A League of His Own

Mark Ellis helped make the football scenes in Any Given Sunday look realistic.

Looking back, it really wasn't that good. A little sophomoric, a bit hokey. But that wasn't the point, and what do I know about it anyway? My qualifications in that area begin and end with a film class I took in college, and I was drunk for a good number of those. No, I don't know much about the nuances of motion pictures, about good directing or bad acting, special effects, or camera work. Leave all that critiquing crap to Wilonsky. But I do know what I like and usually why I like it, and I certainly liked Major League. Still do.

I didn't realize it then, but I had Mark Ellis to thank. Or someone like Mark Ellis, anyway.

When I was younger, fifth grade or so, my father took me and a buddy to see it--my first sports movie. We went for pizza first, ice cream afterward. What I remember most, though, was the instant escape. That ability to forget, if only for a little while, because it hadn't been a particularly good day for me. Being chunky, awkward, and unsure made for lots of unpleasant days at school.

I suppose my father sensed it, knew his only boy--the sports fanatic long on knowledge but horribly short on skills--needed some cheering, and what better way than a big-screen distraction? Major League remains one of my favorites because it was a great outing with my dad, not because of anything Charlie Sheen did. It hooked me on the sports-flick genre, made me realize something: Sports are supposed to be a diversion, the common man's release. Sometimes, with all the coverage, with all the pundits and no-nothing hacks portraying a Clippers-Celtics game as a struggle for world dominance, we forget that.

Hollywood helps us remember. Hollywood and guys like Mark Ellis.

"There's not a day that goes by," he says sincerely, "that I don't absolutely enjoy my job. I never get up and feel like I'm going to work."

He's a technical adviser/sports coordinator, which is the motion picture equivalent to activities director at the Playboy Mansion--a great gig you'd rob an arthritic 60-year-old to get. Of course, it's not as cushy as all that, not as sexy.

But it's close.

"Look, personally, I'm the guy who flunked finger-painting," says Ellis, a 37-year-old who got into the business a decade ago. By chance. "I can't play a musical instrument, I can't sing or dance. This is my chance to be creative. I get to start with a blank piece of paper and decide what the sports action should look like. Sometimes we have to work 12-, 14-, 16-hour days, but it's great. I'm working in sports, in the movies."

Ellis, who will be in Dallas in upcoming weeks to film The Rookie (the story of Texas native-turned-Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Jim Morris), is a sort of on-set coach and scout. He's worked on most of the big-name sports movies in recent years, helping select talent and choreograph scenes in Any Given Sunday, The Waterboy, and The Replacements, among others. This weekend in Austin, he'll hold a "training camp," an athletic casting call where he'll choose a "team" for The Rookie's on-field drama.

A few years ago, during a similar open audition for Any Given Sunday, more than 1,000 people went out on the first day. Went to Texas Stadium hoping to be one of 25 selected. The plea in press releases was to entice players who had recently played college or semipro ball to try out, guys who knew how to throw and catch and tackle. Guys whose muscles hadn't yet atrophied. Naturally, a sea of 30-somethings showed, too.

"I know exactly what I'm looking for when I pick a team," Ellis says with a laugh, "and that wasn't it. I don't have time to train these guys. They've gotta have skills."

Some of them do. Others, well, others don't have quite the same demands placed upon them. Others have names, and names don't necessarily have to possess that type of talent.He's instructed "players" such as Dennis Quaid, who will fill the lead in The Rookie, and Keanu Reeves and Jamie Foxx. Some, like Quaid, Ellis says, are gifted to begin with. Some have the ability, with a little instruction, to play their role and appear natural. Some don't. That's where Ellis intercedes, bridges the gap between director and actor in often-difficult sports scenes."Mark Ellis is an amazing guy to have around," says director Brian Robbins, who worked with Ellis on the teen football hit Varsity Blues. "Look at the movies he's done and the ones he hasn't. His touch is obvious. There's a big difference. Mark's stuff is real. He goes out and makes guys better. He makes it work when you're not sure it will."

That end-zone sequence in Jerry Maguire, the one where Cuba Gooding Jr. flips onto his head in a kind of twisted, disturbing ballet move? That was Ellis, too, helping smooth it over.

Or at least trying his damndest.

"That particular scene took 27 takes before we got it right," Ellis says, almost cringing. "It was a really tough take to get. There was so much that went into it from the route to the linemen to the receiver flipping on his head. Everything had to be just right, and if a d-lineman got to my quarterback a second too soon, we had to shoot it again.

"What I tell people is, you can't fake football. You've got a bunch of guys who have played in college or the pros or semipro going at it. They're skilled. They know what they're doing. But there's 22 guys out there going at it, and that's difficult to manage. Same thing with baseball. You're telling a guy to hit a round ball with a round bat, and hit it down the third baseline. That's tough. My job is to put them in the right position. A lot of the time, you can't get what you want. You've got to do it over and over again. That's where the difficulties lie, in the repetition. Time is money, right? Well nobody likes waiting around. It can be nerve-wracking.

"But I can say, in all honesty, that I love my job. I get to fly around the country and meet all kinds of people, from directors to actors to athletes. It's a complete adrenaline rush. It's the biggest thrill in the world to be part of a picture, and then to see it up on the big screen and see all the people in the theater really drawn into it."

His "struggle" gives us those scenes, gives us the body of sports movies. Gives us a chance to drift away, too, to engulf ourselves in the type of distraction the real thing can't always provide.

And somewhere, just maybe, it gives a chunky fifth-grader and his dad a smile and a memory.

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