was a Notre Dame fanatic and the companies' initials were the schools. It was kind of fun that way, but it really didn't add up quite, I think, how Amblin wanted it anyway. One day, this was weeks and weeks and we were struggling and then one day, it was like a bolt of lightning and I said, "I got it, I know what this is. This is a story, a very simple story about the kids who don't get picked."

Tommy Swerdlow -- screenplay writer, one of the last writers brought in to revise the script: Me and my partner Michael Goldberg, who is no longer with us, rewrote the movie and we were hired by Warner Brothers. I'm not sure if we were the first writers or if there had been a few. The original writers were, I think they might have been advertising guys. I don't think they were professional screenwriters, but their names are on it, too. And they're the guys whose original idea it was, so really if you want to know the origin story, you should talk to them.

They had a script they didn't like. And we had just written "Cool Runnings," and it had just come out. And the most interesting thing about "Little Giants," I'll give you a great, my big story about "Little Giants" that really made me understand Steven Spielberg was Steven Spielberg the producer.

We had just done "Cool Runnings," and he had just done "Schindler's List," and not to compare the movies, but they were both making a lot of money overseas. He wins the Oscar. If I remember this correctly, he wins all those Oscars for "Schindler's List," and he comes the next day at 9 in the morning for a "Little Giants" story meeting. He's the f---ing producer. I was like, oh, I get it now, Steven Spielberg is a maniac.


Duwayne Dunham: Ed O'Neill's name came up, and I had known that Ed played I think a year for Pittsburgh or something. He actually was a football player. And I remember meeting him at an Italian restaurant somewhere in Hollywood or Beverly Hills. I don't know, but it was so great because I was talking. It was like he was Al Bundy. We were slurping spaghetti, and it was really great. He was a real normal guy. And in fact, I remember on the set when my kids met Ed, it was my daughter who looked at him and said, "Where's Peg?" She was really young at the time. She couldn't quite understand that's not Al Bundy, that's Ed O'Neill. Ed was great, and Rick was great. I always admired Rick Moranis, always admired his work. And anyway that's how our cast came together, and then the kids. The kids are the kids. I wanted to find real kids, and what I had learned is: Go to the Midwest. And so we got quite a few people there, but I think Shawna was L.A.

Janet Hirshenson -- casting director: So I would get pictures from agents and meet seemingly appropriate ones. There were agents in maybe Virginia, all different places. So I had kids all over the country go on tape, the agents put the kids on it. ... Usually it's about 10 weeks. This went a little longer I think, I don't know if the project was coming together or whatever. And then we would look at all the tapes, and even if a kid sometimes isn't particularly good, there's a quality that's there. We'd have them retape, give notes. It's pretty exciting when kids from all over the place come. Brought several in to do tests and then chose the ones that we liked.

There was Shawna Waldron's part. I think immediately she was my favorite, She just I thought was perfect. I don't know if I knew Shawna before or not. But she quickly became my favorite because I needed a little, non-prissy girl. She was a football player. She was terrific.

Shawna Waldron -- actor, played Becky "Icebox" O'Shea: I was more kind of it's whatever... building forts, roughhousing, and kind of I remember wanting to play basketball with the boys in my school, and they were making it really hard. So I asked my mom for a basketball and she got for Christmas, she got me this neon pink, green and yellow one. I was like, "I can't come to the guys with this." I was like, "I need a basketball. I'll be laughed out of school." It wasn't really something that it was yeah, come on and join the football team. I had to beg to get into the comic books that I had to show up with all of my comics for them to take me seriously.

Tommy Swerdlow: Junior was supposed to be Jonathan Taylor Thomas from "Home Improvement," but Steven didn't cast him. He did a great reading of it. And that scene where Becky and Ed O'Neill talk at the diner. So the two sort of emotional scenes are the scenes I wrote. I wasn't there for the shooting when all the football players came.

Jim Ferguson (on Devon Sawa): I know Spielberg really liked him because of "Casper," and he was a teen heartthrob and thought that might draw something to it, but he was too old. In fact, when there's a team shot and Devon's in the back, I think they made him sit in a chair so he could be not towering over them as much.

Devon Sawa -- actor, played Junior Floyd: When I was shooting "Casper," "Little Giants" was already in production and had already been shooting for a month and there was an original Junior Floyd that was shooting the film. It wasn't going so well with that particular kid. I don't know. So they basically canned that Junior Floyd and brought me in. But, the problem when you're 12 or whatever and your boy gets canned, bringing in the new kid, for the first couple of weeks, I was not liked on that set. Because I was the replacement Junior Floyd.


