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From South LA, To Beverly Hills, To The NFL, To The CW: This Is 'All American'

Spencer Paysinger stands behind actor Daniel Ezra, who portrays the fictional Spencer James, in this shot from All American's pilot. Real Spencer's the one with the beard. (Photo by Ray Mickshaw/The CW)
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All American tells the story of a young man from South Central L.A. who gets recruited to play football for Beverly Hills High. It's reminiscent of high school shows like The O.C. and Friday Night Lights, but what sets it apart is the man it's based on: Spencer Paysinger.

Spencer Paysinger. (Photo by Art Streiber/The CW)


It began when Paysinger, then an NFL player, got talking with a guy he met who'd played at a rival high school. They spoke about games in which they might have actually played against each other, and he asked Paysinger what it was like growing up in Beverly Hills.

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"I said, 'Oh, no, I didn't grow up in Beverly Hills -- I just commuted every day. I'm born and raised in South Central,'" Paysinger said. "We realized after a few minutes, being 10 miles away from each other, we were actually just worlds apart in terms of economic class, experience that we had growing up."

That's how the spark of All American was born. Paysinger already had his eyes set on moving beyond football. His friend told someone else about him, and he was asked to write something up that could potentially be given to TV super-producer Greg Berlanti.

"It was about a one-page synopsis of growing up on both sides of the track, and Greg loved it," Paysinger said.

That was two years ago, and now his story is hitting televisions (and digital platforms) everywhere.


The cast of All American. Pictured (L-R): Cody Christian as Asher Adams, Greta Onieogou as Layla Keating, Michael Evans Behling as Jordan Baker, Taye Diggs as Billy Baker, Daniel Ezra as Spencer James, Samantha Logan as Olivia Baker, Monet Mazur as Laura Baker, Karimah Westbrook as Grace James, Jalyn Hall as Dillon James and Bre-Z as Coop. (Photo by Art Streiber/The CW)

Paysinger always knew he wanted to get out of football before he turned 30. As an undrafted rookie, he also knew that he likely wouldn't get the chance to have a long pro career.

"I just started plugging into different industries to find out what I would be interested in post-football," Paysinger said.

While it may not be what you'd expect from a pro football player, he had the chance to do internships and job shadowing across a number of different industries.

"I found that I ... just enjoy writing and creating stories," Paysinger said. "I would see movies every Tuesday on my off day, and just got to the point where I was predicting movies 10 minutes into it. So I just figured, maybe I could write some of my own stuff if I'm predicting their own movies."

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At 29, he entered what would be his last season, and All American started to take shape and gain traction.

He could see his new path developing toward the end of the season, as he was writing a short film in his defensive notebook during a team meeting.

"This is when we're putting in upwards of 10 or 15 plays for the upcoming week. And I just had this thought of something that happened to me, this funny thing that happened to me, and I just couldn't shake it," Paysinger said. "So I just started writing down slight notes of what happened, how it happened, what would be some funny parts in there. And I look up and it's literally 30 minutes later, and I have about four or five pages of notes written for it."

That's when he realized it was time to walk away, as he'd found something else he felt happy and comfortable doing.

Paysinger was released from the Carolina Panthers on the day before New Year's Eve, and when he got home to Los Angeles, he made his decision to retire final.

While he was in the NFL, Paysinger was always taught that playing there would be the highest point in his life -- and that he couldn't succeed beyond that. He's had friends who've struggled finding themselves after they left football. He's aiming to prove everyone wrong.


A still from All American's pilot. (Photo by Jesse Giddings/The CW)

The show didn't just take Paysinger's story and go make a show -- he's actually been involved in the television writers' room as a consulting producer, working to make sure his story gets told in the right way.

"For me to essentially walk away from one dream, and step into another one so seamlessly, has been a blessing," Paysinger said.

He's glad to not be a cautionary tale, like those who don't set themselves up for a life after football.

"I'm able to give them my stories, and provide new ones -- provide a new scope of where stories can go," Paysinger said. "I love the writers' room because they're not the people that say, 'OK, we have the story figured out, thank you for your time -- we'll figure it out from here.' They're constantly calling me and asking me to come and give my perspective, or to give advice on how I would react to certain situations."

Paysinger's proud to say that working with the writers has also helped him to greatly improve his own writing, learning about structure and how scripts are developed.


A still from the All American episode "99 Problems," showing Daniel Ezra as Spencer. (Photo by Eddy Chen/The CW)

The show isn't a literal re-telling of Paysinger's life; the main character has been rechristened "Spencer James." Paysinger told the audience at the PaleyFest Fall TV Previews that when he's on set, everyone calls the actor "Spencer" -- Paysinger is "Real Spencer."

The biggest difference from his own life, which Paysinger said he was uncomfortable with at first, was the TV Spencer moving in with a Beverly Hills family while he plays there.

"I told them I don't want this to be a savior story of Beverly came in and essentially saved me from South Central," Paysinger said.

A still from All American episode "99 Problems." Pictured (L-R): Daniel Ezra as Spencer, Taye Diggs as Billy, Cody Christian as Asher and Casper Van Dien as Harold Adams. (Photo by Jesse Giddings/The CW)

Going to Beverly Hills High just exposed Paysinger to a whole new world of problems, he said -- and he thinks the show still gets that across.

Shortly after they met, he took All American showrunner April Blair on a tour of the South Central neighborhood where he grew up. He showed her the park he spent time at, his barbershop, and helped to infuse her with what made Spencer who he is. He even introduced her to his family.

One thing Paysinger wanted to make sure felt real: the football. He grew up in a football family -- a coach on the show is loosely based off his own uncle, and he grew up as a ball boy and water boy starting at 4 years old.

"I couldn't have a product on CW and the football not at least feel real," Paysinger said.

They worked with an outside production company to get the football down -- the extras are real ex-football players. Even the stunt double for Spencer went to Crenshaw.

"When he gets in, the football is real," Paysinger said. "The movements are real because he's been doing it his whole life as well. We don't have actors trying to be football players -- we have actual football players."

From All American's pilot, pictured (L-R): Daniel Ezra as Spencer James, Jalyn Hall as Dillon James and Karimah Westbrook as Grace James. (Photo by Patrick Wymore/The CW)

Another aspect that Paysinger said the show has nailed is the relationship between his mom and his little brother.

"A lot of times when we're portraying South Central, we only want to portray the bad side of it -- the gangs, the violence -- and not necessarily pulling into the family aspect of it," Paysinger said.

He was pleased with the results of the footage coming in from the show depicting that relationship, and how his own real-life family kept him out of trouble by teaching him right from wrong.

"That's something -- I talked to the producers of this show going in -- that I really wanted to hit home on," Paysinger said. "That South Central's more than just gang violence. It's more than just kids playing sports."

Paysinger hopes audiences take away what it's like being a kid in Los Angeles and not knowing where you fit in, but that it's OK to take that journey.

"We all have experienced that feeling of being an outsider in a new world," Paysinger said.

On his own journey, he's already got his eyes on what's next. He's developing other shows, and he's been meeting with the people who can help his projects become reality.

"I truly don't want this to be, 'Oh, Spencer had this cool story a few years ago, and that's all he's been doing,'" Paysinger said. "I'm not allowing it to be the one-trick pony. I'm constantly developing, constantly meeting people. I want people to understand that this is what I want to do."

All American debuts tonight on the CW.

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