[EDITOR’S NOTE: At 9:00 p.m. ET on the evening of Tuesday, September 17, the NFL Network will air Darrelle Revis: A Football Life, which is both a continuation of an Emmy-nominated series and the culmination of an unprecedented year-long documentary helmed by NFL Network Chief Correspondent Andrea Kremer. Prior to Tuesday’s broadcast, Buccaneers.com conducted an exclusive interview with the Emmy Award-winning sports journalist, gaining Kremer’s insight into the process of chronicling Revis’ remarkable journey.]
Professional athletes willingly put their lives in the spotlight, understanding that every at-bat, every jump shot, every slant pass is open for scrutiny. They are called upon – constantly and with an entire nation of sports fans watching – to defend their split-second decisions, relive their mistakes and explain their strategies.
Until they get hurt.
It would be inaccurate to say that the injured athlete is marginalized or forgotten. Professional sports teams invest just as much time and energy into healing their hurt players as they do into coaching those who are ready to play. But in the narrative of a sport season, the injured player is a footnote, a subject shelved until next year. Every coach on every team says the same thing: We have to concern ourselves with the players who are here now, helping us win.
There are stories worth telling in those margins, however, and Andrea Kremer, NFL Network’s chief correspondent for player health and safety, found a substantial one with the backing of the Emmy-nominated A Football Life series. Their subject: Darrelle Revis, the sublime cornerback who rose to prominence with the New York Jets before a potentially devastating knee injury set him off on an unpredictable year-long journey.
What followed was months of rigorous rehab mixed with the drama of one of the NFL’s star players potentially being traded in his prime…and Kremer’s crew was on hand to capture the entire process with unprecedented access. The result was the kind of behind-the-scenes story that has rarely been told before, and one that eventually dug much deeper than rehab exercises and trade talks, getting to the roots of what made Revis into an NFL star.
The journey started with that most unwanted of moments in professional sports, with the star player writhing in pain due to a serious injury. In this case, it was Revis, on the turf at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, clutching his knee and knowing it was serious: a torn ACL that would end his season and, as it turned out, his run as a New York Jet. Kremer had been contemplating just such a scenario.
“About a year ago, just sitting in an ideas meeting at the network, I threw out, 'What if this season we have an Adrian Peterson-type name who is injured and out for the season?’” Kremer recalled. “Should we see about documenting that and following that story for the season?' And everybody looked at me kind of like I had four heads. Then Revis got injured.”
As Kremer would soon learn, Revis was a reserved man despite his star status, and the type of teammate who preferred to blend in as just another in the locker room. NFL Films wasn’t the only organization interested in his post-injury story, but Revis turned down an offer to be paid to have his rehab chronicled. He wasn’t easily sold on Kremer’s offer, either, but he trusted her and the NFL Films crew and agreed to bring them along for the ride.
“Darrelle is a very private person, and this is not something that he in any way sought out or in any way thought, 'I really want to do this,’” said Kremer. “There were times that he didn't want us around and we had to kind of had to talk him into it, but he couldn't have been more professional.
“I remember the first time we shot at the Buccaneers [facility]. We started to shoot in the training room – the organization was great, they gave us permission to shoot in the training room, something that had really never been done, have cameras in there – but I knew even without asking that Darrelle wouldn't want to do it on a day when the other players were around. This was the offseason program now, and he would want to do it on a day when very, very few players were around because he didn't want to bring the attention to himself. I think that really speaks to who he is.”
Kremer and her crew had little time to prepare for their immersion into Revis’ Football Life. Kremer considered it essential to tap into the story at its very beginning, so literally two days after the Revis camp agreed to the project, filming began at a Jets-Colts game, the last one Revis would attend. Not long after, he went in for surgery, and it was here that Kremer felt the full emotional pull of the story she was helping to tell.
