Interview: Nate Boyer Talks ‘MVP’ And The Struggles Of Veterans And Athletes

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Today is Veterans Day, and as the nation awaits final election results it is a perfect time to remember what November 11th represents, from its original intention of celebrating the end of World War I to the broader modern intention of honoring U.S. veterans. Watch some of the top 10 best movies for Veterans Day viewing, and read Nate Boyer’s thoughts below on his new film MVP and how it tells a real-life story about the struggles of veterans and athletes who found purpose and renewed life together.

Boyer is a former relief worker in Sudan who built shelters for refugees, and who later became a Green Beret serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan before joining Texas Longhorns college football team as a walk-on. From there, Boyer became a free agent with the Seattle Seahawks.

After leaving the Seahawks, in 2016 he reached out to Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers, after Kaepernick had sat down during the National Anthem several times to protest the racism and brutality inflicted upon the Black Community, both generally in American society and particularly in the repeated instances of police shooting and killing Black citizens. Boyer met with Kaepernick and suggested kneeling during the anthem as a form of protest instead of sitting, and Kaepernick agreed it was a better approach. The NFL subsequentblackballed Kaepernick, ending his football career amid backlash and rage from a certain segment of fans and conservative media.

In 2015, Boyer partnered with NFL commentator and sports reporter Jay Glazer to start the organization Merging Vets and Players (MVP) to help military veterans and former pro-athletes deal with the struggles of reintegrating into society and overcoming mental, emotional, and physical traumas.

Now, Boyer stars in a film he cowrote and directed titled MVP, a dramatization of the events and inspirations that led to his partnership with Glazer to create MVP in real life. The road to forming MVP wasn’t an easy one, however, and I sat down to speak with Boyer about his experiences and motivations in bringing MVP to the screen, as well as his thoughts on the continued plight of veterans and former athletes in a society that claims to revere them while too often it ignores them and their families when they return home and “the uniform comes off,” as Boyer and Glazer put it.

So read on for my extended conversation with writer-director-actor Nate Boyer...

MARK HUGHES: Your film MVP is a fictionalized dramatization of the real-life creation of your organization Merging Vets and Players (MVP). When and how did you get the idea of turning those experiences into a movie?

NATE BOYER: Well you know, I myself was in the Army Special Forces for about ten years, and after that I went to college at the University of Texas and played football there. So I was an older player... and I was really fortunate to have that opportunity, fortunate to make it back, although I was struggling with certain things from going to war and stuff like that.

I felt like I still had a lot left in the tank and some dreams I wanted to chase. So I played football, and after the Longhorns I went to the Seattle Seahawks for a brief stint in 2015. About that same time is when I transitioned out of the military, in 2015.

And I went on my own personal journey from having the football locker room and the military team room — with this comradery and structure and purpose and mission and all of those great things — to having none of those things, to feeling like I was kind of drifting and sort of lost. I was 34 years old and felt like I’d already peaked, with no idea what’s next, and feeling like I just lost my tribe.

I met Jay Glazer, who helped train me in hopes of getting a shot in NFL. Jay is a FOX NFL analyst, and he works with UFC fighters and NFL players, and a lot of other different athletes — a lot of it on the mindset of things and also just on physical training to prepare for pro sports. Jay and I started having conversations about the similarities in what these combat veterans go through and what these former professional athletes go through after they leave the field of battle or the field of play. After they lose the uniform.

War and playing sports are very different things, obviously. But the transition similarities and some of those struggles that come with it are very similar. And I can relate to both of those transitions, and I did feel that both sides had a lot more in common than some people realize.

So we started this organization called MVP to bring these organizations together. After being around for about three years, one of our members named Garaint Jones — the cowriter of MVP, who was in the military in the UK and served alongside some American Marines overseas — came up to me and just said, “Hey, I think this story of how MVP started should be a movie. I feel like more people need to see this and know about this. It’s just so unique, and it would be a great way to share your experiences and those of a lot of the veterans and athletes who are in this room that people will never hear,” because when we get in that room together during our MVP sessions, people are very vulnerable and open up in a different way that we don’t see men doing often, especially men who served in the military or who played contact sports.

So it was his idea to get the script going, and then when COVID hit, as tragic as it was it was sort of also an opportunity for us with everything else shutting down to make our movie. To find people who were desperate to get back out there and work at some level again, and find a way to navigate the pandemic and still make something important.

MH: How much of the characters and story in MVP are lifted from real life experiences and real people you encountered — including yourself and your own experiences?

NB: Pretty much all of it. When I tell people about it, I say it’s really more transcribed than it was written. Because all of these stories and dialogue, almost every single situation and interaction and relationship in the movie was something we heard in an MVP huddle, or heard from veterans and athletes we met over the years. It was all very authentic, and we thought it was important to see that authenticity on screen as well.

