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YES! Weekly’s Keith T. Barber shoots and scores with Any Given Friday

by Mark Burger

For more years than their fans care to remember, the South Brunswick Cougars were the laughingstock of their high-school football conference. The team had never won a playoff game in its 32-year history, and basically served as a perennial doormat for its opponents, game after game after game.

Then, in 2005, Gordon Walters became the Cougars’ head coach, to the surprise of some of his colleagues. Others, however, weren’t surprised. Walters had a reputation for turning teams around, for instilling in his players the simple belief that, yes, we can win. It was all about turning the attitude around, and Walters had a proven track record of doing just that.

The documentary Any Given Friday, which will have its world premiere this Saturday at the Reynolda Film Festival in Winston-Salem, is the story of Gordon Walters and the Cougars, and how they turned it around.

The film marks the directorial debut of Keith T. Barber — the same Keith T. Barber who writes for YES! Weekly.

Barber was working as a sportswriter and sports editor for The State Port Pilot in Southport and met Walters in the same day he accepted the job as head coach in May 2005.

Barber says he thought it would be an interesting idea for a documentary. He hadn’t even made up his mind when he started whether it would be a short or a feature. (Needless to say, as the project eventually took up four years, it became the latter.)

Although Barber has experience as an assistant director and location manager for TV from his days in Los Angeles, he hadn’t made a film of any kind since his college days, yet was granted total access by Walters.

Barber had actually played against Walters during their high-school days, when Barber was a tight end at Mount Airy High School and Walters a star quarterback at Elkin. Walters didn’t necessarily remember playing against him, says Barber with a laugh, but he did remember playing against Barber’s older brother, Layne.

Filming began on Aug. 1, 2005. Barber remembers it well: “I had no idea what I was doing.”

As soon became apparent to Barber, “Gordon and I were leading parallel lives,” he says. “It was all about building a team. He was building his, and I was building mine. Making a good documentary is a discipline and an art form I had no grasp of.”

With Any Given Friday, Barber wanted to provide viewers with a unique, field-level perspective on the game, with Coach Walters the “star” of the show.

Barber admits that there were many peripheral stories in the film, but in order to maintain the focus, those had to go — and it was sometimes a painful process to excise those stories. “You have to have a great main character, and Gordon is a great main character.”

Barber also wanted to include the fact that Walters has, over the years, encouraged and goaded dozens of players who might not otherwise have a chance at college. “He was always so loyal to his players,” says Barber. Walters’ mantra has always been “Be classy,” and his players tried their best to live up to that, on and off the field.

Although the Cougars did better in 2005, “we didn’t get the ending we hoped for,” Barber laughs, so the next season he decided to try again — this time filming the football scenes himself. When the 2007 season rolled around, Barber was in California when Walters contacted him and encouraged him come back for the season. “He suggested that the team had improved,” Barber recalls.

“They started winning the games they used to lose,” says Barber, and the attitude became contagious. Not only did the Cougars’ play improve, Barber notes, but so did the other teams in the school. “That losing culture had persisted for so long.”

By the time the 2008 season rolled around — which, as it turned out, would be Walters’ final season coaching the Cougars — Barber had begun working at YES! Weekly, so to continue the documentary would mean a lengthy commute from Winston-Salem to Southport. He wasn’t able to attend every game, but he was able to come up with what he thought was the perfect ending.

“I had never seen Coach Walters smile at the end of a season,” he says.

But at the end of the fourth season, there was the unmistakable feeling of satisfaction among coach and players alike — and the filmmaker, too — that something very special had been achieved. And when Walters exited that night, “I had the strange inkling that he had coached his last game at South Brunswick,” Barber says.

Indeed, Walters accepted the position of head coach at White Knoll High School in South Carolina shortly thereafter. The White Knoll team had been in disarray for years, garnering the reputation as a loser….

“Coach Walters loves a challenge,” Barber says knowingly.

In their first season under Coach Walters, White Knoll made the playoffs for the first time in its history. South Brunswick, however, “didn’t do well at all,” says Barber, going 5-5 — although the team did make the playoffs.

That recent information will likely be incorporated into the final cut of Any Given Friday. Barber doesn’t describe it as a work in progress — as the basic structure of the story is unlikely to change — but there are alterations he has in mind, and he invites the audience at Saturday’s screening to share their suggestions and opinions, both good and bad.

“We just want to get feedback,” he says. “We want to know how to make it better. If you like it as it is, that’s fine, too!” While working on a story for this newspaper, Barber met Sam Smartt at Wake Forest University and mentioned the film. Smartt was intrigued, and proved to be the hero of the film, according to Barber. “I had 200 hours of film, but the person who went through it all was Sam. He’s the guy who did it. He worked tirelessly.”

“For a first project, we’re very pleased with the outcome,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate.”’­

wanna go?

The third annual Reynolda Film Festival will run March 24-27 on the campus of Wake Forest University (1834 Wake Forest Road, Winston- Salem). Any Given Friday will be screened at 8:15 p.m. on Saturday. Keith Barber and Sam Smartt are scheduled to attend and moderate a postscreening question-and-answer period. Admission is free but seating is limited. To reserve a seat, or for more information, see the official website: www.reynoldafilmfestival.com.

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