As a first-time director just out of film school in Los Angeles, Rob Smat knew he needed plenty of teammates to get his Texas football movie to the end zone.
So he returned to his roots, reaching out to alumni and coaches from All Saints Episcopal School in Fort Worth, where he was a lineman for an undefeated state championship team in 2012.
“Once we knew they would be nice enough to let us come back to campus, that’s when the ball started rolling,” Smat said. “We had so much help.”
His low-budget feature debut, The Last Whistle, was shot almost entirely in Fort Worth two years ago, at locations ranging from the iconic Stockyards to restaurants including Tommy’s Hamburgers and Tim Love’s Lonesome Dove Western Bistro.
It takes place in a fictional small Texas town, where a star running back (Fred Tolliver Jr.) collapses and dies at practice due to an undiagnosed heart condition. As teammates and fans mourn, his stubborn coach (Brad Leland) brushes off the incident and prioritizes his team’s winning streak instead, as well as his own chance at a lucrative college job.
“I wanted to make a football film about more than just football,” Smat said. “This is a great entry point for people who aren’t football fans. It seemed like a great hook and a message for the film.”
Smat began his research into the importance of heart screenings for young athletes by talking to nonprofit groups and medical consultants, since he didn’t want to exploit tragedy or turn his film into a horror story for parents and coaches.
“I had seen this happen so many times in so many places. The trajectory of the whole season just plummets after something like that. The story is never different. The cycle repeats, and you forget about it.,” he said. “This is a condition that affects all sports and all territories, and so many times it gets misattributed to the heat and to overworking. At the end of the day, it’s a freak accident.”
Smat grew up in Fort Worth shooting makeshift short films on a video camera. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in the prestigious USC School of Cinematic Arts, where he finished his degree in 2017.
In November 2018, the finished film debuted at the Lone Star Film Festival in Fort Worth. After showing at other festivals, it will debut in theaters and on various online platforms this weekend.
The Last Whistle originated as a pitch to Robert Rodriguez’s “Rebel Without a Crew” reality show, which chronicles young filmmakers facing budgetary and logistical challenges. His concept didn’t make the show, but Smat decided to pursue it anyway.
All Saints became practically a production hub during the abbreviated two-week shooting schedule. Smat’s parents cooked meals for the cast and crew. His younger brothers recruited some of their football teammates to be extras. Others spread the word and called in favors.
Many members of the cast and crew are local, too. That includes Leland, who hadn’t acted in a Texas-based project since wrapping his role as enthusiastic booster Buddy Garrity in the final season of “Friday Night Lights” almost a decade ago.
“After having done seven years of Friday Night Lights, with the film and the TV show, I didn’t think about doing another football movie,” said Leland, a longtime Allen resident. “It was a blessing and a joy to play that coach, and the subject was wonderful, too. Maybe this can help some people.”
Leland’s co-stars include University of Kansas head coach Les Miles, who plays one of the coach’s harshest critics. Miles drew up some plays for the football sequences, offered tips on sideline demeanor, and confirmed that Brad’s big locker-room speech to his team felt authentic.
What Leland remembers most about Miles, however, is a scene set in a bar when the animosity between their characters became especially intense.
“We had this little coming-to-Jesus moment when we were about ready to have a fight. He was just grinning and couldn’t wait to do that. He’s a tough fella. He’s only two years older than I am but I guarantee he could whoop my ass,” Leland said. “We had a great scene where we were fighting because he finally pushed me to my limit — in character, of course. We almost came to blows, and it was a blast.”