By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports
Not so much lately, but in the 1990s and through the next decade-plus, Evangel Christian Academy’s football program was a lightning rod.
You either loved or loathed the Eagles.
They have won 14 state championships. 23 district titles. A flock of Eagles’ players have earned scholarships to big-time college programs.
Evangel’s success also led to accusations of recruiting, a process contrary to Louisiana High School Athletic Association rules.
All the while, many people wondered what really went on inside the program.
Starting Sept. 1, you can find out.
That’s when God. Family. Football. will premiere on Amazon Freebee, a free streaming service which is also available within the Prime Video app. The six-episode docuseries takes you behind the scenes of Evangel’s 2022 season. Creator and executive producer Aaron Benward with Watershed Motion Pictures, along with a crew of as many as 25 videographers and sound technicians, had total access to the football program, from preseason practices through the end of the regular season.
Think HBO’s Hard Knocks. Think Netflix’s Last Chance U.
“We were in and around the school during the day,” Benward told the Shreveport-Bossier Journal. We were in and around the field house for practices, then in and around the bus, the stadium, and everything else when it came to the games. More importantly, we were able to get into the homes and see the families and the relationships that really make Evangel special.”
A long-standing relationship between Benward and Evangel’s chancellor and head coach Denny Duron led to the project.
“When (Aaron) was 12 years old, his dad and I were friends and co-workers,” Duron told the Journal. “I met this little kid. I became like an uncle to him his whole life.”
Said Benward: “Often times, I’ve caught myself as an entrepreneur, as a dad, asking myself over the years, ‘What would Denny do here? How would he make that decision?’ He’s had that big of an influence in my life.”
For years, Benward wanted to tell Evangel’s — and Duron’s — story. But it was during a 2020 catch-up phone conversation when the plan was hatched. Duron told Benward he was coming out of a 30-year head coaching retirement, to lead a team which began the season 0-4.
“In that moment, it was like a God idea,” Benward said. “Instead of developing a potential movie, which we still plan to do one day, I said, ‘Man, maybe we’re supposed to tell your story and Evangel’s story in real time.’”
A few days later, Benward and crew came to Shreveport and shot a “teaser” — a short video which would be used to pitch the idea of a series to Hollywood executives. Eventually, Benward received the green light to proceed with plans to follow the 2022 Evangel Eagles.
“I gotta tell you, we had 100 percent access,” Benward said. “We were never told, ‘No.’ Because of that, I think it came through — the authenticity, the honesty, the hardships, the difficulties, the wins, the losses. And you really feel it. You really feel it as you go through the series. You feel all of those emotions.”
Duron said he did not have any hesitance about giving Benward’s crew all-access. In fact, he encouraged it.
“We’ve always been a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of place. We haven’t put on airs here. Through the years, people at Evangel have been offended at times because certain things happened with our kids…
“What we have done from the beginning is to be determined to bring kids to our campus and have an opportunity to reach them with our message. That doesn’t mean everybody on our campus — every kid that comes — knows Christ and is squeaky clean.”
Duron didn’t see bits-and-pieces of the series. The first time he saw any of what had been recorded was when he watched the finished product.
“This is a very touching kind of production. It’s not all emotional. Some of it is very funny. We go through a season where we had good moments and some very sweet moments. We had some very tough and bitter disappointments. Football is in there, but it’s not all about football. It really is God, family, and football. (The production crew) did a very good job. I was pleasantly surprised.”
Benward believes he accomplished his goal.
“Finally sitting down when we got to what we call our locked cuts, and watching them from top to bottom, multiple times I was in tears. I was just thankful to be able to have an opportunity to be able to tell the story of my hero. It was a passion project.”
For their cooperation, Duron and others were paid $100,000 in talent fees, and the school received a location fee. Duron and Benward said all of the money went toward Evangel’s new turf field.
Benwald isn’t waiting for public reaction to God. Family. Football. He and his crew will soon be back in town, filming the 2023 season for what he hopes will be the series’ second year, airing in 2024.
“I (recently) talked with Denny. He said, ‘I think this may be the best high school football team I’ve ever seen.’”
That’s a heady statement from a coach who has been around a lot of very talented squads.
“If God has his way,” Benwald said, “Evangel wins the state championship in Season 2.”
Contact Tony at SBJTonyT@gmail.com