Kenny Chesney is finding the real meaning of football

Kenny Chesney performs at the 44th Annual Country Music Awards in Nashville, Tenn. Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010.

Photo by AP Photo / Mark Humphrey

Kenny Chesney performs at the 44th Annual Country Music Awards in Nashville, Tenn. Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2010.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He has recorded dozens of songs written by other people, but none has touched Kenny Chesney like “The Boys of Fall,” his most recent No. 1 single.

The song, co-written by Casey Beathard and Dave Turnbull, is an ode to football, especially high school football teams, the men who coach them and the small towns that embrace them.

“It has been one of the best journeys of my life,” Chesney said during a telephone interview last week, “to be able to spend a major part of the last year interviewing all kinds of people who have touched a lot of lives on and off the field.”

That journey was the making of the documentary “The Boys of Fall,” inspired by the video to the song. The documentary first aired on ESPN in August. Since mid-November, it has been available on DVD at Walmart.

Chesney spent much of his year away from touring, working on the documentary. He will return to the concert circuit next year with the Zac Brown Band and others.

But for now, he’s talking about the video, which has nearly 4.5 million YouTube views. It opens with New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton addressing the football team at Naperville (Ill.) Central High School, his alma mater. His sermon is about relishing the present and appreciating the blessings and rituals that will soon be gone, specifically the thrill of Friday night football games.

“That feeling goes away and it doesn’t come every Friday,” he tells the team. “It comes when you get married. It comes when your child is born. So you get it, but you just don’t get it every Friday night.”

Chesney interviewed players and coaches like Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Joe Namath, Bill Parcells, Texas coach Mack Brown and Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel, all of whom discuss the game and what it has meant to them

For Chesney, football was a lifestyle, almost a religion, as it is in so many small towns. A lyric from the song goes: “In little towns like mine, that’s all they got / Newspaper clippings fill the coffee shops. “

“I grew up in an area where the town leans on the football team,” said Chesney, who was raised in Luttrell, Tenn., and played football at Gibbs High School. “That’s how it was in east Tennessee. Football was all we had. “

With that in mind, he began his project, hoping to convey what football meant to him.

“The video sent me on a path,” he said, “and the more I worked on it, I almost became obsessed with it.”

The film’s themes emerged quickly as the people he interviewed issued similar philosophies and advice.

“You grow up in a small town and you have big dreams or you see something you want, you think, ’That can’t happen to me,’” he said. “I used to be one of those kids. I didn’t know how to go about pursuing a dream.

“One of my favorite parts of the film is when Bill Parcells says that he wants young kids out there who really have a passion for football to ignore the restraints, the voice in their heads that tells them, ’You can’t.” ’

The other theme, he said, came from the coaches and former players like Namath, who talked about how the game and life play off each other.

“Namath talks so much about how football is a team game,” Chesney said, “and he says, ’It has taken me a long time to realize that life is a team game, too. You can’t do it alone.’ “

The process of making the documentary and talking to so many successful and passionate men, he said, has profoundly changed his outlook on himself and his career.

“It awakened me as a person, and my life needed that,” he said. “So did my music. We all get in this mundane place now and then, and we need a bolt of energy to inspire us. Talking to all these guys and listening to the heart and passion they have for that. It inspired me to have the same kind of heart for what I do and to make the right choices and do things for the right reasons.”

The film has prompted scores of responses from players and coaches at all levels. Chesney said he received a two-page letter from two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin: “He told me how much the song and the film meant to him and his family.”

He also received word from Sean Peyton about one high school player in Louisiana who had a change of heart after hearing the song.

“About a year and a half ago, this kid told his parents he didn’t want to play football anymore,” he said. “He’d played all his life and he wanted to take the summer off. He didn’t want to practice in 90-degree weather anymore. But after he heard the song, he sat down his parents at the kitchen table and told them he’d changed his mind. Sean wrote in big letters with a Sharpie, ’This is why we do it.’

“That was the biggest blessing for me,” Chesney said. “Someone didn’t just listen to a song of mine; it altered his life. I don’t think I’ve ever had a song do that. I don’t think ’When the Sun Goes Down’ has done that for anyone. Maybe ... but I doubt it.”

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