"Last Chance U" director on Coach Beam's "Yoda-like" wisdom & the Oakland team's sacrifices

The fifth and final season of the Netflix series on football goes deep on mental health stigma in student athletics

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published July 28, 2020 4:54PM (EDT)

Rejzohn Wright in episode 5 of LAST CHANCE U (Netflix)
Rejzohn Wright in episode 5 of LAST CHANCE U (Netflix)

"Last Chance U," the Netflix docuseries that takes an in-depth look at the challenges and victories of junior college (or JUCO) football players both on and off the field, has returned for a fifth and final season. 

Past seasons have gone inside programs at small schools in Scooba, Mississippi, and Independence, Kansas. But this season, creator and director Greg Whiteley — who also created and produced the fan-favorite series "Cheer" — introduces viewers to the football program at Laney College in Oakland, California. Playing in the rapidly gentrifying city presents unique challenges for the players, none of whom have on-campus housing or meal plans. 

To compensate, many work minimum wage jobs and live hours away from the practice field (or in their cars) to make ends meet in pursuit of their dreams — a stark contrast to day-to-day lives of student athletes who play for Division I schools. 

"I can tell you, having done this show for five years, I think that there is a sacrifice that is being made by student athletes that is both inspiring and heartbreaking," Whiteley told Salon. 

He spoke with Salon about the emphasis on mental health stigma in the new season, Coach John Beam's "Yoda-like" wisdom, and what's coming next for the "Last Chance U" franchise. 

One of the things that I appreciate about "Last Chance U" — and then we saw this in "Cheer," as well — is that you present the cities where these college programs are located as characters. As you set up in the series, Oakland is already something of a character in our culture, but could you talk some about the practical or real-life ways being in Oakland, with the ongoing gentrification, affects the players? 

So, according to the rules of the state of California, which, you know, Laney is a junior college football team that is part of the California JUCO system, they can't provide any benefits to a student athlete that isn't also available to non-student athletes. So if you're just a student that isn't playing a sport, you would receive any benefit that would be given to a football player or a basketball player, et cetera. 

So that means that all of the players we were filming — and this is the first time we've done this in five years — none of them had student housing. They weren't living in dorms and they didn't have any kind of a meal plan that was provided by the team. In previous years, practice would end and we would follow players back to their dorms, right? And we'd spend a lot of time there just filming them interacting with each other, doing what they do during off-football hours. At Laney, we spent a lot of time driving to where they live. 

And you hit upon it in your question. One of the other issues that was unique to this season was, because of the recent gentrification and development of the city of Oakland, a lot of the players, if not all the players that we were filming, could not afford to live near campus. So we were filming them taking the BART, borrowing a car, carpooling, driving an hour and a half or two hours to get to practice and get to school — and then an hour and a half or two hours getting home at night. While that was a unique challenge for us logistically, it was also something we were anxious to document as we'd never filmed the players having to make that kind of sacrifice before. 

I had read an interview wherein you talked about the levels of access you had to the coaches in the past seasons of "Last Chance U." And you said of Coach Jason Brown from Independence Community College. "There was never a time in which I asked if we could film and he said no." I was curious how John Beam compared with regards to level of access? How open was he to being filmed? 

He was the same. I can't remember a single time in which he asked us not to film.

Oh, that's great. Speaking of Independence Community College, that was a school where, when we're introduced to the program, there weren't a lot of expectations. Laney, however, was the No. 1 ranked junior college team in the country the year before you started filming. Did that impact what kind of stories you wanted to explore coming into this season? 

Well, with junior college, you lose all, or a lot, of your players every year. If you were the team that was one of the top teams in the nation last year, it doesn't mean you're going to be the top team in the nation this year. So, it really didn't have much relevance with which players we would follow, which stories we would do. Every year that we've done this, it's like you take a dry erase marker and you just sort of start from scratch — at least from a wins and losses perspective. 

Sure, that makes sense. There was this quote that John Beam had in the second or third episode, "Let's find the hard way to win until we can find the easy way to win." I feel like that kind of became a guiding principle for the season. Do you think that quote is indicative of who he is as a coach? 

I'm so glad that you highlighted that quote. I think you're exactly right. That probably belongs on a poster. 

It totally does. I feel like I need to stick it above my desktop. 

Well, and it takes you awhile to think about, what does he mean by that? I think Coach Beam has been around long enough and he's been coaching young men long enough that he recognizes the right buttons to push. He knows when to apply the gas pedal and when to maybe apply the brake. And I think Coach Buddy Stevens [from Season 1 and 2] and Jason Brown [from Season 3 and 4], they each had their strengths and weaknesses as coaches. But one of the differences with Coach Beam is just his experience. We filmed him in his 40th year of coaching and for somebody that's been doing it for long, he has a remarkable degree of energy. I think there's also a wily caginess to him — but I think it's been born out of experience.

He's just full of Yoda-like wisdom, just like that quote, that we saw him apply to kids week in and week out when we were filming. 

Speaking of his interactions with the kids, there are a lot of complex relationships highlighted in this season, but RJ and Coach Beam's relationship was really interesting to me. I feel like there was this mutual desire for respect, but there was also a lot of palpable tension between them. What did you make of that tension? 

I never figured that one out. I asked both of them, what was up, and I'm not sure I ever got a satisfactory answer from either of them, but I noticed the same thing; it was impossible not to. It's a head-scratcher to me. I don't understand it. 

