The quintessential American sport gave Earl Trigsted inspiration as a youth and a career as an adult; his son, Todd, eventually walked away from the game and has made an unflinching documentary film about it
One day in the early 1940s, a young boy walked out of the then-grand Commodore Theater on the north side of Chicago and began acting out his newly conceived life.
He hurdled every lilac bush, stiff-armed every lamp post. When he arrived home, he tore off wads of toilet paper and stuffed them under his shirt – voila, shoulder pads.
Earl Trigsted, perhaps 8, had just watched Ronald Reagan play George Gipp in “Knute Rockne All-American,” and he now knew exactly what his future held in store.
Seven decades later, he shared this memory over coffee at his Lewiston home, not to claim any high degree of prescience about his career arc – he did play college football, did devote much of his life to coaching – but to show that he understood the power of film.
He knows, in a general sense, what his son is trying to do here. And it’s not “Win one for the Gipper!”
Todd Trigsted, a former tailback for Lewiston High and Linfield College who walked away from football and once shared a ballet stage with Mikhail Baryshnikov, is returning to Lewiston for the Idaho premiere Friday night of his first full-length movie, a documentary called “Gridiron Gladiators: The History and Uncertain Future of American Football,” which he directed, filmed and edited.
It’s not exactly an indictment of his father’s world. Its tone is informative and its backdrop is the game’s rich heritage as this country’s most characteristic sport. The image of a young Earl Trigsted, dashing home in a football-induced rapture, wouldn’t be out of place in his son’s film.
Nonetheless, it casts a somber light on an issue that indeed threatens football’s future: the mounting evidence that the dynamics of today’s game, the thunderous clashes of ever-larger bodies, endanger its players’ short- and long-term health in more than the obvious ways – specifically, in the delicate, mysterious workings of the brain.
Visually lively despite a humble budget and skeleton crew, the film helps explain why certain athletes, such as former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, are choosing to leave football at a young age. Borland doesn’t appear in the documentary but he participated in a Q-and-A at its premiere three months ago in Portland, Ore., where Todd Trigsted now lives – and where his father spent much of his coaching career, brainstorming and clinic-hopping with the likes of run-and-shoot innovator Mouse Davis.
Borland potentially gave up millions of dollars in order to safeguard his health. Todd Trigsted, cutting short a small-college career after absorbing a frightening blow during practice, gave up something far less tangible: a father’s legacy, a sense of identity. The loss shadowed him for three decades and played a central role in inspiring “Gridiron Gladiators.”
Although his personal story plays no part in the film itself, it eventually became a kind of cultural weather vane. If the son of an intense, highly invested football coach can be forgiven – and more to the point, can forgive himself – for turning his back on the game, maybe football is finally growing up. Maybe it’s ready to take a hard, honest look at itself.
On a pleasant summer evening in a funky industrial section of Portland, Todd Trigsted sat at an outdoor table of a popular microbrewery and talked about life after football. At 53, with sunglasses raised to pin back a graying swath of shoulder-length hair, he exuded the air of a former athlete and still looked every bit the Portland artist.
Like many football players, he experienced concussions – two, he believes – and he now wonders if they contributed to what he saw as a distinct shift in his personality as a young man. But the blow that estranged him from football came not to the head but to the neck, which he said is still bowed in the wrong direction because of it.
He was a freshman at Linfield, southwest of Portland at McMinnville, and the Wildcats were practicing a play in their goal-line offense, directing tailbacks to dive over the block of a guard who was pulling from the left.
On Trigsted’s third straight repetition of this play, a defensive back, with whom he was on bad terms, drew a vivid bead on the tailback and dealt a devastating strike from below, helmet to helmet, knocking Trigsted’s head backward.
And that was that. He rose to his feet and tried to gather his wits while defensive players showered the deliverer of the blow with laughing congratulations.
“And I don’t care about that, because that’s what you do – you get excited about the violence,” Trigsted said, before launching into an amusing but convincing impression of football bravado. “But I was in an accident, just like a car accident. Something was askew. Something wasn’t right, and I didn’t know how serious it was. I should have gone to the hospital immediately. I didn’t. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I just went to the back of the line.”
