The Plug, ‘Super Bowl Time: Who Ya Got?’ (Episode 8): Super Bowl Sunday is upon us Can Brady go for six? Can the Eagles grab their first Super Bowl?

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You can’t talk sports this week without talking about Super Bowl 52: the New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles. So what’d we do with that? We introduced a “Faceoff” segment. An Eagles fan and a Pats diehard each try to convince us why their squad will hoist the Lombardi Trophy Sunday night. After that, it’s a blast from football past as 1991 Super Bowl champions Tim Johnson, and Hall of Famers Art Monk and Darrell Green give us insight on what it’s like preparing for the biggest football game of your life. Green also focuses on the controversy surrounding the team’s “Redskins” name, and what it means that the Cleveland Indians are removing their “Chief Wahoo” in 2019.

The crew also breaks down the Blake Griffin trade, and what injuries to Demarcus Cousins and John Wall mean to not only LeBron’s All Star team but to each player’s future. Finally: we also chop it up about my weekend in New York covering the GRAMMYs. Keep the support churning, my people. Continue to tell your circle to to subscribe to The Plug on the ESPN app! Pull up on us next week!

Previously: The Plug, ‘Awards Season: Jemele Hill’ (Episode 7): Who’s the Best of the Best?

‘The Quad’ recap, season 2, episode 2: Has Eva Fletcher finally cracked under pressure? Half of GAMU is sick; the school is in debt and Eva Fletcher can’t escape her past demons

Season 2, episode 2: The Quad — The Interruption of Everything

We find Noni Williams outside of Cecil Diamond’s home, begging for him to let her back in the band the best way she knows how — through music. Williams is playing her heart out to attract her former mentor’s attention, but Diamond brushes right past her, gets in his car and blasts a tune of his own: Back Stabbers by The O’Jays. Touché, Cecil Diamond. Touché.

Back on campus, there’s a serious board meeting discussing the future of Georgia A&M University. Financial woes seem to increase for Eva Fletcher each week. Besides not being able to support the school, there’s the ghost of Terrence Berry quite literally haunting her. Fletcher finds herself with recurring nightmares of Berry following her around and demanding his family be paid settlement money owed from his death. Money is tight, and board members suggest asking Berry’s family for an extension while they sort through financial issues. It sets Fletcher off, and it’s the first time the audience (and board members) catch a glimpse of how deeply the Berry incident is affecting Fletcher.

Academically, the school seems to be on track with professors who actually care about their students — so much so that tough love is not being spared. Football player Junior (Miles Stroter) has learned the hard way after being kicked off of the team by head coach Eugene Hardwick due to poor grades. Feeling as if football is all he has, Junior looks to dean Carlton Pettiway (E. Roger Mitchell) for guidance, which eventually leads him back to the classroom of Ella Grace Caldwell (Jasmine Guy). After being asked if he could retake his final, Caldwell, in her caring yet no-nonsense fashion, delivers some sage advice to Junior that we should all be reminded of from time to time: “Start expecting a chance … Get ready, and stay ready.”

As Fletcher battles her personal demons, her daughter Sydney seems to be pushing past her own problems. During class, Sydney tells best friend Madison Kelly that she’s looking forward to hanging with Myles, her latest love interest. Kelly is happy that Sydney has moved on, but questions whether it’s too soon. Before their conversation could continue, class begins. Upon hearing there’s a quiz, Kelly tries to make a quick escape to the restroom after falling ill. Caldwell doesn’t buy that excuse, but quickly wishes she had as Kelly hurls into a wastebasket and onto Caldwell’s pumps.

Sydney helps her friend, but also questions what appears to be morning sickness. Possible pregnancy? Couldn’t be. Or could it?

Before viewers could finish pondering whether Kelly’s ex-boyfriend left her with a little more than heartbreak, the next scene takes us to the campus clinic filled with sick students. They can’t all be pregnant. We discover that it’s a norovirus, a severe (and contagious) stomach flu that causes vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain. The virus seemingly swept the campus overnight, transforming healthy students into walking zombies. Flushed, dehydrated faces line the campus clinic and dorm halls. Fletcher, who sees Sydney at the clinic, requests that she go home until the bug is taken care of. The campus would need to be quarantined.

