When Neil Hayes was a sports reporter at the Contra Costa Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., the high school football team he covered didn’t lose.
The De La Salle Spartans won games. Hayes went on to cover the Oakland Raiders. He was a sports columnist and an editor, and the Spartans continued to win. They won, and they won some more, and before long these high school games were showing up on national television.
The team won 151 consecutive games from 1992 to 2004 — the greatest streak in football history.
A decade into the streak, Hayes met with Coach Bob Ladouceur, who launched the dynasty at age 23 with no teaching or head coaching experience. The coach let Hayes into the locker room and gave him insider access to his coaching techniques and to key individual players.
He spent more than a year with the team, and from that experience came a book — “When the Game Stands Tall: The Story of the De La Salle Spartans and Football’s Longest Winning Streak.”
Hayes, a Rochelle native who now hangs his hat in Naperville, came back to Illinois in 2006 and worked as a sports columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Now, a movie is coming out Aug. 22 based on his book and the time he spent with the team during the daunting 2002 season.
Local audiences can get a sneak peek at the film and meet the author when Anderson’s Bookshop and Hollywood Palms Cinemas team up to present the film “When the Game Stands Tall” at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 20 at Hollywood Palms in Naperville.
Hayes will introduce the film, sign autographs and answer questions about the book. Film preview and book event tickets are required and available from Anderson’s.
Hayes served as an associate producer and an on-set consultant during the filming of “When the Game Stands Tall,” which stars Jim Caviezel, Michael Chiklis, Laura Dern and Alexander Ludwig. Former professional and college players were used as the players.
“The more time I spent there, the more time I saw how Bob and Terry operated, and my instincts kind of screamed that this was such an incredible story,” he said. “I’d never really come across anyone who approached the game they way they approached it. I was fascinated.”
He spent the summer of 2002 “pestering” Ladouceur for access. He wanted to answer the question — how on earth do you win 151 straight games?
“He said the only way to answer that question was to show up every day for a year,” Hayes said. So he did, and in doing so, became part of the inner circle after awhile.
“The program, as successful as it was, was also very controversial. So I think there was also a desire on their part to help people understand what they were trying to do,” he said.
The book’s title sprang organically from a conversation with Ladouceur.
“He talked about how the game doesn’t stand tall on its own,” he said. “He wasn’t attracted to the violence or the barbarism of it. He just likes to use it as a tool to get kids work together and help each other and love each other. Without that, the game doesn’t stand tall.”
The coach empowered the kids. He made the players hold themselves accountable. He was more concerned with creating responsible young men than winning games.
“He used the game as an example of how to live your life and how to grow up and become someone to be depended on,” he said.
The book was published by a small publishing house in 2003. Then Hayes wrote the script for ESPN’s “151: The Greatest Streak,” a documentary inspired by the book.
David Zelon, a producer and executive vice president with Mandalay Entertainment Group, was helping his son’s high school football team in Santa Monica by cleaning out an office when he came across a copy of the book.
“He called me immediately and wanted to tell the story,” he said. “That was back in ’09. But it literally wasn’t until we got down to New Orleans (where the movie was shot) in April 2013 and saw the cameras … that you realize that this is actually going to happen.”
Like life, there is tragedy in the book. Ladouceur suffered a heart attack, and player Terrance Kelly, a star linebacker bound for the University of Oregon, was shot and killed in Richmond. (His image pops up several times during the closing credits.)
Hayes is looking forward to the Hollywood Palms event, and excited his friends and family gets to see the movie before it hits theaters.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet. People ask me what’s it like, and I don’t even know what to say,” he said. “It’s all very unreal and very surreal and I feel like I’m on a roller coaster and we’re creeping towards the apex and the bottom’s about to drop out and I’m not sure where I’m going to land.”
Neil Hayes: “When The Game Stands Tall”
Hollywood Palms, 352 S. Route 59, Naperville