'From Elway to Marino'
ESPN’s 30 for 30 series returns from a short hiatus with From Elway to Marino – a nice, informational doc, but its only service is to fill in the blanks on a story most had heard before.
This is basically a documentary sized version of ESPN’s old feature “Did You Know?” You know John Elway didn’t want to play for the Colts, but did you know Elway got paid $150,000 to play six weeks of Yankees baseball? Didn’t think so. You know Jim Kelly played for the Bills, but did you know he hates Buffalo so much that he’d rather live in Houston, God’s humid armpit? Seriously, he hates Buffalo. You know Al Davis was crazy in the 2000s, but did you know he was always pretty crazy? Oh, you did? Nevermind then.
What makes a great documentary click is an added element of emotion. That was sorely missing from this film. While it was somewhat fascinating to hear about the drama that went on behind the scenes of the 1983 draft, in no way did I experience any feelings that would turn this film from a history lesson into a thought-provoking story.
Take the 30 for 30 released before this one as an example: Survive and Advance, a documentary I failed to review but loved to no end. NC State’s title run was a story every sports fan knew about to some degree, but the emotional stakes were heightened with every clip of Jimmy Valvano and his fight against cancer. In the end, the story wasn’t even about NC State winning the championship, comeback after comeback. It was about Jimmy V and his will to win. Things got a little dusty in my house after that film.
The problem might have been the subjects of the film. While we were introduced to a few main characters, none of them really stuck. First is our guide, Marvin Demoff, agent to John Elway and Dan Marino. We’re already off to a bad start because he’s a sports agent, someone we’ve been trained to hate. That is, until some Scientologist sent out a memo. So the question is, would this guy be more Jerry Maguire, Bob Sugar, or Dicky Fox? What kind of compelling character would he be?
How about not compelling at all? He was simply a friendlier, more harmless version of Ron Paul. Other than a funny quip here and there – which I’m sure he’s told at cocktail parties a million times so that it’s almost second nature for him to say it in front of a camera – I was in a sedated state every time he came on screen. I will give him credit though: He sure does a great job of reading his own handwriting. Kudos!
Unfortunately the other main characters in this narrative weren’t too interesting either. Both Elway and Marino have spent years in front of the camera, not just during their playing days, but also beyond their playing careers in a studio or front-office position. Elway can make you forget that he hates God’s favorite player, and you’ve probably already forgotten that Marino is a horrible human being.
On the other hand, subjects from past 30 for 30’s like Bernie Kosar, Andre Rison (Broke) and Bo Jackson (You Don’t Know Bo) were fascinating because most of them had been away from the camera for so long. Or, like Ricky Williams (Run Ricky Run), they were never good in front of them to begin with. They didn’t have as much experience hiding their raw emotions.
Unfortunately, Elway and Marino are the gold standard for this feat. What we’re left with is a vanilla set of characters. Even when we get hints of emotion from them, it’s relayed by a third party. Why are we listening to a Pittsburgh Steelers broadcaster talking about how Marino handled the Dan O’Brien pick? Just give me Marino telling the story. Having him simply say “No offense to Dan O’Brien” was not enough for me.
Combing over Twitter, it appears I’m in the minority about this doc, but I simply can’t approve something so favorably just because it gave me a bunch of possible scenarios that never happened 30 years ago.
A few other notes:
- Jerry Maguire Tangent No. 1: Was Jerry O’Connell’s character, Matt Cushman, who demanded Denver draft him named after Baltimore Colts head coach Frank Kush? Extreme jump to conclusion? Sometimes I wonder what the point of the Internet is if I can’t get answers to questions like this. I’m getting extreme Cushlash as a result.
- Jerry Maguire Tangent No. 2: With the mention of Maguire earlier, it’s fun to point out the other agent in this film, Leigh Steinberg making a quick cameo, was the inspiration for the famous Tom Cruise character. Steinberg, naturally, was Eason and O’Brien’s agent. Neither guy ever put up Rod Tidwell numbers.
- Speaking of which, was I the only one who was more excited to see Tony Eason, Todd Blackledge, and Dan O’Brien talk than the trio of Hall of Famers? Which poses an interesting proposition: If ESPN’s next 30 for 30 is either a documentary of Elway/Marino/Kelly’s last 30 years or Eason/Blackledge/O’Brien’s last 30 years, how are you not watching the latter? I spent so much time dissecting Blackledge’s bookshelf and O’Brien's furniture during their interviews that I still don’t know how successful they are post-football. I need more answers.
- Former Texas Tech Red Raider Gabriel Rivera. Ugh. Again, it’s the story you have no idea about that gets you. The 15 seconds of Rivera’s monologue before finally showing him in present day was a tense moment for me. I was ready for anything: legs amputed, complete paralyzation from the neck down, anything. It was the most heartbreaking part of the documentary by a landslide, and it was about a guy most people in their 20s had never known. In the world of what-ifs, “What could have been” will always beat “What almost was.”