In the dorms, a familiar face is back! Ebonie Weaver (Erica Michelle) and best friend Cedric Hobbs are reunited and doing what they do best — rapping. Meanwhile, on the other side of campus, Fletcher is in over her head. The virus was possibly caused by malfunctioning freezers, which caused temperatures to drop and thaw the food. The old freezers would need to be replaced, but Fletcher knows the school can’t afford the $100,000 for new ones. The situation became so dire, a student was hospitalized after fainting. Not wanting to risk more bad publicity, Fletcher plans to ask Berry’s family for an extension.

And of course, that went about as great as, well, not great at all.

Berry’s mother still believes her son’s suicide is Sydney’s fault. Fletcher explodes and rips the bandages off of healing wounds by saying Berry raped Sydney. He should be the one apologizing from a jail cell. Fletcher’s emotions are raw, the nightmares continue, and it looks like she has finally reached her breaking point.

Off campus, Sydney is finally getting her groove back, and is excited about meeting up with love interest, Myles. As they Netflix and chilled, things began to heat up pretty quickly. But Sydney soon learns that she’s not as over her sexual assault as she previously thought. The closer Myles got, the more her suppressed memories of the assault began to resurface. She ended the night by asking Myles to take her home.

As the episode neared its close, Williams is back at Diamond’s house with the same approach, but a different tune. This time, Diamond opens his door to address the former band member. Williams explains why she turned the original music over to rival band director Clive Taylor, and — once again — apologizes for her actions. Stern, yet a bit more forgiving, Diamond informs Williams that he’ll think about letting her back in. After all, Diamond just found out that his cancer is in remission. If he can get a second chance at life, then maybe he can give Williams a second chance in the band.

A good guess is that Diamond may use Williams to turn the tables on Taylor. Something tells me this won’t be the last we see of this dangerous yet dynamic duo.

Eagles and Meek Mill: It’s a Philly thing and a story of support The incarcerated rapper has helped fuel the team’s first Super Bowl appearance in 13 seasons, while the team has helped boost his spirits

ST. PAUL, MINNESOTA – As the iconic theme song from Rocky blasted through loudspeakers late Monday night at the Xcel Energy Center here, the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles took the stage on opening night of Super Bowl week. For this edition of the team, however, rapper Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” would have been a more appropriate musical selection.

The incarcerated Philadelphia native – whose situation typifies problems with sentencing guidelines, criminal justice reform advocates say – has helped fuel the Eagles’ first Super Bowl appearance in 13 seasons, providing the team’s unofficial anthem. And in turn, the Eagles have bolstered Mill’s spirits while he serves his sentence for violating probation stemming from a 2008 gun and drug case.

Mill is still confined to a medium-security prison in Chester, Pennsylvania. But he was with the Eagles in spirit, players said.

“With Meek, man, it’s a Philly vibe,” Eagles rookie wide receiver Rashard Davis said. “Philly is his hometown. That’s where his people reside. We’re just bringing that culture, that hype, to our football field.

“Before each game, Meek is getting us riled up for the game. You can’t help but get riled up. You just feel that energy. And our crowd feels that energy. Just play Meek, get the crowd riled up and just go ball out.”

Interesting formula. So far, it has worked spectacularly.

After earning home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the Eagles defeated the Atlanta Falcons, 15-10, in the divisional round. Then in the championship game, the Eagles dismantled the Minnesota Vikings, 38-7.

During pregame warm-ups each week, Lincoln Financial Field has been transformed briefly into a Meek Mill concert venue. The Eagles bounce to the beat – and they definitely put a beatdown on the Vikings. Postgame, the lyrics from the title track of the rapper’s 2012 album filled the locker room, which pleased wideout Torrey Smith.

“Meek is an icon in every NFL locker room,” Smith said. “And he’s definitely an icon to folk like me, who know what it’s like to come from struggle, know what it’s like to grind and just know what it’s like to overcome obstacles. He’s a perfect example of all of that. He’s also a person like me who, while I haven’t committed any crimes myself or fell victim to the [criminal justice] system, I have seen it.

