Former Illini QB Jon Beutjer
July 11, 2007
by Christa McGraw
Illinois Sports Information
When an athlete walks off the playing field for the final time at his or her alma mater, it is common practice to think about the next career move. Whether it's the pros, minor leagues, or to simply hang up the cleats, one inevitably believes that whatever path is taken will be successful.
For former Illinois football players Jon Beutjer, Ade Adeyemo and Mike Malczyk, who each had stints in professional football after graduation, their paths led them back to the playing field, only this time, in a new capacity. When these Illini stepped back on the turf after similar college and professional resumes as players, what they returned to was far different than anything they had ever experienced. In their new calling, there may have been coaches, trainers and teammates, but the addition of camera crews, directors, producers and actors gave a new twist to life on the gridiron.
What the former Illini auditioned for was an opportunity to be a part of the playing squad that would re-enact former Syracuse University football player Ernie Davis' career in the upcoming movie, The Express.
Davis was the first African American player to earn the Heisman Trophy award in 1959, his senior season. He was the No. 1 pick in the 1962 NFL Draft and ultimately became the first African American to be taken first overall. Picked by the Washington Redskins before immediately being traded to the Cleveland Browns, his dream, however, was cut short when he was diagnosed with leukemia while preparing for the 1962 College All-Star Game. Davis passed away May 18, 1963, at the age of 23.
Although tragic and unfortunate, Davis' short-lived but notable career was and is a classic example of an American hero. Better known as the Elmira Express, he was a one-of-a-kind player whose high standards, sense of competition and sportsmanship set him apart. So much, that former President John F. Kennedy even requested to meet him while he was in New York to receive his distinguished honor.
To date, Syracuse University has only had one Heisman trophy winner and one national football championship, with "The Express" responsible for both.
When the Hollywood crew set up in Chicago to depict the career of the collegiate great, they had their work cut out for them, calling for some of the surrounding football talent to help re-create the plays from Davis' career. Word came through Illinois head football coach Ron Zook's secretary to all former Illini, prompting Beutjer, Adeyemo and Malceyk all to jump on board.
They joined well-known actors Rob Brown, who depicts Davis, and Dennis Quaid, who was cast as coach Ben Schwartzwalder for the film. However, when the trio signed up for an opportunity to play football again, none of them realized how in-depth this casting call would be. Beutjer, former starting quarterback, Adeyemo, starting wide receiver and Malczyk, a long-snapper, went through three days of try-outs, three weeks of training and two months of filming, and came out of the trenches with a different outlook on the movie industry.
In the beginning, each contender had to meet several requirements before being considered for a part, including having a college football background and meeting certain times when running the 40-yard dash and completing drills. Throughout the initial auditions, some of these buff and tough players even had to get down and dirty with a more dramatic role of rehearsing and reading lines.
When the cast was downsized, the players then re-acquainted themselves with the rough side of the sport they remembered from their college days, while recognizing they would have more training and conditioning in front of them than they had first realized. It was not just typical X's and O's, and there were no depth charts in place to check progress. For three weeks, the 35-member football squad learned plays and ran routes all while using equipment from the late 1950's. Because the movie is set nearly five decades ago, the players became skilled at an older-style of play that has been modified over the years due to the enhancement of football equipment.
"We were playing with equipment from 1959, including smaller pads and older helmets." Malczyk said. "Guys were breaking facemasks and getting black eyes! It was actually kind of dangerous because we had to learn how to play football old-school."
"We watched some of the football played in 1960, and it was a different game," Beutjer said. "It was rough playing with no mouth pieces, and the facemasks were different because they only had a single bar. We had to use our shoulders more to protect our faces, whereas in today's game, everyone leads with their head because of the great protection football helmets now have."
Training, conditioning and adjustments with equipment were factors these former players had dealt with, but adjusting to the long hours and acclimating to the film-work environment was demanding at times.
"The long hours were something we definitely had to get used to," Adeyemo said. "Sometimes we had 12- to 13-hour days and as an athlete, you may not like the environment, but it's the industry. There was a lot of downtime and it got frustrating when the film crew wasn't ready for you."
"We would run a play for film, which might take 10 minutes," Malczyk said. "But then, they would want to change the angle of the camera, which could take 30 to 45 minutes, so there was a lot of down time. That's definitely something I didn't experience in college practice."
Although days seemed lengthy and tedious at times, the experience was more laid-back than the grueling schedule of a college athlete. It also allowed the players to regain a sense of team camaraderie. All three agreed that being back on the field in a team atmosphere was something they enjoyed most.
"I loved being around the guys," Malczyk said. "Hanging around in the locker room, telling jokes and goofing around really brings you back. We were working with a great group of guys and were able to meet many different types of people."
Each commented on how great an experience they had simply because of the relationships built, both on and off the gridiron. The eclectic group of personalities found on this set seemed to mesh well with the former Illini. Each took full advantage of his position, but all of them had different opinions about whether or not they would be under the spotlight again if given the opportunity.
"The experience and the relationships built were all great," Beutjer said. "But I'm not sure I would do it again. The movie industry is very different from the real game on the field."
His former teammate had different thoughts.
"I would most definitely do it again," Malczyk said. "Whether or not my work would let me take time off again would be another question. But if I had the opportunity, it's something I would certainly look into."
Adeyemo fell somewhere in the middle, saying that returning to this type of playing field was a possibility, but not a path he was certain he would take again.
Each came out with a different perspective of the industry; however, all three of them did agree on one importnat point. The catered food brought in three times a day was enough to feed an entire army, or one very hungry football squad. It is one perk of the industry they don't want to move give up.
While the words "Lights, Camera, Action" have taken on new meaning for these former Illini, the experience will forever be memorialized on the big screen.
The Express is due out this October and will not only pull on the strings of your heart, but on your Fighting Illini spirit.