Duwayne Dunham: I said, here's the thing, the best athlete in this town is a girl. And everybody knows it, and she doesn't get picked because she's a girl and girls don't play football. And that character was based on my own daughter Haley, who in L.A. was arguably the best athlete in her age group. It was a no-brainer. I completely knew what that was because she was a girl but she had this athletic ability. So Becky, the Icebox, was patterned after my daughter.

Shawna Waldron: I think the message was really strong with little girls, and it really means a lot to me when I hear things from people that affected them. There was one father who was like, "My daughter's nickname is Icebox, she's a football player getting this award and would you come." I told her, "You're better than that character will ever be, you're better than me, you're better than my character. It's great that you have that nickname but you're the real thing. I was just an actor in a movie. You're a badass, don't ever think that you have to live up to this fictional character." And it's like almost a weight is lifted off their shoulders. If that movie can do anything. If that's the one thing that this movie does, man that makes me really happy.


Tommy Swerdlow: It's amazing that movie is as beloved as it is because it looked like it was going to be a train wreck of massive proportions. How it was operating and how much trouble the director was having. And it just goes to show he had a gentleness and kind of vibe about him that mattered more than all the behind-the-scenes crap. In any other situation with any other producers, he would've been fired because it was taking too long. Steven wouldn't do it, because he's a director and he doesn't fire directors.

Shawna Waldron: Duwayne's an amazing editor, so he's really meticulous. It has to be exactly the way it has to be, and so a lot of time was taken doing stuff. I remember when we were filming the first scene. One scene took him four days. And so Spielberg actually came down for a week and was like, "Here's how you do this on time."

Devon Sawa: I was put into this crazy football environment. They had all these kids from everywhere that were the top of the football leagues for pee wee football, these were legit kids. And it was just four months, which seems like the longest time when you're that age. And it was a lot of fun. It was Al Bundy. And of course Rick Moranis was huge at the time, and it was nothing but good memories. He's the nicest guy, too. I remember him being the sweetest man to us. And that's who he was. Back then it was the "Married with Children" peak right then. And so you're like, "Al Bundy is coaching football with the guy from 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,'" you know what I mean. It was amazing.

Marcus Toji -- actor, played Marcus "The Toe": I didn't play football before that. And so it was like, "Here's the line of scrimmage, here's how you line up, here's what positions are." And then it would be like, "When we call hike, you become a blocker." And they'd try to explain it to us as kids, and I think I completely forgot. All the Cowboys were there, too. So it wasn't just the Little Giants, it was the Cowboys so we had a team against a team. And they were very much like, "You don't have to push each other, just stand up, we'll get that later."

Shawna Waldron: I got heatstroke. They treated us kind of like, "Hey, I know it's 103-degree weather, but go f--- yourself." And for myself particularly, I had that cheerleading uniform on and that was a wool sweater. So I have a wool sweater on with pads and that other jacket on top of it with like a 10k light on me and 103-degree weather. And I kept telling people, "I don't feel well, I also have stomach cramps." No one was listening to me, and there was this moment where my whole body went numb and the grass came up to my face. I didn't feel falling. And they had to wake me up with smelling salts. The medic had to get smelling salts. And then, after that, it was misters. People were walking around with bottles of ice-cold water, fans, shade, "Is everybody OK?" They took that wool sweater and they cut the sleeves off and sewed them onto a regular T-shirt. So I wasn't wearing a wool sweater. I remember as it was one of the worst heat waves in L.A. that year, too. That was rough. As you say, it went on for forever.

Marcus Toji: We were always in school together because when school's in session, minors have to if it's the weekdays. OK. You can bank hours. There's a minimum of one hour a day. But it's three hours but you can bank hours. So basically if we weren't working, we were in school so they could bank hours so that on certain days they could use more. And so we're basically all in our football gear. This is in Arroyo Grande, which was Urbania. And so Little Giants were in our crappy football gear and -- I think it's Michael Zwiener -- someone found out that the Polaroid cameras, which they barely have anymore, have a battery in the cartridge. And so we would take the battery out and then put a paperclip in there to connect it positive and negative and then put it on something -- like thrown on someone's shin guard or underneath. So it's touching them, and then we have so much gear on that you don't know what's what. And then we would start, you would always be like, "Why is it so hot?" And then you'd find that someone had put one of these Polaroid things in your shin guard and crack up. Yeah, looking back now that could have exploded.