“I’ve seen what can happen. It has affected friends of mine. It has affected my family members. And sentencing like this, what Meek is living with right now, is part of the reason why I was a criminal justice major. Things like this flat-out don’t make sense. It’s a waste of taxpayer money. We’re aware of all of that, what he’s going through is important to us, and we also definitely get energy off of his music.”

Meek Mill derives strength partly from the Eagles’ success.

“It really lifted my spirit to hear the team rally around my songs because that’s why I make music — to inspire others and bring people together,” Mill, 30, said in a statement released to Bleacher Report and NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“The Eagles have also motivated me with the way they’ve overcome tough situations and injuries to succeed this year. I’m so proud of my Eagles for making the Super Bowl and representing the city of Philadelphia. I’m confident my guys are going to beat the [New England] Patriots and bring the Super Bowl trophy to Philly.”

Smith, safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long have championed criminal justice reform. They’re among many current and former professional athletes – NBA superstar James Harden recently visited Meek Mill in prison – who have spoken out about the rapper, who in November was sentenced to two to four years for a probation violation. This week, Meek Mill matched Colin Kaepernick’s $10,000 donation to Youth Services Inc. of Philadelphia, part of Kaepernick’s Million Dollar Pledge.

“The Meek Mill situation is one that represents the stuff that happens every day when you talk about people being victimized by the criminal justice system,” Jenkins said. “Once you get a record and once you have a rap sheet, it allows the system to really do with you how it sees fit. And oftentimes, that’s a burden that’s carried [disproportionately] by people of color. We’ve seen this repeatedly.

“Because Meek is such a prominent figure, now everybody sees what’s really happening out there. People see this is happening to Americans every day. And unfortunately, he’s still behind bars. But he has a lot of people who are supporting him. His music has been something that this team has rallied around. It’s something that is near and dear to the city of Philadelphia. We’ll continue to support him and ride his music throughout the Super Bowl.”

Have the Eagles moved on from the Rocky theme song for good?

Rocky is always going to be Rocky in Philly. But that’s the older generation,” Davis said. “Meek has brought something new to the table. You always have to pay respect to Rocky. But Meek is important. Especially with what’s going on.”

Cam Newton confounds both his fans and his haters — but he’s not so different from the rest of us Award-winning essayist and poet Claudia Rankine explores the Panthers quarterback his brilliance, sullenness, fragility and resilience

Cam Newton is an incredibly talented human being who has a job white Americans see as a white man’s job, and apparently this is vexing to America. Cam Newton is sometimes reduced to his athleticism, as in “an athletic quarterback,” aka black, which is predictably comforting to America. Cam Newton wears a Superman T-shirt under his jersey, which is a wink to America. Cam Newton likes flashy clothes like NFL legend Joe Namath, which is scandalous to America. Cam Newton is arrogant, and that is outrageous and an oxymoron to America. Cam Newton has a shoe contract with Under Armour, whose CEO, Kevin Plank, once supported racist Donald Trump, and this is commonplace in America. Cam Newton has a son named Chosen and a daughter named Sovereign-Dior, which seems like freedom to America. Cam Newton is a typical male human holding misogynistic beliefs who says sexist things like “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes,” and this reveals something about him but not something about America? Cam Newton believes winning is everything, and that is reassuring to America. Cam Newton celebrates winning by dancing on the field, and that is distasteful to America. But mostly, Cam Newton is a young man growing up in the American public while being extraordinary and ordinary and disappointing and magnificent and resilient all at once. Cam Newton is no Colin Kaepernick, which means he still has a job, America.

The genius of Cam Newton’s father was not to shut down his son’s need for expression and attention but to compartmentalize it. When Cam wanted to be noticed, his father told him to dress up on Fridays. The message communicated was to play the game so you can do what you want one day a week. After his rise to quarterback fame for the Carolina Panthers, people took offense to his celebratory dances; Newton was advised to instead give the ball to a child when he was done. The implication was that he should play on American sentimentality around childhood innocence and all would be fine. Share the moment with the children and you will be able to have your moment, because the win, Cam Newton, was never about you. You are a means to an end that does not include you. Newton incorporated the advice into his celebratory routine.