He remained on the Linfield roster for the rest of the season, and even lingered as a redshirt the following year. But his affection for football had been compromised, and he wound up relinquishing his scholarship and leaving school.
The trouble was this: He had no backup plan, just a vague sense that his true calling lay in the arts. Even back at Lewiston High, where he was football MVP, he was known less as a hard-core jock than a popular, big-hearted guy who happened to be athletic.
“Todd was a sensitive kid, and a really fine athlete – probably one of the best kick-returners I ever had,” then-Lewiston coach Jay Henry said by phone. “He was very creative. He’d take the ball on a kick and sometimes create his own lane, and he was quick enough and fast enough to pull it off.”
Taking a cue from Lynn Swann, the then-Pittsburgh Steelers receiver who attributed his grace on the football field partly to his background in dance, Trigsted took ballet classes at Linfield and later the University of Idaho (where he would earn a degree in fine arts), impressing dance teachers with a leaping ability that had seen him clear 6 feet, 7 inches as a Linfield high-jumper.
He eventually landed a full-ride scholarship from a San Francisco dance school, and when Baryshnikov came to town with the American Ballet Theater, Trigsted was recruited to the cast of “Romeo and Juliet” in various roles as an extra.
But the math didn’t seem right. His late start to this demanding form of dance had shortened the already modest span of years he could have expected as a professional, and at age 25 he began looking for an art form with a longer shelf life.
Hence filmmaking, but that’s hardly been a piece of cake either. Trigsted has done intermittent video work but must supplement his income by cleaning houses and teaching a photography course. “Gridiron Gladiators” is his first large-scale film project to reach fruition, and although it has received endorsements from the likes of NBC sportscaster Bob Costas – who in fact coined the film’s title – Trigsted is still looking for a way to distribute it.
“Todd is unique,” Earl Trigsted said of the third of his four children, while also expressing an unsurprising wish that he find a steady job. “Anybody that can starve all these years because you believe in something is different. He is something else.”
If there’s one thing Earl and Todd Trigsted have in common, it’s a cinematic manner of speech, a way of deferring blunt declarations in favor of scene-painting and storytelling, unhurried and easy on the ear. Both are capable of blunt declarations as well.
In the case of Earl Trigsted – friends call him “Trigger” – the stories begin in Chicago, where he credits football with saving him from his own youthful anger. Still feisty-seeming at 82, he turned toward his listener from a lean antique sofa while his wife of 60 years, Genie, sat nearby and occasionally suggested which stories to tell.
“For a while I was a troubled kid – really was troubled,” the retired coach said. “Hated everything, hated my high-school football coach because he kicked me off the team. Where I came from, that was my only salvation – I was not afraid. I would just put up my fists and fight.”
Remembering that anger, he later devoted an aspect of his high-school coaching career (after playing linebacker for Portland State) to helping troubled or restless boys, largely through the refinery of football, a sport he considers perfectly suited to such a task.
In Todd Trigsted’s online director’s statement for “Gridiron Gladiators,” he describes his father as “didactic and stern” and notes that “Football gave my father a profession. Coaching gave him a ministry.” He also notes that, during his dad’s successful run as head coach at Grant High in northeastern Portland, he would occasionally provide a night’s shelter to athletes whose parents may have run afoul of the law that evening.
Later came two coaching stints at Lewiston High – one season as head coach and four as an assistant – but the stories from this phase bespeak conflict of a different sort. You gather that willful administrators and colleagues proved less pleasing to Earl Trigsted than willful young athletes, and he left football coaching a few years before his retirement from teaching in 1997.
In his heart, though, he was a football lifer, according to Mouse Davis, the influential former Portland State coach who had crossed swords with Trigsted in the prep ranks and remains a close friend.
“He was a typical football junkie,” Davis said by phone. “I coached for 56 years. It’s tough to coach that long without becoming a bit of a believer in the game. Earl may not have coached that long but he still has that kind of intensity about the game of football, and believed in the values of it.”
For the son as well as the father, football has been slow in releasing its emotional grip.
