It was supposed to be a breakout season for Dior Walker-Scott. As a returning sophomore for the Laney College football team in Oakland, which had won the California state championship the year before, Walker-Scott was the centerpiece of the young Eagles offense — a tough, compact, 5-foot-8 wide receiver whose quickness and strength allowed him to get separation from much taller cornerbacks and safeties.
Now suddenly he was on the floor, seized by a sharp pain in his chest.
“I felt like I was dying, to be honest,” he said in a phone interview last week. The team’s three quarterbacks had all been injured, and Walker-Scott had been asked to step in and play quarterback for the first time since high school — a move that risked costing him the crucial game film he needed to secure a scholarship.
“It was the stress,” he added. “It was just me getting in my own head, saying, ‘I’m not good enough.’ “
The pain persisted throughout the day, reasserting itself later as Walker-Scott, who wants to play at the University of Hawaii, tried to will his way through practice — a struggle captured in the fifth season of “Last Chance U,” a documentary series about the smash-mouth abattoir of junior college football, which returned to Netflix on Tuesday. (The show will shift to junior college basketball next season.) But the cameras missed when he dragged himself to the coach’s office that morning, in the grips of a full-on anxiety attack.
Coach John Beam, a fixture in Oakland football for about 40 years, remembered stopping a meeting to tend to his star receiver.
“He and I went off and did 30 minutes of breathing exercises,” Beam said from his home in Oakland, where he’s managing a season delayed indefinitely by the coronavirus. “We didn’t know if we’d have to call 911.”
Fans of “Last Chance U” will recognize certain recurring elements: young, mostly Black athletes committed to a desperate bid to play at the next level; a larger-than-life coach dashing up and down the sidelines, peppering them with invective; the ups-and-downs of each game, rendered with bone-crunching immediacy. And yet, the Laney College season is a significant departure for the show, feeding off a coach who is given to hugging his players and talking to them about the importance of being vulnerable and “letting the pain out.”
In its move to Oakland, the new season also sharpens the show’s focus on contemporary racial and socio-economic issues at a moment of intensified demand for better and more honest stories about Black lives like Walker-Scott’s. Laney athletes struggle to avoid career-ending injuries in a violent game while juggling children, jobs and even hunger in a rapidly gentrifying city where many can’t afford to live. Walker-Scott himself is shown as homeless, crawling each night into the back seat of his car to sleep.
“My main focus was not to worry about now,” he said. “Just keep grinding. Just keep doing what you’re doing because eventually it’s going to get better.”
Junior college football is by nature a high-stakes proposition: Athletes who can’t attend a four-year college after high school often pursue a two-year associate degree with the goal of transferring junior year. Any hopes of playing professionally — often seen as the only ticket out of grim circumstances — hinge on locking down a scholarship from a Division 1 recruiter, or at least enough highlight footage to attempt a walk-on.
The challenges at Laney are particularly acute. Previous seasons of “Last Chance” were set on rural campuses — East Mississippi Community College in Scooba, Mississippi, and Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas — where players faced similarly narrow prospects, but there was never a question of where they would sleep or get their next meal.
At Laney, a commuter college, players are not on scholarship or eligible for benefits like on-campus housing. Those difficulties are due in part to rules specific to the California Community College Athletic Association, noted the show’s creator, Greg Whiteley, which is cordoned off from national governing bodies. That was a major reason for his decision this time to pick a California school for Season 5.
“A lot of times these kids are piling up in a single-bedroom apartment or a studio apartment,” Whiteley said of California junior college athletes. “In some cases, as we documented this year, there’s even more extreme living circumstances.”
For the 6-foot-2, 300-pound offensive lineman Nu’u Taugavau, who quit his job as a Walmart greeter to try his chances at Laney, going to school means applying for food stamps to help feed his two young children. For Laney’s star cornerback, Rejzohn Wright, it means driving hours every day to and from the suburbs while managing the trauma of a violent family tragedy.
Coach Beam bristled at some of the strict rules enforced by the association, which until last year prohibited its sports programs from providing special food assistance to athletes.
“When a kid was hungry, I couldn’t go out and get him a Cup O’ Noodles — that was considered an impermissible benefit because I’m giving it to an athlete and not everybody,” Beam said. “When Dior is sleeping in his car, I legally cannot help him.”
