MovieStyle Editor, columnist
Don’t peg Mustain as just a sports film
Former Arkansas Razorbacks QB Mitch Mustain talks to the touchdown club October 14, 2013 at the Embassy Suites in Little Rock.
“You are witnessing the beginning of what could be the Mitch Mustain era at Arkansas.”
-ESPN announcer Mike Patrick after Mitch Mustain completed a 43-yard pass to his high school teammate Damian Williams during his first drive as a collegiate quarterback
I don’t know what you were like when you were 17 or 18 years old, but I know I was an idiot.
I was a kid with options, and I made a strange choice in an effort to prove myself. It’s a long story, involving assistant basketball coaches and a heartbreaking scouting report slid across a steakhouse table by a truth-telling scout for the Boston Red Sox, but the upshot is that I ended up in South America trying to play pro baseball when it was evident to everyone around me that there were more sensible choices. I should have been in school. I should have accepted my obvious limitations.
Still, I don’t regret the decisions made back then. Like I always tell the kids, if you’re going to screw up your life make sure you do it early so you’ll have time to recover, so that down the line your stupidity will read as a youthful indiscretion. I know I worried my parents, but no one else was paying attention. I was free to fail in anonymity.
But those whom the gods seek to destroy, they first make famous.
I was thinking about that last week when I drove down to Hot Springs to watch The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain as part of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. I don’t imagine I have to tell many of you who Mustain is - at Springdale High School in 2005 he was considered the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country. He was the first-ever consensus Gatorade, Parade, and USA Today Player of the Year. He was probably the most celebrated high school athlete in the state of Arkansas in the past 30 years or so. And there was unprecedented speculation about where he was going to play college ball.Mustain committed early to the University of Arkansas, but after the offensive coordinator was fired he decided to take another look at his options. Mustain could have gone almost anywhere to play football - to Notre Dame or the University of Southern California or one of the service academies.
He recommitted and enrolled at UA after his high school coach, Gus Malzahn, was hired as offensive coordinator. While no one really talks about it, it’s apparent that Malzahn’s hiring was forced upon head coach Houston Nutt and that Malzahn was expected to deliver Mustain and four of his teammates to the program. We can speculate that Nutt resented Malzahn and “his boys” and the up-tempo no-huddle spread offense he had employed at Springdale High.We can speculate that Nutt, blessed with a team that included three future NFL running backs and a remarkable 14 future draft picks, was not happy when circumstances more or less forced his hand and led to his starting Mustain as a freshman. Though Mustain’s play was erratic, the Razorbacks won the eight games he started in 2006.
In a book about Springdale’s record-setting 2005 season, Mustain was quoted as calling Nutt “a dork.” And then, in a late-season game against South Carolina, Mustain threw an interception on his very first attempt. And Casey Dick came in and finished the season as a starter. There were meetings with parents, hateful emails, message board recriminations. When the dust settled, what might have been the best collection of athletes ever gathered at the university finished their season with a couple of disappointing losses. Mustain left. Malzahn did too.
All this is recounted in some detail in The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain, which also covers Mustain’s subsequent transfer to USC, where he failed to crack the starting lineup, and his post-collegiate life, which has included a stint selling cars as well as a flirtation with baseball. Mustain hasn’t given up on his dream of playing football in the National Football League, although in the film he comes across as a sensitive and introverted young man with a lot of interests. I got the feeling he wasn’t consumed by football as much as some of the young men who play the game; he wouldn’t be devastated if he never played again. Football was just something he was good at. He made a lot of people happy by going to Arkansas. He might have been happier somewhere else. But he made the choice. He had other things he could do with his life.
After the screening, I hosted a question-and-answer session with Mustain and the film’s director, Matt Wolfe.
Mustain struck me the way a lot of kids his age - he’s 25 years old now - strike me. He’s a little restless, with maybe a touch of some attention-deficit, but with an undeniable intelligence and an uncommon thoughtfulness. He was as honest as he could be, sometimes making what an attorney might call admissions against self-interest. He was both refreshingly candid and frustratingly politic about his time at Arkansas and the way he had been treated by the adults on the scene.
I liked him. He wasn’t the cocky meathead he might have been. Not once did he engage in self-pity or default to the Manzielian defense that he “was just a kid” - although that’s exactly what he was. I don’t think he thinks he did anything wrong and I don’t think he did either. It’s unfortunate that so many of us invest so much in athletic young men.
I had a couple of chances to see The Identity Theft of Mitch Mustain before the Hot Springs screening; I’d put it off because I figured I knew what the movie was about and there were other movies that sounded more promising. I thought I knew what it was.
But I was wrong. Wolfe’s movie is a strong film - one of the strongest docs I’ve seen this year - precisely because it doesn’t default to the conventions of the sports documentary, because it doesn’t dismiss or marginalize Mustain’s thoughtfulness as a brand of flakedom. I imagine it will play even better with an audience that’s completely unfamiliar with Mustain’s story - one that might have a better perspective on the surreal nature of his ordeal.
Wolfe’s camera allows Mustain to tell his story his way, in a voice free of false modesty and self-aggrandizement. Mustain, for all his diffusion, comes across as a grown-up, cognizant of the expectations and reasonable doubts of others. He offers no apologies, only an explanation.
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 10/25/2013