And yet the one place Newton appears to be the least edited is in his body. Among his gifts is the ability to inhabit his emotions fully. Whether walking out of a news conference to sulk privately after a major loss or when celebrating exuberantly, Cam Newton is simply being himself. And that self is not defined by the scripts that are created in a country governed by anti-black racism: He is not a criminal, though he did steal a laptop in college; nor is he overtly political, though he did once raise his fist in the symbol of black power; nor is he an Uncle Tom, though he does understand how easily he could lose what he has earned, and he recently went on the record defending Panthers owner Jerry Richardson after racism and sexual assault allegations: “When you hear a report about Mr. Richardson, a person that we all, as an organization, have so much respect for and the people who did come out saying certain things about racial slurs, sexual assault … it’s still allegations.”

We Americans have difficulty facing our realities, and when confronted with someone who understands the precariousness of his status due to his identity as a black man, Americans interpret their difficulty with him to be solely his failure. Newton’s latest failure is his continued support of Richardson, which makes me wonder whether he understands that his talent is separate from Richardson.

Newton belongs to a league in which one owner, Houston’s Robert McNair, said, “We can’t have the inmates running the prison.” If Newton understands he is being objectified, he has his own agenda within that understanding. Like Michael Jordan, Newton is a company man. He has come to work and to be paid. But Newton’s stance is messier and more flamboyant than Jordan’s. I can’t remember Jordan making untoward statements or dressing that differently from those we might encounter in corporate America.

Though Newton doesn’t overtly protest against company rules, he also refuses to conform entirely to the unspoken rules for the black professional in his dress and occasionally in his actions. In the run of protests that began with Kaepernick taking the knee and then grew into an NFL-wide confusion over whether the protests were against Trump, white supremacy, police violence against blacks, or the owners’ racist statements, Newton raised a fist in honor of black pride but in protest of nothing apparently. He told reporters: “I did it to show black pride because I am an African-American. But more or less, I want all people just to see when I play, I want them to see the joy that I go out there and play with.”

Cam Newton is a human being, and apparently this is troubling to America.

If the silent and beloved GOAT, Jordan, is on one end of the protest spectrum and the outspoken and beloved LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kaepernick are on the other end, then Newton lives between these legends with an eye on his owners: “For the two hours, three hours, whatever a time that a sporting event is on or your team is playing … people from different shapes, colors, creeds, ethnicities and cultures come together. At that moment, they’re rooting for the same thing. I feel as if we all stick together, if we all come together and listen, hear, speak, we can better help the situation,” Newton once said. “We get nowhere divided.” Despite all that has transpired in the U.S. since President Obama’s statement “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States,” Newton still lives by Obama’s edict.

In fact, all of us who are not on the streets protesting but doing our jobs and collecting our pay and health insurance and retirement are in Newton’s lane. The political and corporate structures that govern our lives know how to punish protesters, with “free agent” status, but this other way of being, this pragmatic if flamboyant way of being, where one tries not to bite the hand that feeds, this lane that Newton exemplifies, confounds owners, players and fans alike—even as we remain complicit with his positioning. Most of us sit behind our desks, doing what we do, trying to get paid, while all manner of shit goes down around us. Every single day, with troubling tweets coming out of the Oval Office, should be the day we as Americans risk something for the greater good of our democracy, but the traffic of our lives continues uninterrupted by those taking to the streets in protest of this administration. We didn’t sign up to be activists. And neither did some of the athletes who get paid millions to entertain us.

It is difficult to fault Newton for wanting to hold on to who he is, which includes what he has. Newton’s swagger suggests an independence and freedom we see unleashed on the field, but only on the field. All his millions come at the expense of not pointing out the racism and misogyny that exist inside the culture of his sport and the structure of our country. That’s the price of the ticket. Cam Newton can be Cam Newton as long as he throws touchdowns and keeps winning.

