This is a story about a sportswriter, and Steven Spielberg, and pee wee football, and how losing your job can be the best thing that ever happens to you. It's all true, although you may not believe it.
Jim and I were a couple of wise guys covering high school sports for different newspapers in the early '80s. I was working for the late, lamented Dallas Times Herald. He was working for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, in Lubbock, Texas. We met at a state track meet and sat around the press box compiling a list of football coach cliches. ("Way to strap the hat on 'im,Bobby Joe.")
Jim was smart and funny, but his career wasn't going anywhere. He had a knack for getting into trouble. Like the time he put rubber cement on a telephone receiver in the office and the managing editor picked it up.
He once wrote that a team was so bad "you couldn't say anything about it that hadn't been written on a bathroom wall." Great line. So great that I stole it a few years later. But his bosses weren't amused by the trouble it caused.
Then, taking rec league softball scores over the phone one night, asked the caller, "So, when's this junk going to be over?" Alas, the caller was the managing editor, who happened to coach one of the teams in the league. Oops.
Anyway, one thing led to another and Jim decided to turn in his typewriter. He realized that his career was going nowhere when he found himself pressing a 10th-grade sprinter to find out why she hadn't come out of the blocks faster.
A former sportswriter doesn't have to flip burgers at McDonalds, though. Jim got a job writing advertising copy.
He fared far better in advertising than he ever did in newspapers. His bosses appreciated his humor. He won awards, took on bigger accounts and moved to Chicago. He won nine Clio Awards, the Oscar of the advertising business. He made commercials about talking crash test dummies and about Michael Jordan and Larry Bird trading trick shots.
Several years ago, McDonald's asked him to make a special two-minute commercial about pee wee football, to be broadcast during the Super Bowl. The commercial was warm and poignant. One hundred million viewers saw it.
The next morning, Jim was on the phone when his secretary handed him a pink phone message slip.
"Call Steven Spielberg," she had written.
Jim's first reaction was, of course, that it was a prank. But the phone number was in California and Jim dialed it and, sure enough, Spielberg wanted to talk to him.
It turned out that a light in Spielberg's head had lit when he saw the McDonald's commercial.
"I want that commercial made into a movie," Spielberg told Jim. "I want my 'Home Alone.' "
Jim and his partner flew out to California to meet with Spielberg, who gave them a book about how to write a screenplay. They churned out a story about two brothers who coach against each other in a pee wee game in a small town in the Midwest. Jim called me for a refresher course on some of the coaching cliches we had memorized years earlier.
Spielberg approved the screenplay and it went into the Hollywood mill of re-writers and associate producers. Ultimately, the movie went into production with Rick Moranis and Ed O'Neill as the stars. It was named "Little Giants."
Jim called me last week. His movie was opening over the weekend in 2,200 theaters across the country.
We hadn't spoken in awhile. "How's the advertising biz going?" I asked.
"Aw, I'm out of that now," he said. "I quit at the beginning of the year. I'm just writing screenplays now."
He and his partner work out of a small, spartan office outside of Chicago. They have written two more screenplays that are going to become movies. One is a Disney production.
"If you write about me," Jim said, "you can make up any quotes you want."
Once a sportswriter, always a sportswriter.
I snuck out of work one day this week to go see his movie. There were only four other people in the theater for the matinee. (It has done well nationally, ranked among the top grossers in its first week.) After what seemed to be 22 previews for kid movies starring Macauley Culkin, Jim's began. The opening credits appeared on the screen. Title. Stars. Producers. Directors.
And then there it was: the names of four screenwriters, with James Ferguson at the top.
I couldn't help thinking: what a feeling that must be.
I also couldn't help thinking: if the editors of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal had thought Jim was half as funny as everyone else does now, he might still be doing what I'm doing for a living -- writing about strikes and lockouts -- and this movie never would have been made.
The movie was a warm story set along the "Bad News Bears" axis, with the rejects beating the studs in The Big Game. O'Neill does a nice Mike Ditka imitation. My favorite coaching cliches didn't make it, but that was fine. There was a bounce in my step as I left the theater. A press box brother had scored one for all of us. Toy department, phooey. Why, this was almost as big as the time Nixon said he had wanted to be a sportswriter all along.