Why This Matters: Aiming for authenticity, new football drama All American has an NFL alumnus in the writers’ room.
Every show aims to be as authentic as possible in this age of increasingly discerning viewers, and All American, a drama on The CW about a high-school football star, is doing so with a former NFL player in its writers’ room. The series premieres Oct. 10, and helping call the shots for main character Spencer James is linebacker/writer Jon Alston. After five seasons in the NFL, Alston is now a staff writer for All American.
“Football, I could do,” Alston said of his two careers. “I believe I was born to do this.”
The show centers on James, played by Daniel Ezra, a high school football standout and an A student at South Crenshaw High in Los Angeles. He is recruited to join the team at Beverly Hills High, a far cry from his downtrodden home in South Central.
James is based on the life of Spencer Paysinger, who played for the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets and Carolina Panthers between 2011 and 2017.
Warner Bros. Television and CBS Television Studios produce the show, in association with Berlanti Productions. Greg Berlanti and Sarah Schechter executive produce, along with Nkechi Carroll. April Blair was showrunner until she departed last week, citing personal reasons, with Carroll stepping into that role.
Paysinger discussed the two worlds he grew up in at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour. Of Beverly Hills, he said, “Dealing with kids with affluence, kids with drug problems and having their parents not be there for weeks on end because they’re vacationing or they’re doing big business — just dealing with that contrast was probably the biggest thing that I had to go through.”
While Paysinger grew up in South Central and shifted to Beverly Hills High, Alston was raised in Louisiana. His mother was imprisoned when he was 10. He attended elite Loyola College Prep in Shreveport, La., and was motivated by every racial and classrelated slur he incurred at the school.
Alston earned a full scholarship to Stanford University, where he obtained his bachelors in film and media studies and captained the football team.
The NFL followed. Alston was a third-round draft pick in 2006. He played for the St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and retired in 2011. His football highlights include running out onto the field in front of Oakland’s notorious “Black Hole” section of hard-core fans, and a fake punt that saw the ball snapped to him, which Alston converted into a 17-yard run and a first down. “I always thought I could’ve been a running back,” he said.
A series of concussions motivated Alston to depart the NFL. “I had to go,” he said. “Sometimes you know when it’s time.”
Football to Film
Alston quickly set out to make his name in film and television. He attended film school at USC, and worked on feature projects with Tracy Oliver Productions. He was a development assistant on First Wives Club and directed the film Red Butterfly. He likened studying dailies to watching game film in his prior life. “We analyze it, break it down,” Alston said. “Like I did in football.”
When Alston heard about the Paysinger football project, he sent a letter to then-showrunner Blair, making a convincing case that his life story mirrored Paysinger’s. He wrote of his high-school experience at Loyola College Prep: “I was an outsider. I was black and on scholarship because my family was poor. Worse, I was the new kid and my peers never hesitated to let me know that I didn’t belong. In order to survive, I knew that I had to be the best. I needed to find a way to stand out and make people respect me. And that’s when I discovered football.”
Alston told Blair the pilot script suggested All American was “uniquely suited” for him. “I know this world, I understand this world, I love this world,” he wrote.
He got the job.
Showrunner Carroll calls Alston “an incredible advantage” for All American.
“Not only is he gifted with storytelling, but he also helps us shape the football so that it’s telling the best version of the story,” she said.
Alston said the camaraderie of the writers’ room is similar to what he knew back in football. “The director calls the plays, and we go out and execute,” Alston said. “I freakin’ love it.”