Last year’s encounter with sports writer Jourdan Rodrigue made all the headlines. Newton seemed genuinely surprised that Rodrigue came to a news conference prepared with the correct football terminology: “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes. Like, it’s funny.” His sexism was apparent. It lives alongside Rodrigue’s own blatant racism (see the reports about her Twitter account). In listening to Newton’s subsequent apology, the part that stands out is the one that points to the lesson he has learned:

“The fact that during this whole process I’ve already lost sponsors and countless fans,” Newton said, “I realize that the joke is really on me.” If we imagine that the security of black stars’ economic status means they can risk disrupting or displeasing the American public, think again. Though he ends his apology with the statement “Don’t be like me. Be better than me,” which is in direct conversation with Jordan’s Gatorade ad “Be Like Mike,” Cam Newton is basically just like us, America.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Feb. 5 State of the Black Athlete Issue. Subscribe today!

Simeon Booker’s life and legacy cannot be overstated ‘Every black journalist working today should pause for a moment and thank Simeon Booker’

The life of Simeon Booker was celebrated Monday at Washington National Cathedral, a beautiful memorial service for an extraordinary journalist. Mr. Booker — and I feel compelled to call him mister — was a capital pioneer, admired by everyone who knew that he played a role in helping to better this nation.

In 1952, he became the first black reporter to work at The Washington Post. “He integrated a whole industry,” said Don Graham, former publisher of the Post whose dad, Philip, was the only white newspaper leader in America who would give Mr. Booker a chance. But that was just one milestone. Simeon Booker went on to brilliantly chronicle the civil rights movement as a reporter for Jet and Ebony magazines, covering protests and murders and otherwise bringing bright light to the struggle for freedom and equality. He smoked Kent cigarettes and wore bow ties. He became famous for his reporting on Emmett Till’s 1955 murder and trial, and it was Mr. Booker’s Jet that published the provocative photos of the 14-year-old’s mutilated body in an open casket.

Every black journalist working today should pause for a moment and thank Simeon Booker. Thank him as an exemplar of the brave black journalists who confronted danger and evaded it while unearthing essential stories in the segregated Deep South of the 1950s and ’60s. A bunch of us came to the National Cathedral just to be there for him, to salute what he meant and to hug each other. Jeff Ballou, Bryan Monroe, Mike Fletcher, Wes Lowery, Courtland Milloy, Paul Delaney, Sarah Glover, Betty Anne Williams, Fred Sweets, Bernie Shaw, Reggie Stuart. Just to name a few. We all owe him something.

Congressman John Lewis, who knows too much about danger, said of Mr. Booker at the memorial service: “He never shied away, ran away from a story.” Lewis saw him during the 1961 Freedom Rides. Saw him in Selma, Alabama. Saw him everywhere. “He did the hard, necessary work to get the story,” Lewis said, noting that without Simeon Booker “the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings.”

Back in Mr. Booker’s heyday, Lewis noted, black reporters could be beaten just for holding a camera and a pen. They sometimes wore disguises, dressed as sharecroppers to blend in. They were intrepid and fearless. Today, we have journalists enraged just because they were trolled on Twitter. Mr. Booker died at age 99, cheered for the magnificent life he led and the example he set. I don’t think he was worried about trolls.

The Hollywood ‘Black Panther’ premiere brings out black film glitterati in full force To rousing cheers and standing ovations from glamorous stars the long awaited film is here

HOLLYWOOD — Director Ryan Coogler stood on stage next to Marvel film executives, microphone in hand, and introduced his cast of Black Panther, one-by-one. He could barely get his first welcoming words out before the audience leapt to its feet to to give him a standing ovation — the first of several throughout the night at the film’s world premiere at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre — an event almost unheard of, even at a place designed to celebrate such an accomplishment.

No one knew as he was bringing out his cast, if this film was any good. What they did know was that this was a moment. When Sterling K. Brown stood on stage after his introduction, he raised one fist in the air with the the kind of conviction that Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos did on the Olympic podium in Mexico City almost fifty years ago. It was yet another moment where the crowd erupted into applause, and again, the first credit had yet to roll for the film. But this was a celebration. And most of black Hollywood — and notable Hollywood dignitaries — was there to witness.

Last time a Hollywood theater was this jam-packed, there was surely a lightsaber involved.

