Super Bowl champ leaves the game to write the game’s story
Rashard Mendenhall already has his ring — now the ‘Ballers’ writer is making his authentic life goals come true
Football was only a game. In high school, it was two halves. In college, it was four quarters. By the time he got to the pros it was a game that offered life-changing financial contracts. For Rashard Mendenhall, the game of football was a chance to build a platform, to become someone — so that people would pay attention when he was ready for his voice to be heard. The real life look for Mendenhall — was to become a Malcolm X. Or a Huey P. Newton.
“That was who I saw myself as when I was younger,” said Mendenhall, who was born in Skokie, Illinois, and grew up with his family on the South Side of Chicago. “I always knew I wanted to do something that mattered. I wanted to have a voice.”
Mendenhall, a first-round draft pick, wanted to one day be written about in a way that had nothing to do with running for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns, and helping lead the Pittsburgh Steelers back to the Super Bowl. By 2013 he was playing for the Arizona Cardinals — he scored eight rushing touchdowns for his team — before he rather unceremoniously announced that at age 26, he’d be retiring from the game to pursue a writing career. No one leaves the game with those kinds of numbers, that youth and — no injuries.
But Mendenhall did. And since he freed himself from game, his life has cosmically aligned with his dreams — and is the kind of tale that is picture-perfect for Hollywood. The Illinois alum is building a new career as a documentary filmmaker. He established a production company, Nappy Productions, to create films. He’s putting the finishing touches on his first one, about former Steeler and visual artist Baron Batch. Batch’s story – from football player to painter, photographer and writer will be chronicled in The Hustler.
But before all of that, Mendenhall started writing a blog for Huffington Post, and it caught the eye of producers who were tinkering with what would become an HBO series about what happens after you leave the NFL. That series, Ballers, stars perhaps the most successful athlete-turned-movie star in Dwayne Johnson, and this season, Mendenhall was upgraded to story editor. So if you’re watching the series, which is in its second season (but it’ll be back for at least one more), and if something seems a bit too over the top, it probably isn’t.
“It’s my job to call bulls—,” he says with a laugh. And he does it without hesitation. Mendenhall spoke by phone. He was in Santa Monica, California, where he relocated to make his dreams come true.
Who were you in high school?
I was always cool with everybody and everybody knew that. I was the star player, so I was ‘The Jock.’ But I played in the band from like fourth grade through high school — clarinet. So I had my band performances and people would be like, ‘Oh, this is the same guy that plays football!’ I was always into different things. If I’d ever see people picking on somebody else, I always came to their side.
So you were also a band nerd! How does somebody have the confidence to play in both lanes?
My mom was a youth minister and a teacher growing up … so even when I went to school … I went to another school on the weekends. It was called Shule ya Watoto and it means ‘school for children’ in Swahili. We were always learning about African history and African culture and the Middle Passage and different instruments, and we were always rooted in culture, and being diverse and open to different things. We did a lot of things and football was always there, too.
You had a successful career in the NFL — what made you leave? Was it fear of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]?
It was nothing about fear of injury, and CTE. I never had a concussion or anything. I had the experiences that I wanted. Football felt like it was becoming about entertainment … it is entertainment, it’s not just sports. So, keeping up with your brand, interacting with the fans — when that became so much more a part of it, as opposed to just competing within those lines and training … that really wasn’t as much me. And then feeling like being in this box all the time, all these things you have to be. Moving around the city of Pittsburgh and people see you a certain way and you have to keep this thing up. Training and playing football and working out was stuff I enjoyed, but being in the NFL and being this thing that I had to be … was getting to me.
How challenging was it for you to walk away?
It wasn’t hard to make the decision because it was clear. It was more and more clear in my body: This is the next move. I didn’t know what was going to happen and what was coming, I just knew that this [pro football] chapter was complete for me.
So the producers of Ballers were working on a show, read the HuffPost blog and reached out to you?
It was when I wrote my piece about my retirement and that kind of really blew up and went everywhere. They had just been picked up by HBO. I had a few conversations with them. They asked me to write a little bit of script and, it was like, ‘Are you interested in coming in?’ Initially, it was for three weeks I was going to be in there. I thought, maybe I can tell stories. And then at three weeks they were like, ‘You know what? You’re good at this. You need to stick with it. You need to stick with us.’
Are there moments when you have to push back on what may or may not be real with regard to life in the NFL?
There are a bunch of moments like that. A lot of my job is to call bulls— on certain things. A good example of that would be in season one, when Ricky and Alonzo were beefing about the mom thing [Ricky, played by John David Washington, who was sleeping with a fellow teammate’s mother] — a beef like that would be a problem anywhere. In order for football players to squash that … I said, ‘something has to happen, larger.’ That’s when the cop stops Alonzo and he looks like he’s in trouble. Ricky comes out, helps him out. Alonzo’s like, ‘OK, we can stop worrying about the small stuff. I know you got my back.’
This feels very cosmic.
If I’d stopped a year earlier, it wouldn’t have happened like this. If I’d waited another year, it wouldn’t have happened like that. It’s springboarding me into a new career. Everything I’ve done with Ballers, everything I love about Ballers. Shooting film for my own documentary and starting my own production company. It’s all been like a blur.
When did the dream to become a filmmaker begin?
That didn’t happen until recently. For a lot of people, the NFL is a goal. It was never a goal for me, [it was] something I had to do. As much as I knew I was going to high school, I knew I was going to the NFL. So my life wasn’t about getting to the NFL. I thought it would be a platform for something, I just never knew what that was. So my whole life was spent figuring out like, What would it be? Would it be speaking? Would it be in ministry, like my family? Would it be in community service? Writing is something that stuck with me — through high school and through college and it got really serious in the league. I knew that when I was done playing, I just wanted to write, to share expressions, and to tell stories.
Why a writer?
I realized I really enjoyed writing when I was in high school. All my friends used to do music and I used to write songs for them. I’d keep a journal of my own. I started writing stories and writing prayers and things like that. Even when I got to the league, a lot of my time was spent … just on my floor … reading books or writing things in one of my many notebooks.
How has seeing how Ballers come together sparked an interest in starting your own production company?
Hollywood’s just the vehicle. Or the medium. Being in a room … seeing an idea go to the board and from the board to an outline, to a script, and then seeing that script shot every day. Being with the directors and the producers, then seeing that eventually edited, and then the music edit, and then seeing it on TV. Just seeing its entire process, it really stuck with me. You can have an idea, you can have a feeling, you can see it [get] made to come to life on-screen. Being in the writers room is so natural to me. Being in the room where they’re discussing different perspectives and points of view and the ethics and morals … it’s something I enjoy.
Feels like you’re on a mission to changing the conversation about how we view athletes.
There are a lot of ways I’m representing for people — it’s not just me as an athlete. It’s three-dimensional. Are you going to be … yourself … or are you going to be this person that people want you to be? A lot of guys have to make that choice to be the brand more so than be the person … because that’s the only way that they’ll be accepted. As athletes.
A lot of young black boys grow up thinking the path to success is to become a professional athlete — or at the very least, that’s a strong narrative that we see repeated time and time again.
I grew up in the church, I grew up in a community — South Side Chicago — so everything I do is with a knowledge that I wouldn’t be here if there weren’t people before me who set an example that was different. The best way for me to make an effective change is to really, truly be me, and honestly be me. That’s where my focus is, as far as not getting caught up in thinking what I should be, what I should do, and just really, truthfully, unapologetically, being me.