“What really stuck out for me was the hospital,” said Kremer. “Because, you know what? These guys are world-class athletes, multi-millionaires, first-round picks..but when you're in the hospital and you've got that little nasty shower-cap on your head, going into surgery, you're just as vulnerable as any other patient.”
When this process began, Kremer and her crew weren’t completely sure what they had on their hands. It was, to some extent, uncharted territory. Was it a documentary? Was it a news report on the process of ACL recovery, following Peterson’s amazing comeback? In the end, it was just real life, there in the NFL margins, even for one of its biggest stars. Especially for one of its biggest stars.
“People have complimented the access we got here, and it's real,” said Kremer. “There's no question that there was nothing staged in this year-long process. Nothing in the hospital, nothing. You're getting them at their most vulnerable, and that humanizes them.
“He wouldn't admit, but he admitted it was there, and that was the bar set by Adrian Peterson, which is unrealistic. One of the things I have learned is that every single ACL is different. You don't know the extent of it until the doctor gets in there. Every ACL is different, every body is different, not to mention that Revis and Peterson play different positions.”
Revis’ rehab proved to be a launching point for Kremer and her crew to look deeper into his life, searching for the influences that shaped him as both a man and an NFL player. The NFL Films crew followed Revis back to his hometown of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, once again breaking new ground in an effort to understand the motivations of a star NFL player. To Kremer, the trip to Aliquippa was the most essential part in understanding what gave Revis the strength to conquer both his rehab and the stress of an unusual NFL situation.
“That was one of the things that I kept hammering him on: ‘Why are you like this? How are you able to handle all of this? Here you are, battling your first major injury and you're getting traded – how do you have that mental toughness?’” said Kremer. “He would say things that kind of sounded cliché like, 'You have to know where I came from, you have to understand how I grew up, you have to understand what I overcome.'
“And so finally we went out and found out. And it was definitely a tough place. You always hear that people are a product of their upbringing, and there's no question that he was. He gets his toughness from [there]. Aliquippa is a tough town. For him to overcome that, this is nothing. He almost got shot and killed back in Aliquippa as a junior in college. He tells that story and his mom tells that story. You understand how somebody does get to be the way they are when you see where they're from.”
Revis’ mother, Diana Askew, is a critical part of the story that Kremer tells. Kremer describes Revis as “a man who was brought up the right way,” and promises that Askew will be the star of Tuesday night’s show. And if that’s not enough, Askew even provided Kremer with her favorite moment of the documentary, or at least the best bit of comic relief.
In a development almost too good to be true for Kremer and the NFL Films folks, Tampa Bay’s season-opener – and thus Revis’ Buccaneer debut – came in the Meadowlands against the New York Jets. The Football Life crew spent the game in a luxury box with Askew, and they captured a classic moment when Askew got caught up in the game’s excitement.
“She's got a big personality and a loud voice and she's a great cheerleader, and she screams out at the top of her lungs with all the enthusiasm of the biggest fan in the world: 'Go Jets! Go Jets!'”, related Kremer with a laugh. “We showed [Darelle] the video and he says, 'What did she say?' And it's a very funny moment. Then she started to talk herself out of it – 'I really wanted the Jets to hurry up.' He said, 'It's on camera, you can't hide it!' That was a funny and real moment.”
The year-long journey that Kremer shared with Revis ended with laughter – and if Revis and the Bucs are right, with many more years of defensive dominance. It wasn’t all fun and games along the way, however. The hard work of rehab and the mental rigors an athlete goes through when he’s faced with a potentially career-defining challenge are no laughing matter. Kremer saw both sides of the spectrum as she chronicled Revis’ journey, and she knew she was catching a premier athlete in a defining moment.“Revis was smart enough to realize that it didn't matter who he played for if he didn't come back and be ‘Revis,’” said Kremer. “Just like a cornerback needs that mentality of when you get beat you've got to come right back on the next play, he knew that he had to put blinders on. It was hard, though. There was no doubt, it was hard.”