There was no bad seat in the Dolby Theater. On the main floor, people like Jamie Foxx, Donald Glover, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Janelle Monáe, Reggie Hudlin, Lena Waithe, Usher, Yara Shahidi, Elizabeth Banks and George Lucas sat amongst the film’s stars, which included Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis.

Lupita Nyong’o attends the Los Angeles Premiere “Black Panther” at Dolby Theatre on January 29, 2018 in Hollywood, California.

Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic

Up in the mezzanine sat notables like dwirector Ava Duvernay, and actors like Tessa Thompson, Issa Rae, David Oyelowo, and many, many others who all gathered to watch the film they’d been waiting years for.

A Black Panther feature film was announced more than three years ago, on October 28, 2014, and since then an ever-growing fanbase — has been waiting, with bated breath for the world premiere. The film’s arrival has been the subject of hilarious memes, twitter polls and Facebook status updates, all backed up by impressive pre-sales from Fandango. Deadline reported that “after tickets went on sale Monday night, Black Panther is already outstripping Captain America: Civil War as Fandango’s best-selling MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] title in the first 24 hours of presales. Captain America: Civil War kicked off the opening of summer 2016 during the first weekend of May with $179M.”

Finally, that day is here — for the lucky ones. Fans crowded the red carpet before The Dolby Theatre Monday night just to get a glimpse of the cast (and their famous admirers) as they posed, and did celebratory victory laps. Per usual, with a film of this magnitude, mobile phones were bagged before anyone was allowed inside the space and placed into security bags. Last time a Hollywood theater was this jam-packed, there was surely a lightsaber involved. This crowd, of course, is most certainly the blackest premiere crowd for a film of this magnitude.

A rousing cheer went up in the theater just as the lights were dimmed, and by the time Coogler’s epic story of the Black Panther’s homeland, the fictional African country of Wakanda, was done, the applause and cheers were even greater. It’s a moment, and it’s a moment that was witnessed by some of the biggest giants in the industry.

We’re not allowed to offer up plot points or spoilers — fans wouldn’t want that anyway! — until an official review embargo is lifted: it’s set for Tuesday, February 6th at noon EST, but we can tell you that the film is quite magical. And very authentically black — both in nuanced ways, and overtly — and importantly, it’s very, very good. It falls right in line with what we’ve come to expect from Marvel productions.

And as the even luckier ones who attended the screening poured into the Hollywood Roosevelt across the street, wrists draped in hot pink bands signaling they had entrance into the intimate after party, the celebration continued. Directors F. Gary Gray, John Singleton and producer Kenya Barris were among the crowd feasting on turkey meatballs, mac ‘n’ cheese and sweet potato fries as tunes by Mary J. Blige, Chubb Rock, Bobby Brown and Bruno Marssoundtracked the night.

A long-line of well-wishers greeted Coogler — most of his family from his hometown of Oakland, CA were in attendance — and Nyong’o at one point entertained a crowd under a tent while bopping to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.”

By the time Frankie Beverly and Maze’s “Before I Let Go” dropped, the party felt every bit of a backyard boogie. olks like Meagan Good and her studio executive husband DeVon Franklin were amongst the last to trickle out as the after party came to a close around 1:30 a.m. And even then no one really wanted to go home and end the night.

The film will finally be released on Feb. 16th — in the thick of Black History Month — and just about everyone in attendance is eager to see how well the film will be received by a large, general interest viewing audience. But if Monday night’s premiere was any indication? Well, in the words of a Kendrick Lamar song that felt every bit a theme of the night’s festivities, “we gon be alright.”


‘Black Panther’ director Ryan Coogler got ready for his high-intensity life on the gridiron In high school, one of the director’s toughest battles was against Marshawn Lynch

As wide receiver, a lot of times you run routes where you can’t even see the ball. You just got to hope that it’s there when you turn your head. You got to trust your teammates to do their job. You’ve got to trust that the lineman is going to block. You’ve got to trust that the quarterback is going to have the right read. And then when … the ball is in the air, you got to catch it. All those things, when it comes to filmmaking? It’s direct preparation.
Ryan Coogler, director, Black Panther

Monday night is game time for Ryan Coogler. There’s a great deal at stake — and he knows it. The director/co-writer of Black Panther is finally showing his masterpiece to friends, cast members, taste makers and a few critics at the much-anticipated Hollywood premiere of his long-awaited film.