Todd Bosley -- actor, played Jake Berman: I told this story at Marcus' wedding and I'll never let him live it down. Filming had gone for about five months, and they scheduled the wrap party for production, but they still had a week left of shooting. Why they did that, I have no idea. But we were at this wrap party, it was at the equestrian center. Here's how me and the kids were, we decided to go into one of the arenas and play soccer. Yeah. So we played soccer and my friend Marcus decided to make me the goalie. You know how I look in that movie and how tiny I was. Not only was it bad in a safety sense, it was bad in strategy. There's a lot more missing, negative space where the ball can go through. Literally the first shot I tried to block, it hit my hand and broke my wrist. So immediately I hear a crack, immense pain and they take me to a hospital, cast me up. So everyone's like, "What are we going to do now?" If you notice, the montage where I'm on the monkey bars, for some reason and I don't even know why this happened either, the first part of that scene was shot before my arm was broken, and then afterwards when I finally make it and you see them lift me up on their shoulders, I'm pumping my arms. You'll notice I go from having short sleeves to very long sleeves, awkwardly covering up the cast.

Shawna Waldron: I remember it as being a lot of fun. It lasted for so long and we did so many things together. In my mind, it's like an eternal summer, that movie, and I love all the little continuity things and stuff when you watch. When you watch Todd go across these monkey bars, he looks so successful. Well, if you look closely, one of his sleeves is super long. First off, that's the last shot in the movie that we ever filmed. That was the last scene that we ever filmed and it was like, "Yes, we're done." We were at lunch playing soccer at the equestrian center in Burbank, and somebody thought it would be a good idea to make Todd the goalie. Todd, a goalie. All he had to do was put his arm up to block a ball and the ball broke his arm. If you watch that, one of the sleeves is longer than the other. There's a scene I have with Ed -- that scene in the diner. That scene took all day to film, and during lunch I bought this necklace, a clay necklace at a garage sale. And if you're watching it, I have this big old blue necklace on, and then it's off. I have it on and off. I love stuff like that.

Marcus Toji: The Alka-Seltzer drool was toothpaste. We brushed our teeth before filming and we just spilled it out of our mouths. I did all my own kicking. All the crappy kicks were 100 percent me. I think they placed the cameras where you'd see me kicking. They kind of put it between us. Terrible kicking all around. I think "Ace Ventura" had come out and talked about the kicker being a soccer-style kicker. I was like, "OK, I'll be a soccer-style kicker." And it was terrible. And the last kick I kick, it's not soccer style, I kick it straight on.

Duwayne Dunham: Ed O'Neill, it was simple. I said just play Mike Ditka. Ed was great. So the combination of Ed and Rick worked out really well.

The Annexation of Puerto Rico

Jim Ferguson: Well, the play itself. When they created the play, Bob and I named it that. It was in the script, but we didn't know what the play was going to be. Duwayne Dunham probably figured all that out, but what do you call it. There was really never a play set up, but it was referred to in the original script as the Annexation of Puerto Rico.

Well, I think when Duwayne was directing it, he was thinking about when Stanford ran through the band or whatever (the Cal-Stanford band play). Yeah, it was total mayhem and I think Duwayne came up with the idea. I don't think we wrote a play for it. They were just supposed to do a fumblerooski or whatever it was going to be.

We thought it was funny. You know what, at that time, we were reading the newspaper and they were talking about the Annexation of Puerto Rico back in the '60s. And to me, that was just a funny name -- the Annexation of Puerto Rico. So I think that's where that came from. I'm pretty sure, 99 percent sure, of it. Instead of just naming it the end-around crossover or whatever, the nerdy little kid in there, it sounds like he would call it something like the Annexation of Puerto Rico, but it came out of the newspaper. I was reading it and go, man, what they're talking about is the Annexation of Puerto Rico. That's f---ing funny. It's just one of those terms that jumped out in our heads and we thought, well, we'll stick it in there somewhere I guess.

Duwayne Dunham: Yeah, we diagrammed all of those plays. I had the great fortune of working with a tremendous storyboard artist, a fella named Fred Lucky. I had met Fred, he's old-time Disney, when I was doing "Homeward Bound" and he was great at genuine humor that came out of character as opposed to humor putting somebody down. One of the things we did is diagrammed out and made sure those plays were set pieces, that they were funny and entertaining and plausible.

