Commentary

OTL: Star power on, off field

Updated: November 9, 2008, 11:37 AM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN.com

On the morning of the season opener, a phone rings at a quaint Bakersfield, Calif., high school. A movie studio is calling, and it asks a stunning question:

"Can Will Smith land his helicopter on your campus?"

After a few gasps and a page to the principal, the studio is told that, yes, there will be an empty baseball field at Mr. Smith's disposal. The studio says thank you; the secretary on the phone wants to faint.

Hours later, about 4 p.m., a sleek, black chopper circles Bakersfield's airspace. School has just let out, the band is practicing, the baseball field is smaller than Fenway, hundreds of teenage eyes are looking skyward -- and a decision is made to land more discreetly at the local airport. A rented SUV then rushes Will Smith to the football field, where he emerges with a bald, buff, growling security guard. "Family time! Family time!" the guard says to the fans who are ogling, to the fans who have camera phones, to the fans who are shouting "Hancock," to the cameraman from "Inside Edition," to the paparazzi with bad intentions.

He can never escape it.


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Across the way, a chartered bus is pulling up to the field, and beautiful people come strolling off, one after another. Up front is a striking, slender man wearing dark sunglasses and a wide-brimmed straw hat. He apparently does not want to be noticed or get sunburned, and when he sees Will Smith drawing a crowd, he exhales and sneaks into the stands.

Eventually, a photographer puts two and two together: It's Wayne Gretzky. Soon, someone is yelling, "Gooooooooaal."

He can never escape it.


Hours later, a shy man walks with his wife to the bleachers -- the wrong bleachers. His son plays for the visiting team, from the L.A. area, but for some reason, the shy man has chosen to sit in the Bakersfield section. Who knows why? Maybe it's to keep his distance, or maybe it's inadvertent, or maybe it's because his nickname is Joe Cool and he never sweats the small stuff.

Eventually, a photographer puts two and two together: It's Joe Montana. Soon, someone is yelling, "Go Niners!"

He can never escape it.


High school football may be bigger in Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania, but it's a little more photogenic at a school called Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, Calif.), just 32 miles north of La La Land.

[+] EnlargeOaks Christian High School Football
Chris Williams/Icon SMI for ESPN.comOaks Christian brings a little star power to each game.

Every Friday, Oaks plays a doubleheader that has fans doing a double take. The starting quarterback on the junior varsity team is a Gretzky: sophomore Trevor Gretzky. The top receiver on the JV team is a Smith: sophomore Trey Smith. And the starting quarterback on the varsity team is a Montana: junior Nick Montana.

Every week, half the eyes are on the field … and half the eyes are on the fathers. It's Celebrities-On-Parade, and people wonder how the three kids deal with it, how they've been able to combine for 50 touchdowns and close to 3,000 yards in such a fishbowl. But here's a clue:

The hockey player's son doesn't play hockey. The actor's son doesn't act. And the 49er's son doesn't 49er.

"Who made 'The Catch?'" Nick is asked one day.

"John Taylor?" Nick answers.

It explains everything.


In other words, they have their own stories.

Trevor, for instance, has had a hockey stick in his room his whole life, but Wayne never gave him any ice to go with it.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Gretzky
Chris Williams/Icon SMI for ESPN.comThe son of the hockey great, Trevor Gretzky traded in skates for a chance to be a QB.

"He's grown up in the Southwest, and he's never really had a desire to skate," Wayne says. "If you can't skate, you can't play in the NHL. It's pretty simple."

Says Trevor: "I played growing up -- I was a goalie. But there is nowhere to play out here."

Over the years, Wayne would take a look at Trevor's wingspan -- on his way to 6-foot-4 -- and wonder whether the boy could've been a defenseman. And the kid played defense, all right: linebacker.

"He's a football player," says Bill Redell, the head varsity coach at Oaks Christian. "Hockey's like watching two guys fish. He's not going to play hockey."