Coogler likely hasn’t felt this much pressure since he went up against Marshawn Lynch in a football game during his junior year in their Oakland, California, hometown. “I played against a lot of dudes that were really, really good,” the director said. “Marshawn was probably the best.”

But Monday night? It’s time to put points up on the board. Again.

In this new film, we are transported to the fictional land of Wakanda — and go deep into the story of the Black Panther, portrayed by Chadwick Boseman. But Coogler’s own origin story is one for the history books, as well. “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,” Coogler said. “My father worked at juvenile hall. It would have broke his heart if I’d become that.”

Ryan Kyle Coogler grew up in Bushrod, which when he was growing up was a well-known predominantly black neighborhood in North Oakland. There was a parks and rec center that served as a gathering place for young people to participate in sports and other activities. “I started school … when I just 4,” said Coogler, 31. “I was doing fine academically, but I was having a tough time because I was smaller than the other kids. I got picked on … because I didn’t fit in. There’s a big difference between a kid at 4 versus a kid who’s 6. So I was dealing with that.”

But Coogler’s life was blessed. His mom Joselyn was a community organizer, and his dad Ira was a juvenile hall probation counselor who had played youth and prep football. Both parents were educated at California State University, East Bay, back when it was known as California State University, Hayward. But his life wasn’t a reality for many of his neighborhood friends. “Where we were living … there were kids that were on Section 8,” Coogler said from his office on the Disney studio lot. “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.”

“I was a physical kid. I had a lot of anger issues … I wanted to find somewhere where I could fit in. And football provided an outlet … ”

And back then, his part of North Oakland didn’t really have a youth football team. At the age of 7, he ended up trying out for the nearby Berkeley Cougars because he thought the name was cool, and because it was a different team than his dad played for. For the young Coogler the team felt like home. Almost immediately. “I was a physical kid,” he said. “I had a lot of anger issues. I would get picked on, so I would fight a lot. I wanted to find somewhere where I could fit in. And football provided an outlet for both of those things.”

Football gave Coogler some balance. “I remember stepping on the field for the first time in Berkeley … it was one of the first moments where I was like, ‘Yeah, my life has changed.’ I found something that I’m good at, that I actually like, that I can look forward to. I felt like I belonged.” Coogler stuck with the sport, becoming captain of Saint Mary’s College High School Panthers, where he also excelled in track and basketball.

He was a standout student who had dreams of studying chemistry and going to medical school — if a professional football career didn’t pan out. By the time he hit his senior year in 2003, he was being heavily recruited by schools such as Harvard, Princeton and Penn — his academics were on point.

“He’s our head coach on every production. It starts with him and it trickles down. He gives you the feeling of trust.”

“I wasn’t tall enough, or fast enough … to really get Pac 10 offers,” said Coogler, who played wide receiver. “I came close, but I wasn’t good enough to get those rides. I got injured my senior year … missed a few of those key games. I actually ended up coming back to play against Marshawn our senior year, which was a great game.” He said it’s one of his fondest memories from high school. “We ended up tying.”

Bob Solorio/Sacrament State Athletics

Coogler loved Penn, but got a full scholarship to Saint Mary’s College of California. “I could still be close to home,” he said, “and Saint Mary’s College, they’d just hired an African-American coach, which is a big deal to me.” Also at the time, Derek Mason, currently head coach at Vanderbilt, was the defensive coordinator at Saint Mary’s. “He was an incredible coach, man … I really admired him. I admired working with him, and thought he was so sharp.” Once in Moraga, California, though, the balancing act of being student-athlete kicked in.

“It was crazy hard. We were practicing all the time. I ended up playing as a true freshman, so I was having a tough time my freshman year dealing with the labs, and all of the crap that was coming with chemistry. My grades were suffering, so I was coming to the stark realization, ‘Man, I probably can’t do this major and be a football player.’ It just wasn’t going to work out,” he said.

