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Alabama man gets acting break in football film opening Friday

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DECATUR, Alabama — Riley Howard said from the time he was a small child growing up in Decatur, he told friends he wanted to be in the movies and on television.

But the 2009 Austin High School graduate, who played football and baseball for the Black Bears, never appeared in school plays or pursued acting in any form until he responded to an online audition for a football film.

"They needed 35 players, and I was one of about 1,500 people who showed up at a high school in Chalmette, Louisiana, to give it a shot," Howard said. "There were about 500 receivers and defensive backs, all of whom had played football in college or in the NFL. I was lucky to be among six or seven from that group selected."

He doesn't have a speaking role, but when the film, "When the Game Stands Tall," opens nationwide Friday, friends should be able to spot Howard in locker room close-ups and getting whacked with "killer hits."

Most importantly, because of such licks, Howard and two other players were permitted to sign stunt contracts and join the Screen Actors Guild. In the movie credits, most of the players are listed as stunt men.

"We had to run some plays as many as 25 or 30 times to get them right, and it was 100 percent real," he said. "During a 12-hour shoot, they usually had six to seven plays they wanted to get, but we usually ran only three or four."

The film stars Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Alexander Ludwig, Laura Dean and Clancy Brown.

The movie, filmed at several high schools in the New Orleans area, traces the journey of legendary football coach Bob Ladouceur. He led the De La Salle High School Spartans in Concord, California, from obscurity to a 151-game winning streak that shattered all records for any American sport. The streak spans the 1992 to 2004 seasons, more than doubling the previous record of 72.

Caviezel portrays Ladouceur, and Dean his wife, Bev. Chiklis stars as assistant coach Terry Eidson. Ludwig appears as a fictional character, but one who depicts what a Spartan player represents on and off the field.

Howard, 23, a wide receiver in football and catcher in baseball, had scholarships in both sports at Lambuth University in Jackson, Tennessee. He left after two years because he knew the school was closing and enrolled at Troy University, where he walked on as a football candidate. He gave up the sport to work at two different jobs in Troy.

It was while at Troy he saw the movie audition on the Internet. He vividly recalls the date he launched the start of a dream he hopes looms larger in the future.

"I went to Chalmette on Monday, April 10, 2013, and interviewed with Allan Graf, an actor, second unit director and stunt coordinator," Howard said. "I drove back to Troy for class and work."

Graf, an offensive guard on the undefeated 1972 national championship Southern Cal team, has worked on numerous films, including "Any Given Sunday," ''Friday Night Lights," ''42," ''We Were Soldiers" and "Jerry McGuire."

Howard returned to Chalmette that Wednesday and did drills and ran, and afterward it was back to Troy. That Friday, he wheeled into Chalmette once more to play 7-on-7 football and do one-on-one drills.

"I kept telling myself over and over during the tryouts, 'I don't want to go home,' " Howard said. "That mindset was a big boost."

At some point, Graf, who picked the players, told Howard he was going to make it.

"They put me up that Friday night in a rented house with some guys from Los Angeles who also made the movie as players," he said. "The next day, I returned to Troy and got my clothes. On Monday, April 17, 2013, they moved us into a downtown New Orleans hotel, and we were there for three months for filming. The rest of April, it was only the football players. But in May and June, we were shooting with the whole cast. I never returned to classes at Troy."

Jeff Hill, 23, who graduated at Austin with Howard, also played receiver in football and outfield on the Black Bear baseball team.

"Riley and I were always in the same drills in football, and at games, we walked out together and warmed up together," he said. "He has always had drive and ambition. When he sets his mind on something, he is going to accomplish it, whatever it is."

Howard said he ate well during the filming "and the money was good," although he refused to say how much he was paid. In "When the Game Stands Tall," Howard is depicted playing for both De La Salle and opposing teams.

For example, he wears a No. 14 jersey for De La Salle, No. 21 jersey for Bellevue High, No. 35 for Amador Valley High, and No. 21 as a defensive back for Clayton Valley Charter High.

"The real coach Bob Ladouceur, now retired, spent about a week with us during the filming to see how things were going," Howard said. "He is soft spoken, but he got his points across. What was interesting about him, he never wore a headset during the games and called all of the plays, signaling them in."

Howard said Graf told him after the movie comes out, he would probably be in line for commercial work and even other movies.

"For sure, after getting a taste of it, I would like to pursue acting, either as a career or at least discover just how far it might take me," Howard said. "I've just got to wait for more opportunities, for people to call me. I think I handled my roles in the movie pretty well, especially considering that I had never done any kind of acting anywhere."

Meanwhile, he is working two jobs, at Sam's Sports Bar & Grill in Decatur and at Kohler in Madison, which produces kitchen and bathroom products.


Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml

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