In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Kurt Warner, played by Zachary Levi, meets with Vermeil, portrayed by Dennis Quaid, and is named the starting quarterback of the 1999 St. Louis Rams.
Quaid delivers the line, “There’s something special about you, son, and I can’t wait to find out what it is.”
“It’s pretty accurate,” Vermeil told the Deseret News. “They said it a little more elaborately in the movie, but that’s exactly what I said. … I figured if the Rams took a hell of a chance on me, why can’t I take a hell of chance on a young quarterback that is trying to be something he was never given the opportunity to be? It worked out great for both of us.”
“American Underdog” is the inspirational true story of Kurt Warner, who went from stocking grocery store shelves to winning a Super Bowl, twice being named NFL MVP and landing in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Amid years of setbacks and challenges, Warner was encouraged to keep going by his wife, Brenda (played by Anna Paquin) and their family.
The film, which opened in theaters on Christmas Day, will be available for digital streaming on Feb. 4 and DVD on Feb. 22.
Vermeil coached at UCLA in the mid 1970s before going on to successful stints as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs.
This isn’t the first time Vermeil has been portrayed in a movie. He was also featured as the coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2006 film, “Invincible,” with Mark Wahlberg as Vince Papale, another underdog player who tries out and makes the team. A younger version of Vermeil was played by Greg Kinnear on that occasion.
Quaid was the right fit for this older version of Vermeil, said Kevin Downes, a producer for “American Underdog.”
“When Dennis found out we were doing this movie, he said ‘I want in. You have to get me in,’” Downes said. “Dennis brought some great moments to that (Warner-Vermeil) scene that were very authentic. You could really tell that from the moment he saw Kurt, he was really rooting for this underdog to perform at a level that nobody was expecting. I think it’s one of the things that makes the story so compelling.”
Vermeil and Downes both spoke with the Deseret News recently about “American Underdog,” which has earned nearly $25 million worldwide since its Dec. 25 release, according to Boxofficemojo.com. While Vermeil discusses his memories and relationship with Warner, Downes explains some of the dynamics of making a real-life story into a film.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Did you ever think the Los Angeles Rams would reach the Super Bowl during the same season as the release of “American Underdog”?
Dick Vermeil: Well, I’m pleased. There’s a great correlation in how both teams succeeded. Kurt Warner, with his persistence, toughness and drive, and Los Angeles Rams doing that all through this season as well. It’s a nice correlation. They are both wonderful stories. I’m excited about both of them being successful.
Kevin Downes: How about that? The Rams are in the Super Bowl. We could not have planned that any better. The Rams might want a movie every year for that.
DN: What do you find most remarkable about Kurt Warner’s story?
DV: I think his underlying persistence and belief in himself, and never giving up. It’s a great symbol for all of us to carry within our profile if we can. I think people will enjoy that part of the story as much as they will the football segments. It’s more a life story, a good example of what you can do if you really believe in yourself, have a great work ethic and just won’t quit, won’t take no for an answer. And when you get an opportunity, go ahead and take advantage of it. He did everything he possibly could. When he finally got a good opportunity, he was ready to take advantage of it.
DN: What challenges do you face when making a true-life story into a film?
KD: There are tons of challenges. With “American Underdog,” as is the case with all biopics I’ve done with the Erwin brothers (Andrew and Jon), our goal is to make it as accurate as possible and make sure the people portrayed in the film are happy with it. With this one, Kurt and Brenda Warner were very involved throughout most of the process, script creation, on the set, as the cut came in. We wanted them to be happy with the story because it’s their story. A film is forever, and at the end of the day, they were happy, which was really important for us.
There’s something really gratifying about that because you get to see some of the extraordinary pieces of their journey played out on film. For a producer like me, you put all the pieces together and end up seeing the film 200 or 300 times. I saw it last week with my dad and still teared up in many places as I did my first time.
So we’re proud of it. We’re proud of the team for what they did and proud of Kurt and Brenda for being so transparent with us to allow us to tell their story and put it on the screen.
DN: What was your impression of “American Underdog” when you first saw it?
DV: I enjoyed it. I saw it three times. I hosted a private viewing in California, in Ohio at the Hall of Fame in Canton, and in downtown Philadelphia. Each time I saw it, I liked it better because I better understood it and the purpose of the movie. It’s such a great story. I don’t think you have to be a football fan to enjoy it. It’s the kind of movie that you can take your kids and grandkids to see. It’s the kind of movie a 20-year-old will make tears in, a movie that an 80-year-old will enjoy. It covers a lot of bases. There’s a lot of depth to the story other than football.
DN: You loved all your players. What is special or unique about your relationship with Kurt Warner?
DV: I think the great admiration and respect I had for him was how long it took him to gain his opportunity and then how well prepared he was to take advantage of it. And then what kind of person he is as a man — not as a football player, as a man. I enjoyed watching him for two years (they left the first year when he was with the St. Louis Rams out due to time limitations). It’s only his second year, the Super Bowl year, that is highlighted in the movie. But getting to know a person with tremendous drive, character and compassion, passion for a game and compassion for people. Integrity. I saw all those qualities in him. I admire those qualities in people I get to know.
KD: There was this genuine love, almost like a father-son kind of bond where coach Vermeil really took Kurt under his wing. I love the scene where assistant coach Mike Martz challenges Kurt, and Kurt says “Look, I wasn’t ready before when I had my opportunity in the NFL, but I am ready now.” Coach Vermeil saw that Kurt was ready for it.
DN: Did you ever have any doubts about Kurt Warner as the 1999 season went on?
DV: I had absolutely no doubts. After five games into the season, I thought we could win it all. I really did. I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a big game, playoffs, more prepared to win in the attitude that we are the best team and we will win. Never in my career.
DN: How often do you talk to Kurt Warner now? What is your relationship with him like years after football?
DV: Needless to say, we stay close, mostly through text message and email because he lives in Arizona. I live in Pennsylvania. He’s working every Sunday and I’m loafing.
DN: Even thought it’s a true story, what artistic liberties did you take to help tell the story on the big screen?
KD: There’s always going to be some artistic liberties. In Kurt’s real story, he had a season over in NFL Europe that we decided to cut. It didn’t make sense to add another layer to that. We had a timeline that is over five years that we had to condense into an hour and a half movie. So there were certain liberties we took, with Kurt and Brenda’s blessing. All the choices were great, really driving to that third act, the climax of the film, his first game and the Super Bowl.
DN: What lessons do you hope audiences will learn from Kurt Warner’s story?
DV: Believe in yourself. Don’t give up. Persevere. Take an honest approach in everything you do. Ethics, always high standards and just keep giving all you’ve got to give.
DN: What are your thoughts on the Super Bowl matchup between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals?
DV: I think it will be a good football game. Both teams got there the hard way. They have gone through highs and lows during the season come out on top. I think it will be very, very tough for Cincinnati to beat the Rams at home in their own stadium. But you know, they beat the Chiefs, so you can never sell the Bengals short. I think it’s going to be a toss-up game. Whoever doesn’t turn the ball over, get the stupid penalty and plays the game smart will win.