By the end of his freshman year of high school in 2007, Trevor was such an aggressive player that he was asked to move up to the varsity squad. As it was, he already was an elite catcher for the varsity baseball team, so it wasn't a stretch. But he turned down the offer, so he could learn how to play … quarterback?

Redell entrusted him to the L.A.-based quarterback guru, Steve Clarkson, who handed Trevor a football and told him to let 'er rip.

"His first throws were end over end," Clarkson says. "It looked like he was punting 'em."

The kid had never quarterbacked before. Not in touch football, not in flag football, not in Nerf football. He didn't even know where to grip the ball. But from this past December through August, Clarkson turned him into a "flamethrower." Trevor still needed work on his touch and on the intermediate throws, but a proud Clarkson invited Wayne and his lovely wife, Janet, out to practice one day to show them the work in progress.

Wayne was in awe and said: Do what makes you happy, kid.

"I mean, we figured Joe Montana's sons would be quarterbacks, but not mine," Wayne says. "Trevor actually told me he could be a Canadian import and play in the CFL, so he's already thinking about everything."

Hockey is history.


This past summer, at a football camp, Will Smith looked at Trey Smith, and Trey looked back at Will … and they decided to race.

They knelt down in four-point stances, took off on a 100-yard dash, and Will -- yes, Will -- led after the first 50 yards.

But the actor's 40-year-old back tightened up, and 15-year-old Trey blew by him in the end.

Speed is something the kid takes pride in. His younger half-brother Jaden may have starred in "The Pursuit of Happyness," but Trey, as a freshman in 2007, starred on the JV team, scoring touchdowns on reverses, flea-flickers, bombs and kick returns. By season's end, the coaches were dying to promote him to varsity for the 2007 playoffs.

"What time's the playoff game?" Trey asked.

"Seven," a coach said.

[+] EnlargeTrey Smith
Chris Williams/Icon SMI for ESPN.comTrey Smith has displayed elite quickness and talent at wide receiver.

"I got a party to go to," Trey said.

"You can't go to the party after the game?"

"No."

"Well, what if we win? Can you come back and play next week?"

"No, I don't think so."

At that point, the staff stopped asking.

"Trey's outstanding," Redell says. "But Trey doesn't have a burning desire to play. I told him, 'You should be on the varsity,' and he said, 'I want to play on the frosh-soph with my friends.' So if he wants to be a big-time player, he has to switch gears to make the commitment. Does he have a passion to go to SC or UCLA or Notre Dame? We have yet to see that yet."

Someone connected to the Oaks program put it another way: "Trey's got a ton of talent, but he doesn't really have any aspirations beyond JV football. I'm not kidding you. It's frustrating. He might be the first four-year JV player in history.

"Football's a social event for him. He would much rather have fun playing the JV game with his good friend Trevor, having fun with his friends, and at the varsity game, palling around with the cheerleaders. At first, I thought the kid wanted to do it, but then he was like, 'Naaaaaah.'"

But maybe people are misinterpreting Trey. He does not do interviews -- because of an edict from Will, who also won't talk -- and there is a sense that Will is holding him back, a sense that Will is worried that once his son gets to varsity, once his name is on recruiting lists, another Smith will be out of privacy.

On the plus side, Trey's mother, Sharee -- who was divorced from Will in 1995 -- has married former San Diego Chargers running back Terrell Fletcher. So that means that the kid, if he's ready and willing, can find out firsthand from his stepfather what it takes go big-time.

"I know this," says Clarkson, who has trained Smith in the past, "He loves playing wide receiver. But it's something he does naturally, that he doesn't necessarily have to work at. If he ever decided that this is what he wanted to do, I truly believe he'd have the ability to someday be a first-round pick. No question."

Since the kid isn't even 16 yet, he still has time to embrace it all, still has time to play varsity … or not.

"Well, we should all have it so good," an Oaks staffer says. "If football doesn't work out, he just goes back to his billion-dollar home in Beverly Hills."

They can never escape it.


A Montana in a running offense? It almost happened.

In 2007, Nick was a JV quarterback at the Northern California football power De La Salle, where the coaching staff calls about six passes a game -- which it thinks is six too many.

