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About The Production
Sports Illustrated reporter Duncan Brantley was researching the birth of the pro- football league in the late ’80s when he came up with the idea for Leatherheads. The journalist was digging into a story about star player John McNally, who ingeniously used the alias of “Johnny Blood” so he could play for the Duluth Eskimos in the burgeoning National Football League. This allowed McNally to play for the NFL without losing his eligibility for college sports.

The more he dug into the background of McNally and the other players of the era, the more colorful the characters who populated the sport became to Brantley. Indeed, their outlandish escapades fascinated him. After working on the script for several years, he brought colleague Rick Reilly on board the project, certain his humor would lend much to the script. Having spent many years together as S.I. colleagues, the friends felt they make a fine match as writing partners.

“We had covered college football for years at Sports Illustrated, and we were fascinated by this story of Johnny Blood,” recalls Brantley. “He was a wild man who loved to drink…and really did ride a motorcycle with a sidecar, as we wrote for Dodge Connolly.”

“The team played 31 games that year, and 29 of them were on the road,” Reilly continues. “Their owner was so cheap that he literally made them shower in their uniforms and then shower without them; then they hung the uniforms from the train windows to dry.”

It amazed them that often the teams would play four or five games a week, stopping the train if they saw a group of 10 or 20 guys that they could play for money. Though Brantley and Reilly had never penned a screenplay, the two veteran sports reporters had characters and a subject they loved, so they persevered. To add obstacle to their interest, however, Brantley lived in New York and Reilly in Colorado.

“At first,” Brantley recalls, “we locked ourselves in a room for about week and worked out an outline. Then we figured out which scenes each of us were dying to write and completed those. Rick would edit my copy, and I would edit his. Next, we literally leapfrogged through the rest of the script.”

“We knew the characters were so rich—like Red Grange and Ernie Nevers,” Reilly adds. “Plus, it was such an interesting period of sports history. For some reason, college football was really popular in the 1920s—they packed hundreds of thousands into those stadiums. But nobody cared about pro football—it was scandalous to play it, almost like, ‘How dare you play pro football? It’s not for gentleman; you’re supposed to go out and get a real job.’ Nobody really covered it before 1925, so we thought it was a unique and intriguing setting for a film.”

In the early 1990s, Reilly and Brantley brought the script to filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, who in turn gave it to producer Casey Silver, then president of production at Universal Pictures, who bought and commissioned it. “I was friendly with and a fan of Steven’s,” Silver recalls, “and had worked with him before and I liked the script— particularly in that it was a romantic comedy set in an arena that hadn’t been particularly explored in Hollywood.”

As the script went through various phases of development, Soderbergh would go on to direct Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. At this point, Silver had left Universal to become an independent producer, and the project went with him. “There were different iterations, different attempts to get it made, and it came together right after Out of Sight,” Silver recalls. “Steven wanted to do it with George. Steven showed him<

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