The Former NFL Player Who Inspired The CW’s First Drama About Race
The new series ‘All American’ is inspired by the story of NFL star Spencer Paysinger, who attended posh Beverly Hills High School while living with his family in South Central.
There are seconds left in the fourth quarter and the score is tied. South Crenshaw High School superstar Spencer James convinces the quarterback to call an audible. The brazen, perceptive decision pays off. The quarterback passes to Spencer, who jukes all the way to the end zone—and victory. The crowd erupts. The players celebrate. And a series of gunshots go off. Everyone hits the ground in a panic—a routine instinct, but still panic—as the car drives by firing off its rounds.
It’s the opening scene to The CW’s new high school drama All American, which is inspired by retired NFL player Spencer Paysinger’s own life growing up in South Central, Los Angeles, before straddling two worlds while attending Beverly Hills High School and eventually making his way to the pros and even a Super Bowl ring.
Paysinger knows that routine panic well.
When he was 11 years old, his baseball team was celebrating its win at Van Ness Park, the same one depicted in All American. The kids were on a high. Parents in the stands were cheering. Team moms started passing out candy and snacks. And then gunshots rang out. Paysinger’s mother made sure everyone was safe, then started walking him home. They turned left out of the park and stumbled on a dead body in the street.
“It’s crazy, but you go home and you have dinner and you go to bed, because at the time that was just like growing up back then,” Paysinger says. “I’ve seen dead bodies. I’ve witnessed drive-bys. I’ve been in places that have been robbed. I’ve been in cars that have been shot at. I’ve been fortunate not to get touched by any of it. At that time it was my normal.”
What a person’s “normal” means, and how the rest of the world tends to perceive, judge, or diminish it, is at the heart of All American—and Paysinger’s story.
There are three worlds here that each provide tried-and-true Hollywood source material, but are too often reduced to stereotypes: the hokey Americana of high school football, the wealth and privilege of Beverly Hills, and the perceived squalor of South Central. All American attempts to rebuild those worlds and take down the walls between them, with shades of reality inspired by Paysinger’s own experience.
All American is the first out-and-out high school drama series in five years from the high-concept-happy CW network, a refreshing return to the brand’s Dawson’s Creek and Everwood days. “I don’t have any fangs!” the show’s creator, April Blair laughs. “No witches! No superhero capes.”
It also happens to be only the second series in the CW’s history, including the WB’s before it, to feature a black lead, after Black Lightning earlier this year, and the first to directly tackle real-world issues of race and class. For Paysinger, who serves as executive consultant, it was the ticket out of the NFL he had been looking for.
In the series, Spencer James is recruited to Beverly Hills High and sent there by his parents because it means a brighter future. In real life, Paysinger took part in a program that had been in place at the school since 1969, in which students from outside neighborhoods can apply for permit status. Over 1,000 students have gone through the program and maintain a 90 percent graduation rate.
Paysinger and I are actually taking in Beverly Hills, less than a mile from where he went to high school and less than 20 minutes from where he grew up. The 30-year-old has a clear-eyed, full-hearted (heh) recollection of that complicated time in his life, especially after having spent much of the last two years, including his final NFL season, developing that story into a possible series with TV super-producer Greg Berlanti.
“Even in the 7th or 8th grade when we had to think about where we were going, I was always deemed the Oreo, the kid who was going to forget about everybody, who was going to be better than everybody because I’m not sticking with my friends,” he says. “I lost a lot of friends during that phase, but I think it was one of the best decisions my parents ever made for me.”
After graduating from Beverly Hills, Paysinger went on to play college football at the University of Oregon. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the New York Giants in 2011, playing four seasons with them, including as part of the Super Bowl XLVI-winning team, before going on to play with the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and Carolina Panthers for a total of seven seasons in the NFL.
Of all the connections he made in the league, he was particularly rattled by the fate of his friend, Tyler Sash, a fellow Giant who was found dead in 2015 from an accidental prescription pill overdose. It was later revealed that Sash had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that plagues athletes who sustain repeated head trauma.
