SEATTLE — It had all the ingredients for a great night of football. Perfect weather, two competitive teams, enthusiastic cheerleaders, a spirited crowd, and a few plays suitable for the season highlight film.
And none of it was real.
But it will seem real when Seattle filmmaker Jason Johnson completes his work. The finished product will be a television commercial for USA Football, which is the youth development partner of the National Football League. Scheduled for airing in August, the ad will appear on the NFL Network, the Pac-12 Network and other cable channels around the country, and will “promote all the good lessons (football) teaches, which is basically what this commercial celebrates,” Johnson said. “It’s about the love of the game.”
Filming took place at King’s High School on Wednesday night and the actors were the football players and coaches from King’s and Sultan high schools, along with two referees, two cheer squads, fans from both schools, and even the Sultan mascot. For almost 2 1/2 hours, the teams were filmed in the locker room getting rousing speeches from their coaches, and then on the field running two simulated plays.
Sultan had the ball first. On a snap from the King’s 10-yard line, quarterback Deion Bonilla handed off to running back James MacKenzie for a sweep around right end. MacKenzie had to dive for the goal line, extending the ball at the same moment he was hit by a King’s defender.
The Knights had their turn next, with quarterback Koa Wilkins lofting a pass to receiver Ryan Fransen in the back corner of the end zone.
Naturally both plays resulted in touchdowns, with cheerleaders and fans cheering wildly in the background. Because there were not enough spectators to give each school an ample rooting section, all the fans — some wearing King’s red, others in Sultan blue _ were asked to cheer for both teams.
The experience “was kind of surreal,” said Sultan’s Kolton Anderson, a senior wide receiver and cornerback. “You see guys from the (Seattle) Seahawks and (other NFL teams) doing commercials, and it’s kind of weird that from our small town we get to be on national television.”
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Bonilla said. “It was different. We were all kind of going in slow motion and not at full speed. But I thought it was pretty fun, pretty cool.”
The last scenes to be filmed were the traditional midfield postgame handshakes by the two teams, and then a dousing of Gatorade — water, actually, since no one had thought to bring dozen of gallons of Gatorade — for King’s coach Jim Shapiro. According to the script, the Knights’ touchdown in the final seconds was the game-winner.
“I guess Jason thought that since we hosted, we’d be the team that wins,” said Shapiro, who lives in Edmonds.
The funny thing is, Shapiro went on, the evening had a very football-like feel.
“We had two hours of work, and the kids were out doing their thing and sweating little bit,” he said. “And then afterward we shook Sultan’s hands. And even though the atmosphere was slowed down, it still felt like Friday night lights.”
Johnson, who grew up in Puyallup, has a football background, having played at the University of Arizona (he was the team’s starting quarterback in 2001 and 2002) before spending a season on the practice squad of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and then playing professionally in Canada and in Europe. After retiring from football, he returned to the Seattle area and started his own film production company, Jason Ryan Creative.
But it was another of Johnson’s football connections that resulted in King’s and Sultan being picked for the commercial. The grandson of the late Frosty Westering, the longtime head football coach at Pacific Lutheran University, Johnson was a PLU ballboy back in the early 1990s when Shapiro was one of the team’s wide receivers.
The two men have stayed in touch over the years, and earlier this month Johnson called to ask if Shapiro and his players would be part of the commercial. Shapiro agreed after first getting approval from the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. He then called Sultan coach Ben Murphy because “he and I have a good relationship, and I knew his kids would enjoy it.”
At that point Shapiro and Murphy started working the phones, making sure both teams not only had sufficient numbers of players, but also encouraging families and friends to serve as spectators in the stands.
“The icing was to have Sultan here,” Shapiro said. “This is a team you compete against, but it’s also a chance for two coaches, two programs and two communities to hang out and have fun together on a summer night.”
One of Johnson’s assistants for the project was Micah Brown, a former wide receiver at the University of Kansas.
“The cool thing is that we’re football players, and what we were trying to do here is action football,” Johnson said. “We weren’t faking hits. We were running actual plays. Yes, it’s a little enhanced, but that’s just to be exciting.”
And in the end, he said, “we were able to pull together a football game in the middle of the summer.”
There were a few glitches along the way. On a King’s center snap, the quarterback dropped the ball, leading to a re-do. And moments later, the receiver left the end zone to track down a slightly wayward pass and almost took out a large pole of lights. But all in all, the players eagerly did what they were asked, and the cheerleaders and fans kept cheering wildly on take after take. Filming wrapped up shortly before midnight, with everyone gathering on the field for a final group photo.
It was, Murphy said, “an awesome experience. Not everybody gets to be in a commercial and to be behind the scenes to see how these things work. So this is something our kids can tell their friends about, and it’ll be an experience they won’t forget.”