‘Hell Week,’ Behind the Scenes

A scene from ESPN's High School Football Documentary 'Hell Week'
A scene from ESPN's High School Football Documentary 'Hell Week'

In ‘Hell Week,‘ a short documentary about the first week of football training at Station Camp High School in Gallatin, Tennessee, a linebacker neatly sums up the personal effects of enduring this national ritual. After an intense, sun-scorched day packed with vomit-inducing drills over multiple practice sessions, the exhausted player observes: “I smell like pee mixed with sweat.”

To a football outsider, that may be an alarming (if not a little nauseating) sentiment. Yet to those who once played the game and endured similar masochistic treatment themselves, it’s just one of many striking sound bites in the film – produced by DICK’s Sport Goods Films and ESPN – that will instead evoke a sense of bittersweet nostalgia.

“That was me years ago,” says former NFL defensive lineman and ESPN radio cohost Mike Golic, who recently emceed a private screening at Tribeca Cinemas in New York. Golic is a veteran of similar camp experiences from high school, and then again as a freshman at Notre Dame and again professionally. And yet when it came time for his sons to play high school ball, Golic was so eager to experience it all again that he enlisted as the camp cook. For gridiron vets, ‘Hell Week’ perfectly captures the purity and passion behind small town football that has been embodied in NBC’s ‘Friday Night Lights‘ but with the insider quality of HBO’s long-running series about the NFL, ‘Hard Knocks.’

In the first moments of the film, players are rushed off the bus and promptly ordered to drop and do push-ups in the parking lot, setting the tone for the rest of the week’s various tortures. Coaches wake them up in the middle of the night at different hours for conditioning drills. And while they are at first undisciplined, staggering and whiny, players soon begin the inevitable and heartwarming metamorphosis experienced by thousands of kids across the country every August. By day four, they’re already executing routes, jogging stoically in tandem and bonded emotionally in a timeless brotherly fashion.

In the film, there’s the central-casting lineup of standard characters who are nonetheless charming: the mature-beyond-his-years, nationally ranked wide receiver; the freshman who comes straight out of ‘Leave it to Beaver;’ the peach fuzz-adorned, wisecracking linebacker; and the hard-ass, throbbing-veined, red-faced R. Lee Ermey-type coach who, by the end of camp, is the only one to break down and sob on camera. “This is more reality to me than ‘Hard Knocks’; this is true reality TV,” Golic says. “These are kids that are not professional athletes –and know they’re not professional athletes – and yet they’re busting their humps.”

Unlike typical low-budget reality fare, ‘Hell Week’ has a prominent cinematic touch, at times reminiscent of sports porn like NFL Films. For instance, director Paul Canney adeptly blends exaggerated beauty shots – water cascading down faces in slow motion – with fast-paced action footage from Go Pro cameras clipped to helmets. While the film positively gushes with aphoristic football wisdom, it has to reach for any real dramatic conflict – a baby powder fight leading to more push-up punishment is as controversial as it gets. Still, it’s a winning experience, and any viewer with a heart and a love of the game will come away feeling pumped up and like a member of the team (so don’t forget, the team’s home opener versus Beech High will air Sunday August 25 on ESPN2)

After the movie ended and the lights came up, Golic, still an imposing 6-foot-5 and 250-plus pounds, grabbed the mic, saying “I want to hit somebody!” The feeling was universal.

More information: DICK’s Sporting Goods Films Presents Hell Week‘ debuts tonight, August 22, at 7:30 on ESPN 2, with repeats through August 26) 

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