Young people—and even many adults—often dream of having lives like those of their favorite celebrities. The idea of hearing thousands of fans chant your name is enough to make anyone aspire to live that type of lifestyle; being paid earning millions of dollars to live out your dreams doesn’t hurt either. Yet we tend to forget that even superstars have their own personal struggles and tragedies to endure, just like “normal” people.
Former NFL Player Matthew Cherry has given us a look into the “other side” with his new film “The Last Fall,” starring Lance Gross. The movie depicts an athlete’s struggle away from the football field, which is based on the life of Matthew, himself. The athlete-turned-director sat with EBONY and discussed his inspiration for the film and the side of the NFL that you don’t often get to see.
EBONY: Explain your inspiration for “The Last Fall.”
Matthew Cherry: There’s a huge disconnect between perception and reality. Everyone thinks that every NFL player is a millionaire and that life is good, but there’s a huge difference between our league and the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NHL. The NFL is the only professional sport that doesn’t have guaranteed contracts and the average player only lasts 3.5 seasons. Only four percent of players have a career that lasts more than four seasons, which leaves 96% of the players that come into the league as a rookie, retired in their mid-twenties. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with outliers but they say that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. This essentially leaves young men that have literally become experts at their craft, without a job in their mid-twenties – their dream is gone. When you compare that to other fields, people at that age are just coming into their own and getting their first promotion. You’re at the age where people are beginning to take you seriously [in your field], but now you’ve got to start from scratch, which is what happened to me.
I… played for three seasons, which is the average. I played for four different teams during that time, as well as playing briefly in Canada and NFL Europe. All of this resulted in me living in nine different cities and three countries within a three year span. The game left me when I was only 25 years old.
I really wanted to tell my story of how I’ve had a car get repossessed, how I had to move back home after getting released, and a lot of things that many guys go through, but we’ve never seen it depicted on screen.
EBONY: What was your state of mind like during this up and down period of your professional career?
MC: I always knew that I wanted to get into entertainment once I finished playing ball. When I got into the league, I found out very quickly that I wouldn’t be there long. I got cut during training camp and moved to the practice squad, making a salary of $80,000. What people don’t realize is that in the NFL, you’re taxed at the highest tax bracket, as well as being taxed in every state that you play in. In addition to that, you have to pay your agent and others involved, not to mention that you’re only being paid for the 16-17 weeks during the season. You’ve gotta make the money stretch for an entire year, because there aren’t any checks coming in January through July.
My main thing was finding some sort of transition. This is a game that I’ve been playing since I could walk, in all honesty. All of a sudden you’re back home and completely depressed. Look at a guy like Junior Seau…a player of this magnitude, who’s achieved every accolade imaginable in the NFL sans winning a Super Bowl, and he’s depressed! If he commits suicide after he leaves the game and is experiencing depression, what do you tell a guy that sees his dream shattered at 25, long before he even gets to see it actually grow into something? That was pretty much what I went through. I was down all the time and very depressed—I didn’t know what I was going to do next.
EBONY: What message do you want people to walk away with, after seeing this film?
MC: My goal is to humanize athletes. So many fans only look at players as statistics. They don’t think about these players as being human beings. A player can drop a pass, and all they’ll think is “he sucks and his life sucks.” Nobody thinks about how players are affected by their performance, or how their home-life is affected by it. When you see players get traded, you don’t think that this player that’s playing in Jacksonville gets traded to Oakland, San Francisco or Seattle has to go back and discuss this with his wife and children, and wonder how it’ll affect them.[This is] not a sports movie at all. The film actually picks up after he gets cut and has to move back home. Throughout the film you get a chance to see this guy’s life. You meet his high school sweetheart…You see how he connects with his mom and how he’s able to get back into her good graces. His father is sick and his relationship with his sister is weird. On top of all of this, he gets that final call on what he’s going to do for the rest of his life and as a viewer, you’ve got to process all of this. If you came into the film after watching ESPN, you wouldn’t understand any of this. You’re actually forced to look at this athlete as a human and how everything outside of football can affect him.
EBONY: Aside from “The Last Fall,” what are some of your proudest film/video projects so far?
MC: I’ve done a short film called “This Time,” which was great. I did it before a lot of people were really doing web series’ like that, and it got over 100K views on YouTube. They also talked about it on the Mo’Nique show and treated it like it was a real film, which was cool. I honestly love my music video work. One of my favorites was the video I did for Jazmine Sullivan’s “In Love with Another Man.” It wasn’t even supposed to be an official video, just something we did off spec. But, the label actually loved it and made it the official video, and now it has over 2 million views on YouTube. There were a few other videos I’ve directed, but I’d say those are probably my two favorite projects.
EBONY: What inspires your film/video work and what’s next for Matthew Cherry?
MC: I just wanna continue to try and tell stories that haven’t been told before. For my next project, I’d like to touch on this concussion issue that’s going on in the league. I wanna do something gritty and raw to get the message out there. Hopefully, we can be a catalyst for addressing the safety issue in the league. That’s something that’s very important to me…I’m honestly inspired by people. There are so many young Black filmmakers that are on their first or second film, and they’re killing the game! You have Ava Duvernay, Terrence Nance, Sheldon Candis, Charles Murray…I could go on and on – even Issa Rae with “Awkward Black Girl.” There are so many people that are really changing the game right now, and with the constant improvement in technology, we’re able to put ourselves and our work out there more and more.
Steve Rivers has contributed to The Source, ESPN Rise and a host of other online publications. Follow him on Twitter: @TheKidSkoob.