How Ryan Coogler used football as a platform to find his true calling in life
Trust, that there are levels to this glow up. Growing up in the violent parts of the East Bay Area of Northern California, Coogler’s future wasn’t very hopeful.
Born in Oakland and raised in Richmond during a time where an African-American was more inclined to become a statistic than a star, the now 31-year-old director with only three feature films stands on the edge of glory.
Put yourself in Coogler’s shoes. You’re in the trenches where everyone around you is warring over street turf, selling or shooting up drugs, and getting shot while most of your peers end up either dead or in jail. You happen to be different because unlike most around, you have two loving, educated, and supportive parents.
Neighborhood kids tease you because your life seems better and your only escape is the house after the front door closes behind you. Coogler mentioned the tough times he dealt with while growing up in Oakland in an interview with The Undefeated. He said,
“Where we were living … there were kids that were on Section 8… There were housing projects … right behind us. I would play with those kids, but I would get teased because I went to a nicer school. I had both parents in the house. So, I didn’t really fit in.”
Shutting out a dangerous world, Coogler escaped to a fictional one by turning on the TV, popping tapes into the VCR, and watching multiple movies with his father. Little did Coogler know watching Rocky II with his dad would have a huge impact on his creativity and where he is today.
Still, even with an unknown deep interest in film, no one told Coogler that he could be a director and screenwriter at a young age. So, he took the route most looked to in order to get out of his situation and at the age of 7 picked up football.
In his interview with The Undefeated, he said,
“A lot of kids struggle. Somebody asks you who you are, man, you got to be something, ‘Are you in the streets? Are you an athlete? What are you?‘ Growing up, it was always one of those two things…”
Football changed Coogler’s life and he knew that when he stepped onto the field it provided him the balance he needed to progress. His grades were always great, but he ended up sticking to the sport, became captain of Saint Mary’s College High School Panthers and snagged a football scholarship to Saint Mary’s College of California.
Finally, Coogler made it out the hood, but this would only be a small step in his life. He still had obstacles to face. During his freshman year, he would major in chemistry in order to become a doctor, but little did he know that a creative writing class would change his life.
His creative writing teacher at the time, Rosemary Graham, gave them an assignment where students had to write about the most emotional experience they have ever faced. Coogler then submitted a story about his father almost bleeding to death in his arms.
Coogler thought nothing of it after he submitted his assignment but Graham was touched by the story and requested his presence immediately. She wanted to tell him that he had a rare talent, a talent rarer than having the brain of a doctor. Coogler had the visionary mind of a screenwriter. Peep what he told the East Bay Times,
“She looked at my essays and told me I had a creative eye, that I should go to Hollywood and write screenplays… I thought, ‘Where is she getting this?’ Then I thought ‘Why not?’ I went on the Internet, learned how to write a screenplay and fell in love with it.
However, after Coogler’s freshman year, Saint Mary’s College of California cut their football program and he lost his scholarship. Yet, that didn’t stop the future Black Panther director from obtaining a college degree, but let him know how little power you have as a student-athlete.
He could’ve quit and gone home but he stayed strong and carried on. That same year, because of his good football season at his previous university, New Mexico State, Brigham Young University, and Sacramento State all recruited the young wide receiver. Once again Coogler was able to use football as a platform to launch him to an education.
He ended up choosing Sacramento State where he majored in finance and ended his football career grabbing 112 receptions for 1,213 yards and six touchdowns. Don’t think Coogler forgot about a possible career in screenwriting. He lowkey chose Sacremento State because of their interesting film production programs.
At Sacremento State Coogler would get the creative film experience he needed. According to the East Bay Times, it was there he made “Story of a Dollar,” which was about a $20 bill that circulates around the Bay Area and the lives of the people it reaches. Plus, a 12-minute movie named “Eyes Like Mine,” which was about a young man in college who struggles with the loss of his girlfriend.
After graduation, Coogler had a decision to make — to go pro football or pro in screenwriting. He told Film Magazine about his decision to attend USC film school. He said,
“It was either go there or play wide receiver. I was short, my prospects weren’t the highest, so I jumped off that cliff and drove to L.A.”
In L.A. he honed his craft at USC creating a grip of short films like Fig. Actually, during his first semester, Coogler had to live out the whip, couch hop, and post up with Jesuits, before finding an apartment in LA.
He told Democracy Now,
“When I first went to film school, however, because it was such a sporadic thing, I went down to Los Angeles and I didn’t have anywhere to stay yet. So I kind of had to jump-start in classes and things like that. So, for a few—I would say, for about a week and a half, you know what I mean, I was getting dressed in my car, spending most of my time in school, you know, until I found a place. But I bumped around quite a bit. I stayed with some Jesuits, you know what I mean, with a group of Jesuits that were in training, basically. I stayed with like a distant relative for a day or two.”
He never let the pressure get to his head which is something he can thank football for. As an ex-athlete myself I know that times when you’re under stress you have a chance at performing your best.
This mentality is probably what led him to win big at the Sundance Festival for Fruitvale Station back in 2013. Lowkey this jump started Coogler’s career and gave him the confidence to talk to Sylvester Stallone, make Creed, and continue the Rocky legacy. Coogler explained the feeling when he first tried to pitch Creed to Sly. He told Deadline,
“The filmmaker inside of me…well, I’ll never forget the feeling I had when Sly was telling me stories. He would become so animated, he’d go across to the side of the desk and pretend to be this person or that person. I thought, this dude is an off-the-charts actor. I felt a little bit like a coach gets when he sees a greatly talented player, and I thought, if I ever had the chance to work with this dude, I’ll have to jump at it because this is nuts…”
Take Coogler’s story into consideration. The odds were against him. Yet, he managed to maneuver to space where he can now call himself a legendary director. Homie never expected that his three feature films would rank award-winning.
Nor did he expect to create Fruitvale Station, Creed, and Black Panther, but mission accomplished. Now, I bet that young boys from the East Bay Area when they see Coogler winning an award on TV it’ll change their lives for the better.
Listen, don’t be afraid to jump and use the tools provided for you to get out of a shitty situation or into an even better one. You never know where you’ll land if you take a leap of faith.