During Todd Trigsted’s redshirt year at Linfield in 1982, when he was distancing himself from football, the Wildcats won an NCAA Division II national title, the first of three such championships in a five-year span – a point of pride in Oregon in the days before the Oregon Ducks’ emergence in Division I.
“I was so disheartened,” Trigsted said. “I was sitting down, watching everybody celebrate, and I was not a part of that team. It tore me apart. I felt I couldn’t man up. And it destroyed me. … I always felt that I let my father down, that I let myself down. To this day, it’s my only regret, dropping my football scholarship.”
Facing his father, and his old Lewiston life in general, was difficult. Although his parents now speak proudly and amusedly of his ballet adventure, it didn’t exactly bolster his masculinity cred in north central Idaho.
By now, some of the family wounds from that period have healed. But what Todd Trigsted calls the “bucketload of shame I was carrying around on my back” went beyond issues with Dad. He had issues with football at large.
Ultimately, “Gridiron Gladiators” poses a question that many parents are already asking: Should we allow our sons to play football? Todd Trigsted, a lifelong bachelor, has never had to face that question, and he keeps his opinions out of his documentary anyway.
In conversation, he is far more subjective. Struck especially by a recent study that underscored the vulnerability of the developing brain for 10- to 12-year-olds, Trigsted said, no, he would not allow a hypothetical son to play tackle football, especially at a tender age. He would direct him toward some other sport, or perhaps to music.
His parents are less certain that football’s risks outweigh its benefits.
“It makes you stop and think,” Genie Trigsted said of her son’s film. “If I were to start over, would I let my boys play? I don’t think I would stop them if they wanted it so badly. I think the film is well-done.”
Her husband agrees, though he’s not sure “Gridiron Gladiators” is ready to reverse the flow of cultural sentiment set in motion decades ago by movies like “Knute Rockne All-American.”
“The only criticism I ever had of his film was that it lacks emotion, to be a sellable thing,” said Earl, who had watched an early, perhaps flatter version of the movie. “People are convinced on emotion. Todd’s film really doesn’t pack a lot of emotion. It’s very matter-of-fact – and well-done. I think it’s really well-done.”
Emotion-packed or not, the documentary made Earl Trigsted weep, he admitted.
“I don’t know a coach who is not emotional,” he said.
To judge by the closing credits, the making of “Gridiron Gladiators” was less a football game than a long, winding tennis tournament – and mostly singles, by Trigsted.
But there were valuable contributions from Michael Oriard, an English professor at Oregon State and former NFL player who has authored several books on sports history. He wrote the documentary’s screenplay, used his contacts to arrange many of the interviews, and posed most of the questions himself. The rest was handled by Trigsted, who “did a remarkable thing with it,” Oriard said by phone.
Five years in the making, the film acknowledges football’s role as a crucible of American male values and, perhaps more importantly, an avenue for advancement for the underprivileged.
“The tone of the film, the note of uncertainty, rather than taking some powerful partisan position, was fully intentional and agreed upon by the two of us,” Oriard said.
For Todd Trigsted, though, the film couldn’t help but be personal. Among the interviewees are about 15 former NFL players, and the filmmaker dreaded the possibility of an interview reversing itself, of the questions being turned toward him.
And one did. During a recess in an interview with an especially no-nonsense former gladiator whom Trigsted genuinely respected, the man turned to the filmmaker and asked if he had played the game himself.
“Yeah, I played,” he said.
But he didn’t mean high-school football or Pop Warner. He restated the question.
“Did you PLAY?”
It was time for Trigsted to take a deep breath and confess. He told the Linfield story.
“I got hit so hard my freshman year, I thought I was going to —-ing die,” he said. “I never wanted to get hit again, and I dropped my scholarship the next year.”
Then he awaited the response.
“Todd,” the man said, according to Trigsted, “you showed greater sense of self at that age than I’ve ever been able to. I had to ratchet it up. I was frightened throughout my life, on all the levels. But I had to keep ratcheting up my tolerance for pain, and my ability to endure pain. Because I had nothing else.”
So one confession begat another. To Trigsted, it felt like absolution.
Grummert is a sports reporter for the Lewiston Tribune. He can be reached at (208) 848-2290 or firstname.lastname@example.org.