No one can argue with the results -- coach Bob Ladouceur once won 151 straight games running the veer -- but no one can argue, either, with Joe Montana, who knows a thing or two about throwing on first down.

[+] EnlargeNick Montana
Chris Williams/Icon SMI for ESPN.comNick Montana switched schools so that he could show off his arm.

Joe had a sense that Nick was going to sit as a junior behind a senior starter at De La Salle, and he also was aware of Oaks Christian's wide-open offense, the same Oaks offense that had propelled Jimmy Clausen to Notre Dame.

So Joe, through his former 49ers owner, Eddie DeBartolo, reached out to Clausen's old quarterbacks coach, Clarkson. They spoke about Oaks Christian and about Nick, and Joe -- thanks also to some business considerations -- decided to move the entire family down to L.A. in July.

If it sounds heavy-handed, it wasn't. Joe just wanted to get Nick to the right place, then step away. His son, at 6-foot-2, was bigger than he and, according to Joe, had a stronger arm. He simply didn't want him to rot on the De La Salle bench.

Joe told Nick he'd be attending Oaks Christian and training with Clarkson … then gave Nick his car keys.

"You would think that somebody of Nick's stature -- his ilk, his name -- would just sit back and say, 'My last name's Montana, I'm entitled,'" Clarkson says. "But this is a kid who would get up on Sunday morning and drive to our workouts. I mean, he's up at 8 in the morning and drives an hour by himself to work out for two hours.

"How good is he? He's Joe. He's Joe with a stronger arm. That's what he is."

Nick is particularly a dead ringer for his dad when throwing on the run, and in the opener this September at Bakersfield, he scrambled to his left and threw a 40-yard dart across his body for a score -- vintage Joe. But the resemblances are unintentional, because Joe's career is an absolute mystery to the kid.

"Well, I'm pretty sure I wasn't born when he was playing for the Niners," says Nick, 16, who actually was 1 year old when Joe was traded. "Or I don't remember it. All I have is a little vision of sitting up in a box in Kansas City when he played there. But that's it. So I always get mixed up about 'The Catch.' Who caught it again?"

Dwight Clark.

"Oh."


It is better that they're their own people, better that they're oblivious, better that the three sons don't know what happens in the stands with the three fathers.

For instance, the week after the Bakersfield opener, a helicopter appeared in L.A.'s vanilla sky 15 seconds before a JV game in Pasadena, and everyone assumed it was Will coming in for a late landing.

[+] EnlargeWill Smith
Chris Williams/Icon SMI for ESPN.comWill Smith is just one of Oaks Christian's famous fans -- but it's his son who is attracting attention on the field.

The chopper kept descending and curving, and the cameramen who had come to see the dads couldn't believe their good fortune: Smith's gonna land on the 50! The 50-yard line! Even some JV players on the field were craning their necks to see whether they should scatter, to see where the helicopter was headed, to see what the movie star would do this time. But, suddenly, the chopper did a pirouette and started climbing. It was a traffic copter, a complete false alarm. Will was already in his seat wearing a yellow argyle sweater vest.

But that was the charm of the season: Do you eyeball the stands or the field? Certainly, the smarter choice was to watch the game. Trevor and Trey had been close friends since middle school, and their rapport clearly was carrying over to the field. Through the first eight contests, Gretzky had thrown 18 touchdowns, 10 of them to Trey. If they wanted a score, Trey ran a fade; if they wanted a score, Trey ran a post. The Smith kid even had three kick returns for touchdowns. And Will -- who never missed a game despite his hectic schedule -- always was rooting in the 10th row.

"I ran into Will a couple times," says the 67-year-old Redell, winking. "And I think the last time was that game in Pasadena. I didn't recognize him right away; he had some yellow glee club-type sweater on. So he gives me a big hug, and I say, 'Hey, listen, let's ease off the hug stuff here in public. You Hollywood people.'

