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‘Last Chance U’ shifts from rural America to a major urban city

The fifth season of the series follows the Laney Eagles in Oakland, California

As Rejzohn Wright tackled his own challenges as a junior college football player — most notably an energy-sapping commute that takes at least 90 minutes each way every day — he was oblivious to some of the struggles that consumed his Laney College teammates. It wasn’t until a late-night binge of Last Chance U that Wright discovered his good friend and teammate, Dior Walker-Scott, had spent many nights sleeping in his car because he was homeless.

Wright was shocked.

“I called Dior after I watched it, and told him it was amazing how he carried himself throughout that entire time,” said Wright, considered one of the nation’s best junior college cornerbacks at Laney. “I don’t think anybody on the team knew all of what he was going through.”

The fifth season of Last Chance U, which focuses on the Laney Eagles and debuted on July 28, carries similar stories of the athletic struggles and triumphs of players attempting to extend their football lives. But this season looks and feels different, as the series shifts from rural America (the first four seasons were filmed in Mississippi and Kansas) to a major urban city (Oakland, California).

The change in scenery introduces a change in issues faced by players living in a metropolitan area, where families are uprooted as the result of the nation’s highest rate of gentrification. Wright’s commute was the result of his mother’s decision to move from an apartment in Oakland to Stockton, California, where home ownership is more affordable.

“It occurred to us to touch on gentrification the first five minutes we were there,” said Greg Whiteley, the creator, executive producer and director of Last Chance U. “As we got to know Rejzohn, you realize he drives an hour and a half to school. Why is that? Pretty soon you begin to understand that housing prices in and around Oakland have risen sharply over the last few years, and somebody like Rejzohn simply can’t afford to live near campus.”

It was the storylines in an urban setting that Whiteley thought were necessary for the series.

“We wanted to paint with a new brush,” said Whiteley, who launched Last Chance U in 2016. “One of the ways that has helped us not repeat ourselves is changing locales. We’ve documented two really competitive conferences in Mississippi and Kansas. The other conferences that people talk about a lot are in Cali, and there a couple of really storied programs in Northern California.”

RJ Stern (left) in season five of Last Chance U.

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Last Chance U settled in at Laney for the 2019 season, a year after the school won the California Community College Athletic Association state title. The team is coached by John Beam, a local coaching legend (he’s been at it for 40 years) who has sent more than 100 players to Division I programs, with 20 of those players going on to play in the NFL.

It’s ironic that the final season of Last Chance U football occurred at a California school. Whiteley scouted California schools when he was first approached to work on the series, but shifted the focus of the first season to Scooba, Mississippi, after he was sent a GQ magazine article.

Whiteley, who had never worked on a sports documentary going into the first season, laughs when he looks back at the challenges faced in a small Mississippi town where the nearest Walmart was a 45-minute drive away.

“We had no catering that first season, and every single meal came from the Subway that was connected to the gas station in Scooba,” Whiteley said. “There were no hotels in Scooba, and we stayed in Meridian, which was 45 minutes away. So spending this past season in Oakland spoiled us.”

In Oakland, his crew had better accommodations and food options. But the setting also presented other obstacles.

In the first four seasons, the student-athletes lived in dorms, where it was somewhat easier for the crew to follow players. At Laney, the student-athletes don’t receive scholarships and don’t live in dorms, leaving the Last Chance U crew to follow the players in a multitude of home settings.

“They’re scattered not just in the metropolitan area, but throughout Northern California,” Whiteley said. “While that presents a bit of a challenge in following players, it’s also a great opportunity for us because we didn’t have to travel out of state to get to know their families and document the people that knew them when they were in high school.”

That allowed the crew easy access to tell Wright’s backstory, which includes the 2017 murder of his father, Jamal Wright, at the time they were developing a closer relationship.

“The pain, it never really goes away,” Wright says during the series. “It was a wake-up call for me.”

That wake-up call drove Wright to excel on the football field, which he hoped would help him fulfill his dream of leaving California to play at a Power 5 school. Mission accomplished. Wright is currently on scholarship at Oregon State, where he’s teammates with his older brother, Nahshon, who also played cornerback at Laney.

Wright, whose constant trash-talking is captured during the series, said he has learned about himself from the show.

“Before I got [to Oregon State], I knew I had to humble myself,” Wright said. “Will I still talk on the field? Between the lines, I’m gonna say what I have to say to get you off your game. That’s part of the confidence of playing corner.”

While Wright is grateful that his final season of junior college football and the struggles faced by the Laney College team were documented, he’s saddened that the football portion of Last Chance U has been put to rest (Last Chance U basketball will debut next year).

“To realize I’m part of the last bunch of [football players] that was on the series, it’s crazy,” Wright said. “It’s really a bittersweet feeling because I felt like they should have gone back to Laney for one more season. It would have been nice to film the school as they turn the program back around.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at The Undefeated. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright, and watching the Knicks play an NBA game in June.