- Comedic masterpiece? Transcendent film classic? Uh, maybe. But two decades after its release, Adam Sandler’s homespun tale of Bobby Boucher, Cajun cretin turned football phenom, stands the test of time. Just ask co-stars Dan Fouts and Chris Fowler ...
Dan Fouts is reminded almost weekly of his role in an all-time sports blockbuster because the checks keep arriving at his Oregon home from the Screen Actor’s Guild. He opens them, notes which far-off country they’re from and laughs at the comically small amounts he gets from streams and television re-airs—six cents, down to three after taxes—before tucking them uncashed into the giant movie poster near his desk.
Fouts spent just a few hours filming his part in The Waterboy with former broadcast partner Brent Musburger in Orlando one afternoon in 1998. Adam Sandler, the film’s star, co-writer and co-producer, had originally asked Keith Jackson and Bob Griese to call the movie’s penultimate scene—a football game called the Bourbon Bowl, won in dramatic fashion by the rag-tag South Central Louisiana State Mud Dogs—but Jackson declined. Fouts was thrilled by the development and says Musburger was fired up about the chance to do a little acting.
Because their taping took place away from the cast, Fouts had no clue what to expect, no real idea what the movie was about, when he walked into a theater on the night of the premiere. He went with some friends, and nearly an hour into the picture he had yet to appear. His group began asking why they were here watching a PG-13 comedy aimed largely at stoned college-aged males.
At that moment on the screen, one of the movie’s other stars, legendary Happy Days star Henry Winkler, dropped his pants to expose his bare buttocks and a tattoo of singer Roy Orbison.
“I turned to the guy next to me and I whispered ‘That’s me,’ ” Fouts says, laughing, before mentioning that his actual appearance in the movie ties the whole film together.
If the sight of Winkler’s butt or the charged banter between Fouts and Musburger during the Bourbon Bowl escapes you, there’s a chance you didn’t see The Waterboy when it was released on this date 20 years ago. But you likely did. It was, until the The Blind Side in 2009, the highest-grossing sports film ever made behind. (It’s still second, ahead of Rocky, Bull Durham, Jerry McGuire and the rest.) The plot follows a sheltered Louisiana boy’s journey from bullied waterboy into punishing college linebacker who funnels others’ mockery of him into rage hallucinations that allow him to lay comically hard hits on much bigger players. Along the way, he converts his Cajun-speaking mother into a football fanatic, confronts his father’s decision to leave the family for a “voodoo woman named Phyllis” and, at the end, celebrates the impending loss of his virginity.
It was peak 1990s Sandler, from the absurdist plot lines and cutaways to the laughable usage of accomplished actors to play strange roles far beneath their stature. (Oscar-winner Kathy Bates, in this particular case, plays Sandler’s alligator-grilling, donkey-owning, devil-fearing mother.)
For some of the myriad sports personalities who were credited with roles in the movie—Fouts, Musburger, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Cowher, Lynn Swan, Lawrence Taylor, Chris Fowler, Lee Corso—it was their induction into the strange world of a cult classic, something they cannot escape to this day.
An example: Fouts, a Hall of Fame quarterback, was asked recently to sign a Mud Dogs helmet for a fan at a card show. “He says: I want you to write ‘Shut up Brent’ on it,” Fouts says, referencing a line from the movie. “Every once and a while I’ll see Brent and he’ll just look at me and say ‘Ohh, don’t say it Foutsey. Don’t say it!’ ”
For the rest of us who saw the film at a certain age, it represented a comedic sweet spot, an introduction into the quotable inside jokes that would stand the test of time.
I first saw The Waterboy at a Scranton-area Cineplex for my friend Andrew’s 10th birthday party.
His parents initially extended the invite to a small group of Andrew’s friends with the intention of taking us to see I’ll Be Home for Christmas, a PG-rated, family-friendly comedy starring Jonathan Taylor Thomas. The film was yanked from theaters just a few weeks after its release—the eventual 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes might be an indication why—leaving The Waterboy as a dicey backup plan.