"I told him I wanted to be in one of his movies, and he said, 'Well, you can be in all of them from here on in.' And I said, 'I don't want to be in all of them; I just want a love scene in one.' But, for some reason, I don't think that's going to happen."

But by mid-September, one of the other dads was missing: Gretzky. Wayne happens to have a job that keeps him on the road -- he's head coach of the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes -- and training camp was keeping him out of L.A. He was missing not only the chance to see his son light it up but also his chance to visit with Joe Montana, with whom he has a close kinship. Between them, they have eight championship rings, and 20 years ago, they had even been on the cover of Sports Illustrated together -- along with Magic Johnson -- under the headline: "They Dominated the '80s." But now their sons were dominating both sides of a weekly doubleheader, and it saddened Wayne to be absent. But his wife, Janet, would text him updates, and, if all else failed, he could watch the highlights.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Gretzky and Trey Smith
Chris Williams/Icon SMI for ESPN.comTrevor Gretzky's favorite target is Trey Smith.

It's true -- the JV was on TV. Will had commissioned a movie crew to shoot every JV game in high definition, with three cameras no less, so he could unveil a season-ending DVD at Trey's annual November birthday party. Copies were to be available for every kid on the team, meaning Wayne wouldn't have to miss a single touchdown.

This could happen only in Hollywood, only at Oaks Christian, only at Celebrity High. And don't feel bad for the varsity team -- its home games are broadcast live on the Internet. A Web site called kadytv.com -- which knew star power when it saw it -- had struck a deal to air the varsity games via broadband, using former NFL star Chuck Muncie as the lead analyst. It meant that Redell's son Randy, a lieutenant colonel stationed in South Korea, could see every snap. It also meant that, every Friday, Nick's relatives in western Pennsylvania could see the next incarnation of Joe.

Through eight games, Nick had tossed 21 touchdowns to three interceptions and had already earned a scholarship offer from Stanford. Earlier in the season, his only transgression was holding the ball too long, and whenever he'd struggle, Joe's wife, Jennifer, would nudge her husband down toward the sidelines. "No sense letting a lot of things I learned over the years go to waste," says Joe, who'd also watch game film with Nick. And Redell would be so thrilled to see him that he'd almost hand Joe a headset.

"We have a policy where we don't want fathers coaching their kids," Redell says, winking again. "But we made an exception. So the new rule is, if you've been a three-time Super Bowl MVP, you can come out and coach your kid. Are you kidding? Of course I want him on the sideline. But he seems so shy. If I'd won three Super Bowl MVPs, it'd be on the marquee of the school out there."

Every Friday, there has been some sort of celebrity sighting, and as the end of the season nears, the paparazzi still are combing the school. Denzel Washington always has told people in Hollywood: "Will's up here, and the rest of us are down here" -- which is why Will particularly had little choice but to double his security. Earlier in the season, he'd been a little more lax, and his wife, Jada Pinkett-Smith, had even rented an airplane to fly a "Happy Birthday, Will" banner at halftime of a game. But by Halloween night, security guards at the Oaks game were checking every credential and ended up ejecting two shady cameramen, meaning two more people missed another dominant football performance.

The stats didn't lie. By Week 8, the Oaks varsity team was 8-0, the JV was 7-1 and the paparazzi was … 0-8.


This whole time, the triplets -- the three sons -- haven't batted an eye.

[+] EnlargeNick Montana
Chris Williams/Icon SMI for ESPN.comNick Montana is used to the comparisons, but he's making a name for himself.

They sometimes leave the field to catcalls, and it always goes in one ear and out the other. Trevor walks off and hears, "Where's the Stanley Cup?" Trey walks off and hears, "Where's the Fresh Prince?" And Nick walks off and hears, "Where's Jerry Rice?"

Where? In their rearview mirror, that's where.

People ask them whether they mind the scrutiny, whether they mind the expectations, whether they mind being the three teenage faces of a program. And their answer always is no.

In fact, they say there's another kid in school who has it just as bad, or worse, than they do:

The son of Eddie Money.

Does he play football?

"No," one of the boys says. "He plays guitar."

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.