A buddy of his was majoring in accounting. “He was like, ‘Man, switch up to this business school major, you don’t have to take these crazy labs. And you can still have a good career for yourself.’ So, I already was thinking of changing majors … and then we had to take a creative writing class at Saint Mary’s. That’s where I met Rosemary Graham. She read one of my assignments, and said, ‘I think you should write screenplays.’ That was how I realized that I had a talent for writing, and I realized, maybe I want to find out how to make movies.”

It was 2004, though, and something major happened that shocked everyone on his team — the school decided to drop the football program.“Devastating,” Coogler said. “I realized how little control you have over your life as an athlete.”

Coogler didn’t have to sit out. Because the season was good, and because, as he says, he “had some really decent takes against a real good opponent,” he ended up being recruited again. New Mexico State, Brigham Young University, and Sacramento State were the schools that came calling. He ruled out New Mexico State because they wanted him to play defensive back — when he was at Saint Mary’s, he played receiver, defensive back, and he returned kicks.

“I realized how little control you have over your life as an athlete.”

Brigham Young wanted him to return kicks. But Sacramento State worked best because it was close to home, Coogler is tight with his family and he would still get to be near his two younger brothers, Noah and Keenan. It was a good move for him — in his four years there as receiver, he grabbed 112 receptions for 1,213 yards and six touchdowns.

Yet, it wasn’t all about football. “Sac State had some interesting film production programs, too. I majored in finance … and took some of those film classes,” he said. But it was football that disciplined Coogler. The sport taught him how to deal with negativity. It gave him confidence, and a fulfillment like nothing he’d ever experienced.

Until Hollywood.

It didn’t take long for Coogler to find something else that fed him the way football did. Exactly 10 years after he left high school — where he’d been elected to the homecoming court and won Best Smile and Best Physique — a new game plan kicked off.

It was in 2013 when his debut indie film Fruitvale Station, won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was the story about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, the young Oakland man who was killed on New Year’s Eve in 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit officer. His story was brought to life by actor Michael B. Jordan, who, before this moment, was likely best known as Vince Howard in NBC’s Friday Night Lights, and of course as tragic corner boy Wallace from The Wire.

“Ryan’s the truth. He’ll never say it. He doesn’t like compliments that much, and he’s real low-key and humble, but Ryan, athletically, he was a stud,” said Jordan, who has become a frequent collaborator with Coogler, most recently on their successful reboot of Rocky with 2015’s Creed. “He played with Marshawn Lynch in college — not on the same team, but against each other. [And] he holds some record at Sac State. Ryan’s that guy!”

“ ‘Are you in the streets? Are you an athlete? What are you?’ Growing up, it was always one of those two things.”

Coogler also is quite competitive on set, Jordan said, laughing because they’ve waged bets on foot races and wrestling competitions while working on films together. “He’s our head coach on every production. It starts with him and it trickles down. He gives you the feeling of trust,” said Jordan, who portrays a villain in Black Panther. “If he tells me to run through that wall, it ain’t gon’ hurt, I’m going to believe him. I’m going to go right through it. There’s something about him that makes you want to follow him as a leader. That’s superimportant as a director.”

And now, perhaps, here’s Coogler’s biggest moment. He’s co-written and directed one of the most anticipated films of the year — a predominantly black film with a Marvel-sized budget and Marvel-sized expectations. The pressure is real.

And Coogler is a perfectionist who knows what’s on the line. If this film does what nearly everyone is expecting it to do — a box office stunner that’s well-received critically and paves the way for other such films to get the greenlight — then a major shift in Hollywood is on the horizon. A lot of eyes are on him, but he’s keeping his cool — for now. Because football taught him how to do that.

“A lot of the things I’ve learned, I learned from playing football. You gotta lead a group of people against sometimes insurmountable odds. Every week, you’ve got to prepare for an opponent. You watch game tape. You prep. You get all your players up. But you get out there, you never know what to expect,” Coogler said. “I’m 31 years old … this is a high-intensity job. You’re responsible for a lot of money. You’re responsible for a lot of people’s livelihoods, and more importantly, you’re responsible for the audience’s dreams and expectations. There’s no way I’d be able to do this job if I hadn’t had the experience I have from playing organized sports. I’d be a different person.”