The other day, I found myself humming the song from the football movie Remember the Titans. I haven't sat through a game of football, but I have sat through that movie upwards of ten times. Pop culture about sports gives non-sports fanatics a chance to experience the triumphs and tragedies built into each and every game — and give us a whole slate of characters to root for.
Such is certainly the case with All American, a riveting new CW drama that premieres this evening at 9/8 central. All American follows Spencer James (Daniel Ezra), a young Black man from a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood, after Coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs) recruits him play for the Beverly Hills High School football team. In doing so, Spencer is stunned by how the other half — actually, more like 1% — lives. If the sports and the struggle depicted in All American strike you as extra real, it's because they are: The show is based on the true story of professional football player Spencer Paysinger, who retired from the NFL in 2018 after seven seasons as a linebacker. "It’s not 100% my story but the bones of it are truly accurate," Paysinger told CBS of the show.
So, how does All American compare to Paysinger's history? In the show, Spencer is recruited to play football at Beverly High School (meant to be Beverly Hills High School). In real life, though, Paysinger's family already had ties to the wealthy California school district. As Paysinger explained to the Sun Sentinel in 2016, Paysinger's father and uncles obtained permits to attend the school back in the '70s and '80s. Then, upon their college graduation, they returned to the district to become football coaches. Eventually, one of Paysinger's uncles, Carter Paysinger, became the athletic director and later principal of Beverly Hills High School. Carter wrote a book about his experiences going from a new student from the other side of the tracks to, decades later, the school's leader.
Given their extensive connections to the district, Paysinger and his brothers were able to attend Beverly Hills High on permit, like their uncles and father had. Paysinger recalls making the arduous trek from South Central to Beverly Hills daily, which required waking up at 4 a.m. and driving to his uncle's house, who was a teacher at the high school. Later, when he got a car, he made the 45 minute drive to high school on his own.
Even harder than the commute, though, was the culture shock. “From K through eighth grades I was in Black and Mexican middle and elementary schools,” Paysinger told the Sun Sentinel. “So going there where kids’ first cars are $100,000 vehicles, it was a complete turn from what I was used to." In an interview with The Daily Beast, Paysinger recalled both the rampant gang violence and the deep family ties in the South Central neighborhood of L.A., located only a few miles from Beverly Hills High School, where he grew up.
Paysinger thrived at Beverly Hills High. "It allowed me to kind of navigate between different diversities and races to where you could put me in a room where I’m the only person that looks like myself and I’ll be completely comfortable," Paysinger told The Sun Sentinel. He became captain of the football team, then played football for the University of Oregon and later for the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and Carolina Panthers.
Still, he knew he wanted to quit football by the age of 30. In a Twitter thread, Paysinger identified the exact moment he knew he wanted to turn his full attention to story-telling. A story idea popped into his head while the coach was going over a game plan. "Unable to hold off till I got home, in my defensive playbook I began writing a script. 25 minutes and 4 pages later, I looked up and my coach had installed 5-7 new defenses. That was the moment I realized my NFL career was over and it was time to give story telling my full attention," Paysinger wrote.
One day in Carolina while installing our game plan for the week, an idea for a short story popped into my head. Unable to hold off till I got home, in my defensive playbook I began writing a script. 25 minutes and 4 pages later, I looked up and my coach had installed 5-7 new...— Spencer Paysinger (@PYSNGR) May 12, 2018
Over the course of two years, Paysinger saw All American transform from an idea to tangible TV show produced by Greg Berlanti. Paysinger serves as a consultant on the show. As Paysinger says, the "bones" of the show align with his life — though there are fictional additions, like Taye Diggs' character, Coach Baker. Like Spencer, Coach Baker went to Crenshaw High School in the rougher part of town. As such, he feels responsible for Spencer's success, setting up a dynamic that will have major repercussions for Spencer, Baker, and his family.
Ultimately, All American takes the fascinating ingredients found in Paysinger's story and renders it into a gripping teen drama — and absolutely worthwhile viewing.