That's interesting. Something else that really struck me this season was a thread throughout the third episode. It starts with Nu'u and Carlissa Harris, a social worker who works with the players. And she mentions therapy, and he responds, "Therapy, I never thought it was something real." And then we hear from additional figures on the team — from Coach Beam to Dior — about mental health and therapy. Did you go into this season intentionally wanting to examine mental health stigma in sports? 

No, it just sort of presented itself and it was interesting. Coach Beam's wife is a therapist, and so for Coach Beam, it's a topic and a resource for him that he calls upon a lot. There's a great scene in Season 5 in which one of our main players starts to have an anxiety attack. It's perfectly understandable because he is living under a lot of pressure, and Coach Beam uses some techniques that his wife has given him and even, in one instance, puts the player on the phone with his wife just so she could offer some sort of comfort. 

It's something we've never really explored quite in that way. I wonder if it is partly because in California, they're probably more open to those kinds of resources in a way that in other parts of the country they might be reticent. You know, I think in Seasons 1 and 2, Brittany Wagner was kind of that person for a lot of the players we were filming. And I think in Seasons 3 and 4, Jason Brown was trying to be — other teachers were trying their hands at it, as well.

But it's a volatile age, and so I think someone's mental health is always part of the subtext. But you're right, it came up a lot in Season 5, and it's not something we would have anticipated. 

I really appreciated it. And something else that I appreciated as well is there is this scene where Nu'u is in Coach Beam's office and the question comes up whether he's afraid to leave Oakland if he ends up being recruited by a bigger, Division I program. Like his wife and kids and their entire support system is in Oakland, and it would mean totally starting over — and you kind of see his performance on the field flagging. Was this something you came across a lot while filming this series? 

You know, it's funny, LaTonya Pinkard brings that up in Season 3 with a couple of players that she believes were self-sabotaging. They were right on the verge of some really great success that they have been waiting their whole lives for, and they were making some very curious decisions given all that they had at stake. And she wondered, and we wondered as a film crew, if that's what was happening. 

I'm not a trained psychologist. So I'm just guessing. But Nu'u was interesting because there were plays that he would look All-World, and there were other times where he looked visibly distracted. I wouldn't ever say uninterested, just less focused, less intense. There could be a lot of reasons for that, absolutely. I wish I knew more about the field so I could answer more intelligently, but it was just super interesting. 

Another choice that I really liked in this season is that midway through, we're introduced to Laney's rival team in San Francisco, and there's this great segment where we pull back for a moment and everyone — from players to coaches to school faculty — gives their take on San Francisco versus Oakland as cities. Why was this something you wanted to explore as fully as you did? 

I did it because it felt so important to the players and the coaches. You know, if you're not from Northern California, those two cities are almost indistinguishable. You're just like, "It's Northern California. I don't understand." 

But if you're from that area, being from the town versus the city is a big deal. It means something to everybody that lives there. So, I think it's just part of our job as storytellers and documentarians to try to capture the character of that city, and this helped us to illustrate that. What is Oakland? In many ways, it's what is not San Francisco. I think San Francisco would say the same thing. 

Also, it was just a fun topic. Those two schools, the rivalry that those two cities have — and we just happened to get there when the Golden State Warriors had just uprooted to move from Oakland to San Francisco. And, of course, you have the gentrification happening in Oakland because so many people are moving out of San Francisco into Oakland. There's tension that comes as a result of that. 

So, looking towards the future — it's been announced that you're turning the lens away from football and that "Last Chance U: Basketball" is on the horizon. What led to that decision and why did you choose to leave the series with Laney? 

I don't think we gave it a ton of thought to be honest. I don't think anybody was going, "Well, it's our last year, so we better choose Laney." I think it was a function of we had been to two rural parts of the country, one in the deep South and one in the Midwest, and I think in an attempt to paint with a different brush, we thought going to Oakland or someplace urban would be interesting. 

And we couldn't have been more pleased when we found Laney College and met Coach Beam, and then started to dig into what Oakland was all about. We just felt like it would be a great place to go next. I don't think anybody was thinking, "Well, it's where we're going to go and it's where the show will die." It was just a function of it was where we were interested in going next. 

Speaking of new projects — "Cheer" was such a big success. Can fans look forward to a second season? 

Yeah, I don't really have anything to say on that right now. But I'm flattered you'd ask and I wish I had something to give you right now. 

Final thing — for people who have watched "Last Chance: U" all the way through and the chapter is closing on the football narrative, what are some things you hope they take from the show and this season in particular?

I'm asked this question a lot and initially, I didn't quite know what to say. And I suddenly realized that my job as a documentarian in this field is to tell this story with a cold eye and a warm heart. I feel very strongly if I do that, there will be all kinds of themes and lessons and morals that will pop up organically for individual viewers, and it depends on who's watching what they get from it. 

But I believe my job is to just be the messenger of these incredible stories. I try as best as I can to let the audience draw whatever conclusions and whatever lessons they're going to draw from it themselves. So we really go out of our way to avoid being too didactic. We don't want to lead our audiences by the nose, like "That is what this means," and "This is what this important moment is." We're even particular about the kind of music we select because we want to make sure that we're not sending some sort of message, or imposing an agenda as filmmakers. 

But I can tell you, having done this show for five years, I think that there is a sacrifice that is being made by student athletes that is both inspiring and heartbreaking. I think I would hope that there would be at least some people in positions of power that would watch the show and think, "Maybe there is something I can do to make this road just a little bit easier." 

And — I think I'll just leave it at that. 

"Last Chance U" Season 5 "Laney" is currently streaming on Netflix.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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