Sash’s mother tearfully begged Paysinger to leave the sport. At the end of last season, when it looked like All American was a solid bet to head to series, he returned from his final game and told his wife that was a wrap on his football career, saying, “Anytime I don’t have to hit anybody, I’m all for it.”
At first glance, showrunner April Blair might seem an ill-suited quarterback for Berlanti to spike Paysinger’s story to. “The extent of what I know about real football is how to make buffalo dip on Super Bowl Sunday,” she tells me, laughing the same way she might if she learned how much Googling it required to write that labored quarterback-spike sentence. Her TV writing background is in female-driven teen-targeted shows like Jane By Design, Hart of Dixie, and Reign, and her big break came after penning the teleplay for the Disney Channel musical Lemonade Mouth.
Her staff jokes about her “Valley Girl version” of scripting All American’s game day scenes: “I’m like, ‘OK, so Spencer comes into the huddle and they tell him to do one thing and he’s like, no, I’m going to do the other thing!’” But she has Game Changing Films, and of course Paysinger, there to translate and stage it.
She breaks it down in terms I can understand: musical theater. It’s like when she was writing Lemonade Mouth, she says, and was told to never stop the story to do a song. She approaches football like that. Every play has to move character forward.
“I understand that if you stand Spencer and I next to each other—middle-aged white lady writer, handsome and strapping 30-year-old football player—we seem incredibly different, but the more he and I talked the more we realized how much we had in common from a heart level,” she says.
When Berlanti approached her with a series of intellectual properties for her to consider working on with him, she specifically chose Paysinger’s story. “I grew up very poor and had a single mom who was a waitress, and we were on food stamps,” she says. “And still I had this idea of something that I wanted to do that seemed very out of reach.”
For a show that aims to thwart clichés about certain communities, it’s almost inexcusable to then reduce its mission down to somewhat of a cliché itself: that at the heart of everything, we’re all the same. But that’s truly what the show sets out to do. That directive came from Paysinger himself. Early on in meetings, he told Berlanti, “Beverly Hills didn’t save me from anything. It exposed me to a whole new world of problems I didn’t know existed.”
Growing up in South Central, he dealt with gangs, violence, drugs, and poverty. He has friends from middle school that dove head-first into gang life. He can name at least five of them who were killed because of it. But there’s more to South Central than that.
“There’s a rich family culture in South Central,” he says. “The block that I grew up on all the kids were best friends. They hung out at each other’s houses. I can knock on the person’s house two doors down and grab some food and just hang out or go into the backyard and play basketball when they’re not there.”
His family has deep roots at Van Ness Park, where that aforementioned shooting took place. He was there nearly every weekend playing sports from the time he was about three years old. His grandfather used to coach his father in football there. His father coached football there. His mother was on the park’s committee, instrumental in getting the recreational center and the running track that now exist at the park built. He grew up in a loving, two-parent household.
For Blair, it was important to make sure that even the set design of his family’s home was warm and welcoming, not dilapidated or bleak as homes from his neighborhood are typically depicted in entertainment. That warmth reflects what Paysinger’s home really was like.
When Paysinger got to Beverly Hills High, he saw the rich kids there who had drug addictions, who at age 15 had already been through rehab for cocaine or heroin. He saw how their parents would leave them for months at a time to travel the world, and he felt for them. He learned that “even if you’re born with a silver spoon in your mouth, you’re still just going through the same shit that every person goes through at this age.”
Given the many lives he’s seemed to have lived and the different worlds he’s been forced to straddle, we wonder where Paysinger lives now. Turns out, it’s right where home has always been: in Windsor Hills. just two miles away from that childhood park. “You can go down one street and hit my old home, which my dad still lives in, that park, and my new house,” he says. “I’m still right there. Always.”
All American premieres Wednesday, Oct. 10 at 9 pm ET on the CW.