Mark Ellis casts local football players for “Touchback,” to be filmed in Coopersville, Grand Rapids

Former GVSU football player, Matt Flutur, made it to the second day of casting for Touchback

Eric Coulter

Former GVSU football player, Matt Flutur, made it to the second day of casting for “Touchback”

Lauren Fitch

Sports coordinator Mark Ellis set up camp on Coopersville High School’s football field on Tuesday to begin his search for the all-star team to play in Don Handfield’s “Touchback,” which will be filmed in the Grand Rapids area.

About a thousand local football players, including some Grand Valley State University students, registered for their chance to try out for a role on the big screen, but only 60 will meet Ellis’ high standards.

“Touchback” will be shot in Coopersville and Grand Rapids starting this week. The film follows the story of Murphy, played by Brian Presley, who is a small town farmer and volunteer fireman still hung up on his high school glory days when his football career was cut short by an injury during the playoff game. He is given the chance to relive the fateful moment of the injury and must decide if he wants to return to the life he has or find out what could have been.

Kurt Russell will play the head football coach and Melanie Lynskey takes the role of Murphy’s wife.

Ellis, working for Sports Studio, described the film as “‘Field of Dreams’ meets ‘A Wonderful Life.’”

“I believe this is an instant classic sports movie,” Ellis said.

The potential players were divided into smaller groups to try out throughout the day, and Ellis addressed each group before the athletics began.

“We need football players, real football players,” Ellis said.

The athletes performed three different tasks including a 40-yard dash and two agility courses. About half the group was eliminated after the dash at one session.

“I’ve been doing this for 17 years so you learn pretty quickly what you’re looking for,” Ellis said. “Certainly in 10 minutes, I know if he’s a guy who can make the team or not.”

A former Grand Valley State University football player, Matt Flutur, completed all three tasks and was also invited back for the next round on Thursday.

Flutur played mainly outside linebacker during his career at GVSU from 2005-2009, though he never started for the team. He said he heard about the casting call through an ex-teammate and felt prepared going to the tryouts because of his past experience.

“I saw what they were testing and I’m pretty good at that stuff,” Flutur said. “It’d be fun (to have a role in the film), but I came in with no expectations.”

Corey Melinn, a senior at GVSU who graduated from Coopersville High School, also tried out for the “Touchback” team, though he did not make it past the second task. Melinn hadn’t played football since high school, but he wrestles for GVSU and hoped the training would translate to a good performance on the football field.

Melinn said he had nothing to lose going into the tryouts and thought the whole experience was good for Coopersville.

“It helps other people see small towns can be assets for the film industry,” he said.

For those who make the cut, the rest of the week will be spent on more tryouts and then a training camp. Ellis said he will put 60 men in uniform, but probably about 30 will actually participate in plays for “Touchback.”

“I’m happy so far (with the talent),” Ellis said. “Listen, I’m in Michigan. There’s some great football players in Michigan.”

“Touchback” is an independent film through Freedom Films with a smaller budget than some of the films Ellis has worked on in the past, which include “Miracle,” “The Longest Yard,” “Just Wright” and “Grown Ups,” among others.

Still, Ellis said it was a privilege to be involved.

“My passion for this project is huge,” he said. “I’m not doing this for a paycheck … I want to do this for the love of the genre.”

Filming of the football scenes will begin on Aug. 11 and last until Aug. 18 with all of the shots executed at night. Ellis warned the players of the grueling schedule but said the experience is worth it.

“Football is not meant to be played 12 hours a day, five or six days in a row, is it?” Ellis said. “There’s a reason they play about three or four hours and then take a week off before they play again. So you better be pad-ready.”

The players make $75 a day during the training camp and $125 a day for the actual filming. Ellis said no one will get rich at the job but the experience will be unforgettable.

“If any of you actually make it through this, you’ll have the time of your life,” he said.

[email protected]