Post production

Jim Ferguson: Well, you know what is funny. When it came out, it didn't do a lot at the box office. You got to realize it would have never been a hundred million dollar movie, because all the tickets were sold on Saturday at half-price tickets, they were taking the kids. So I think it ended up doing 35-40 million dollars so double that. That would have been an 80 million dollar movie. But over the years, I think there's a generation, it's when we were working for Spielberg. There was a generation that didn't have what he was looking for. "The Bad News Bears," "The Mighty Ducks" that come out, but people really didn't identify so much with, though that movie did extremely well with hockey. Not like you would do with baseball or football. And so people really enjoyed the movie and I read about it every now and then. I'll read something on Twitter or Reddit or whatever I'm looking at.

Bob Shallcross: It's weird because being a creative there's those things where you go, I would've done that different and I would've done that different. So you've got to take that hat off and say, "OK, I'm going to go along for the ride, it's a piece of entertainment." I thought there were aspects of it that I liked and I thought the storyline came through. It was really cool. We did a premiere, the first time we saw it was at a premiere in the Chicago suburbs and we got the theater and we got to invite all our family and friends.

Yeah, which is really cool. It was in Evanston, near Northwestern. And then after the movie, we went to the stadium and everybody gets around the stadium and plays, we had food, the scoreboard was all lit up with a Little Giants and Cowboys and the score, and it was pretty cool. So that was a really cool way to experience it with all your loved ones and friends and people that you know.

Devon Sawa: It was a load of fun to shoot, and it's crazy who will approach me nowadays and be like, "Oh my god, I loved you from 'Little Giants.'" Nick Diaz is a huge "Little Giants" fan. I don't know if you know who Nick Diaz is, but he's like, "Oh my god, I love 'Little Giants.'" I'm like, "Oh my god, that's amazing." It's strange how many people love that movie.

Todd Bosley: At the time, I thought it was gonna be a fun movie, but this is a time when kids sports movies were all the rage. They had "Sandlot," "The Big Green," and "Mighty Ducks." So I mean certainly, yes, they were at that time kind of a dime a dozen, but I didn't really fully appreciate until I think a few years later, maybe five years later. So it actually was a pretty good movie, it was actually one of the better made ones. Just as in terms of the story and how Ed O'Neill is the antagonist, but he's not a bad guy. I think that's really something that's pretty special. It's not just a cartoony villain. Yeah, maybe a little misguided by his circumstance.

I went to a Kings game in L.A., and on the JumboTron they had a flex cam. It was my first Kings game, I had never been to a Kings game, and then there I am [on the screen]. I was like, "OK, should I sue them?" And people show me I'm a meme and stuff, it's crazy. I am still surprised at how often I'm still recognized from it. I guess I don't look as different as I feel like I am. It never ceases to amaze the people that still recognize me from that. Even the places, I was once recognized in a planetarium. It was dark. It was pitch dark and somebody still recognized me. I think with age it's gotten better.

Shawna Waldron: I thought it would fade into obscurity, but it just kind of stuck around. It dawned on me because I used camp counsel for the YMCA and I was directing the camp one year and you're supposed to give a talk. The night I was supposed to give my talk was movie night. So the other directors put on "Little Giants," and I was like, "These kids are gonna be like, 'What is this movie?'" And they had all seen it a million times before. They were all so bored with seeing it, and they were like, "Oh, that's you." And I was like, "Get out, you've seen this before. Really?" And It dawned on me ABC Family channel played it. It wasn't really until Netflix and Hulu came around that people realized kids want content, maybe you should make more for them. So it kind of ended up sticking around, which I don't mind. I know it wasn't what it was originally meant to be, and I know it turned into a million different things.

Marcus Toji: I think we all hoped it would be [successful], but as a kid you don't think about the numbers. And then you kind of think about like, "Oh, when they do the sequel, we'll all hang out together again and do something else. It'll be a baseball movie and we'll still be called the Giants." That was our idea. But it didn't strike because even then we knew the movie wasn't doing well. I think you know in the most vain way. Think about it. No one was stopping us on the street. None of us were getting recognized. Right when the movie came out, it wasn't until about maybe four, five years later that we realized it was popular.

Duwayne Dunham: My daughter played basketball at USC. The women, this is pretty common, they scrimmaged with guys. So they have male students who, they probably can't get paid or anything, but they just love the game. And so there's always a group of guys that the girls scrimmage against. I was at one of the sports banquets for my daughter's basketball team and this kid came up to me. It was Rickey D'Shon Collins. Ricky was the quarterback for the Cowboys on the other team. Rickey was one of the male students that scrimmaged with the girls and my daughter. And they didn't know it until Rickey saw me and he put two and two together and it was like, "Are you kidding me? This is great."