Having not been allowed to watch WWF wrestling, Ren & Stimpy or Beavis and Butt-Head growing up, I figured requesting permission to see something banged with a PG-13 stamp for “language and some crude sexual humor” was a non-starter. I broke down. Most of my middle school years were spent trying to mask my confusion when other kids would loudly recite lines from Ace Ventura, Wayne’s World, Clerks, Dumb & Dumber, Tommy Boy, Friday, Kingpin and Billy Madison—movies I would not see until my late teens or early 20s. (I still have not gotten around to Men In Black, Titanic—verboten back in the day because, you know—Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park. Please don’t @ me. My ’90s viewing habits are a disastrous black hole. A series of missed opportunities). If it wasn’t Mrs. Doubtfire or FernGully, there was a good chance I had no idea what the hell you were talking about.
To my surprise, I got the green light, and for the first time in my life I arrived at school on a Monday quoting the spiciest lines from an older kids movie. I must have screamed “YOU CAN DO IT” 1,400 times that week. I yelled “GATORADEEEEEE” at every kid I saw sipping a bottle of water. It was obnoxious, and it felt good.
The movie also grew with me. Andrew and I roomed together in college, and The Waterboy was a regular in our DVD rotation.
It’s refreshingly watchable even now, though different parts stand out over time. It was hard at age 10 to appreciate a black-and-white flashback of Winkler’s character, Coach Klein, experiencing a mental breakdown while wearing high heels and weeping into an unplugged telephone. Now that I watch Toy Story through the eyes of a parent, I laugh thinking about Blake Clark, the actor who voices the Slinky Dog character. In The Waterboy, he plays an always-hammered special teams coach who sports a jeans jumper and chest piercings.
Sandler was nominated in the “Worst Actor” category at that year’s Razzie Awards, while Bates won a Blockbuster Award for best supporting actress—a juxtaposition that may explain the movie’s continuously unexplainable attraction. Out of loyalty, I cannot scroll past it when the movie inevitably appears on TBS on a Saturday just before midnight.
When reached by phone just ahead of the 20th anniversary of the premieire, ESPN’s Fowler marveled at his puffed, swooping ’90s hairstyle in the movie, which didn’t include a strand of grey.
He appreciated Sandler’s sports fandom, which was a major reason Fowler and College Gameday staple Lee Corso were also cast to call a Mud Dogs game in the movie. The faux ESPN broadcast chronicled the woebegone college’s final attempt at a bowl game berth, against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Fowler and Corso taped their segment while sitting in a half-constructed press box overlooking a concrete studio floor.
“When we made it, you didn’t have a sense that it would be [a blockbuster],” Fowler says. “I didn’t have a thought that, 20 years later I’d still be getting these little checks from someone streaming it in Asia.”
Fowler was aware of the fact that The Waterboy poked fun at Louisiana’s college football culture, taking particular aim at a proud and unique segment of LSU’s fan base. He credited Sandler with toeing a comedic line that never produced a complaint when Fowler was hosting America’s flagship college football preview show in Baton Rouge.
“Having covered a bunch of LSU games, I was acquainted with the Cajun football fan culture and I kind of wondered, ‘Are they going to be okay with this? Are LSU fans going to be fine with this characterization of the Bayou?’ But I think they could see the humor in it. I never heard anyone get offended by it.”
During their portion of the film, there’s an instant replay of Boucher ripping into the backfield on a blitz. The camera zooms into Boucher’s face, showing him screaming and cockeyed behind his single-bar facemask. Fowler can still recite his line—“There’s a lot of pain, and shame, in those eyes”—with perfect deadpan timing two decades later.
“I probably could have done a better reading now, with a little more experience,” Fowler says. “But we thought the lines were funny, and when you saw how it fit into the overall thing, it was funny.”
Now ABC’s top college football play-by-play voice, Fowler does not rule out resurrecting one of his lines over the final month of the NCAA football season as an Easter egg for all those who followed along while he and Corso narrated Boucher’s game-winning blocked field goal against Iowa, fueled by a Gatorade-induced rage spiral.
As he’s come to find, plenty of people would get the joke.
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