Spencer Paysinger left football late last year with an excellent souvenir (a Super Bowl ring), in excellent health (no major, life-altering injuries) and an excellent post-playing gig (working on a TV show about his life).
Not too shabby for a guy who primarily was a special-teams player for the 2011 Giants who won the Lombardi Trophy, and is not remembered by fans of that team quite as clearly as Eli Manning, Justin Tuck or Victor Cruz are.
“It’s been interesting,” Paysinger said of the CW show, “All American,” which premieres on Wednesday. “I’ve told everyone that I don’t have a biomarker to test how excited I am. I can’t talk to anybody about this in sports.
“It’s extremely uncommon in sports to retire and have a show about you within eight months of retiring. It’s been amazing.”
Paysinger, 30, played seven seasons in the NFL: four with the Giants, including 10 games as a starting linebacker in 2013, and two with the Dolphins. He was with the Jets in preseason in 2017 before being released, then played in three late-season games with the Panthers.
But for two years he has been working on “All American,” which followed a twisting, only-in-Hollywood path from his head to television, and now to strong early buzz in the business and among critics as perhaps the next “Friday Night Lights.”
It is based on Paysinger’s journey from growing up in South Central Los Angeles to playing at Beverly Hills High, and navigating two dramatically different cultures that exist not far from one another geographically.
Paysinger serves as executive consultant, contributing everywhere from the writers’ room to on set, where he helps make sure football action is authentic. Game Changing Films has handled staging the sports scenes, with input from Paysinger.
“It’s immensely important,” he said. “I know it’s a CW drama, but for the bones of it to center on football, that is something that I take pride in.”
Paysinger said he spent a lot of time with writers early in the process talking about his stories and memories.
“I trusted them to take the story I told them and create a compelling story out of it and I felt like they did a great job with that,” he said. “Yes, there are some liberties taken within the show, but the roots of what they’re talking about, I definitely dealt with that.”
He has given advice to Daniel Ezra, who plays the lead character, but only if asked. “I never want to be overbearing and try to tell him how to be a different Spencer,” Paysinger said. “I’m trusting that Daniel has created a great version of my teenage self.” (Taye Diggs plays his coach, Billy Baker.)
Paysinger did not discourage comparisons to the critically acclaimed 2006-11 show “Friday Night Lights,” even though he understands it is a long way from here to there.
“As people looked at ‘Friday Night Lights’ over the past 10, 12 years, I hope that people look back in 10, 12 years at our show as being that show for this generation,” he said.
Paysinger signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent out of Oregon in 2011. He played in 15 games that regular season, plus four more in the playoffs on a team that he remembered for its strong veteran leadership from the likes of Manning, Tuck, Deon Grant and Antrel Rolle.
He also bonded with fellow young players including Mark Herzlich, Henry Hynoski and in particular Tyler Sash.
“We instantly clicked,” Paysinger said of Sash. “We were best friends and talked often. Once he got released from the team, the injuries that he had started compiling.”
Sash was found dead in his Iowa home in 2015 from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. Five months later, his family released results of a test indicating he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Paysinger said he has spoken to Sash’s mother and siblings over the years, and that Sash’s mother was “crying tears, pleading with me not to play anymore, because she didn’t want the same thing to happen to me . . . Luckily, I was able to retire on my own accord.”
“All American” helped ease the transition. Paysinger said he returned home from his final game last season and told his wife he was done with football. “We had on good word that the TV show would hopefully get a pilot at that point,” he said. “I just felt like I didn’t have to go back to football. Anytime I don’t have to hit somebody, I’m all for it.”
Paysinger said his friends in football have been intrigued and impressed by his path to television, and many have sought his advice, including current Giant Michael Thomas, who played with Paysinger as Dolphins.
“When I saw him getting into it, he inspired me to be serious about my pursuit in trying to write and create a TV show,” Thomas said. “He’s trying to show me the ropes and be my resource for trying to make my writing come through. It’s crazy. I’m excited for him.”
Paysinger has marveled at the positive stories written about the show, and at the billboards and other ads he sees going up around Southern California. What once seemed like a dream is about to become a reality.
“Just growing up on ‘Friday Night Lights,’ other dramas, that kind of shaped my childhood,” he said. “The fact that I can have one talking about my life, it’s insane.”