Still, the larger challenge for Beam, as it was for the coaches in previous seasons, has been to navigate what Whiteley called “two competing objectives” of the job: “One is to win and have a successful program, and the other is to do what’s best for the young men that they’re coaching.”
Those goals are ostensibly aligned because the players get recruitment benefits from succeeding on the field and in the classroom. But the players, many of them teenagers from hardscrabble backgrounds, are often more sensitive than their sturdy frames suggest.
“To many young men, especially young men of color, showing your vulnerability is a sign of weakness,” said Beam. “And we’re trying to say: ‘No. It’s not. In fact, it’s a sign of strength. Asking for help is a strength move, a power move.’ “
Beam acknowledged that there is only so much a coach can do. He sometimes turns athletes like Walker-Scott over to his wife, Cindi Rivera-Beam, a therapist who specializes in services for people of color, or to a social worker, Carlisa Harris, who was brought into the program last year.
“In a masculine game like football, it’s OK to be vulnerable,” Beam said. “It’s OK to hug. It’s OK to cry. At the same time, I’m a competitive guy. But you always have to remember that there’s a fragility there that we have to be careful of.”
Beam’s long history working with underprivileged young men makes a difference. ESPN sportswriter Tim Keown, who appears throughout the season, has known Beam for nearly 30 years, going back to when Beam was head coach at Skyline High School in Oakland.
“He just got it with the kids,” Keown said by phone. “He understood where they were coming from, what they were, what obstacles were in their way, what they had to overcome just to get to school.”
Keown added: “Some of them had to make three bus transfers just to get to school every day. And he never lost sight of that.”
The long-shot NFL dreams of disadvantaged teenagers have always been the dramatic lifeblood of “Last Chance U”: The show portrays junior college football as a kind of purgatory, where athletes labor under tempestuous coaches who want to deliver them to Division I programs but also need to win games.
But a lot has changed since last season. The global outcry following the killing of George Floyd has intensified calls to re-examine insidious racial dynamics — and with that, changed the context in which such player-coach relationships might be understood.
Earlier seasons already underscored the inherent tensions. Coach Buddy Stephens of East Mississippi, a booming field-general type who was once suspended for getting into a fistfight with a referee, had to walk back an ugly moment when he upbraided a locker room of mostly Black players for acting like “thugs.” Coach Jason Brown of Independence, who is also white, believed that his past as a tough guy from Compton, California, helped him recruit star Black prospects, but it didn’t insulate him from developing dysfunctional relationships with his players.
Beam, who does no shortage of yelling but also puts his players through mindfulness workshops, talked about the need for coaches like him to recognize the injustices and systemic racism players face — to “help absorb some of that pain.” But he acknowledged that players of color ultimately carry the burden, which he can only try to understand.
“That’s a weight on their shoulders daily,” he said. “And yet they still put a smile on their face and they show up ready to go.”
In making “Last Chance U,” Whiteley, who is white and also created the Netflix series “Cheer” about a competitive college cheer squad in Texas, said he has tried to be mindful of his own responsibilities in conveying these players’ stories. (“I consider it a genuine honor that so many compelling young people of varying backgrounds have opened up their lives and trusted me with their stories,” he wrote in an email.)
For his part, Walker-Scott seems determined to write his own. Nights, he is shown working at the fast-food chain Wingstop, where he logs 10 to 20 hours a week during the season. He fends off relatives who pressure him to reconcile with a father who he says beat him with a belt and sabotaged his senior year of high school football. (“You need to understand that I was in the Navy,” his father, Jarvis Walker, responds in the series during a separate interview. “So in my house, it’s a tight ship.”)
Sharing those experiences on camera “was an overwhelming experience at first,” Walker-Scott said, and he was scared to open up. But Whiteley talked him into occupying a central role, which he came to find empowering.
“He said, ‘Look, your story is tremendous — I know you’re going to be scared to talk about it at first, but you’re really what JuCo football is about,’ ” Walker-Scott said. “Later on in the season, I felt more comfortable. I felt great knowing my story would be out there and I could help somebody else.”
Throughout the 2019 season, Walker-Scott has an eye on playing at Hawaii, where Beam recently placed another wide receiver. The coronavirus has since added more uncertainty to an already cloudy future, but Beam was persuaded by Walker-Scott’s grit.
“You’ve got to root for him,” Beam said. “He’s going to be successful in life. I’m not sure how or what he’s going to do, but he will because he has the resolve to get through this.”