So in that regard, all of the veterans you see on screen are played by actual veterans. Many of the athletes are the real people telling their real stories, talking about their real experiences when they left the football field or the fight cage. And of these vets, talking about what they struggled with and survivor’s guilt, or difficulty finding a purpose or a mission again. That’s all from the mouths of MVP members over the years.

MH: Were there some aspects, themes, or experiences in the story that were more difficult for you to portray and work through putting in the film? And were there some other aspects that were more therapeutic for you through the process of making the film?

NB: At the end, when we completed this movie — the shooting of it, the filming of it, that was all therapeutic. Every day there was a lot of struggle that came up and things I had to work through — and we all had to work through. And of course, Murphy bites you in the ass every chance he gets, so we had to navigate that.

But it was very therapeutic. Especially for me, some of the stuff in front of the camera was therapeutic. Being creative like that and allowing myself to feel some things, to let myself kind of embrace some of the anger and frustrations I have in myself, was therapeutic.

The most difficult parts of this whole production were the days and moments when I felt like we weren’t coming across authentic enough. I was so strict about that, I wanted every word out of our mouths to be what we would actually said, and I wanted every movement motivated by “is this what an actual veteran or athlete would do in this situation, is this how they would respond and react?”

And sometimes I was being so hard on myself and on the production, it’s almost like an overbearing parent, you know what I mean? It was just too much and I had to pull myself back or others would say, “Nate, just relax, it’s okay. It’s working, it’s good, it’s going to be okay.” Because I was just so afraid of screwing the story up, I was like, “We can’t let these people down, they’re too important of a community. It has to be perfect.”

But the reality is nothing’s ever going to be perfect, and it wasn’t, and I’m glad it wasn’t. It’s beautiful because it’s not perfect. And I didn’t fully enjoy it until I got to watch it for the first time in a theater with these veterans and athletes as a group, to hear them react in ways I wasn’t expecting, reacting to things I didn’t even think they’d notice. And then for some of them to walk out of the theater pretty emotional — not that I want to make somebody cry or feel sad, but for it to resonate with them was a relief for me.

So I was like, “All right, we didn’t screw it up, we did the best we could.” And maybe it’s never going to be done justice perfectly no matter who tries, because everybody’s perception and story and experience is different. But we did a lot with what we had, and it’s a testament to all of the people who worked on it. Many of these people were working for nickels and dimes or less, and it was mostly veterans and athletes... My cinematographer was a vet, and like I said, on screen the representation is there. I don’t know if there’s movie — that I’ve seen, anyway — that has that amount of full representation, and I’m so proud of the performances from these people.

Also the performances of the crew, everybody stepped up and it was amazing. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive team. It made my life much easier, although I probably made their lives a living hell.

MH: Did you and Mo McRae know each other and have a relationship before? Because you have really good chemistry together on screen, and in the scenes with the two of you, you seem to bring out the best of each other.

NB: I have to credit Mo with that, and I’m not just saying that, I mean that.

I met Mo McRae one time at the premiere of Den of Thieves. We were both in that film, and Christian Gudegast was writer-director. I called Christian about two months before we were going to camera [on MVP]. We finally were like, “All right, we’re just going to shoot this thing, COVID’s not going away, we’re going to do it anyway.” The veterans homeless shelter that’s portrayed in the movie was closing down at the end of September in 2020, and they had allowed us to film there — I wanted it to be on location just like everything else was — but they were like, “You better get in here now, or it’s going to be rubble.”

So I was like full-go, pre-production mode. My first order of business was I had to find Will Phillips, who’s going to play Will Phillips? And I started calling people, and I got ahold of Christian Gudegast. He goes, “Mo McRae.” I wasn’t even done with the sentence explaining what I was looking for, but he knew what I wanted and he was like, “Trust me, you want Mo on this... Every time he gets work he just kills it, he’s so prepared and works harder than anybody, and he’s committed. I think this script will resonate with him.”

I sent it to Mo. Mo really liked it, and he knew we were battling budgetary limitations and all of that, but he cared about the content. He jumped on an MVP huddle and got to see what the charity was all about via Zoom. And he said, “Look man, I’m all in. But if I’m all in, I need to know you’re all in too. I know you’re writing-directing this thing and acting in it, but we need to start working together now.”

So a month before we were even shooting, we were having meetings almost daily. We were working out together, getting to know each other. He was asking me a billion questions about the veteran experience and the athlete experience, all of these things. And then he was telling me stories about his own life, and I would tell him, “That story right there is Will Phillips, that is his character. That time you had to fend off those voices in your head or this ego we all have that’s telling us we’re better than that, that is the person.

Mo just lived in it, he really did. He just, like, fully immersed himself in our community. He got to know all of these vets and athletes who are part of the film. And they were all so appreciative of him being all in, and not being just an actor who shows up with his lines memorized and who goes on camera but then heads off and disappears. He’s there every day behind the monitor if I’m on screen or anybody else is on screen and he’s not, coaching us up and helping us out. I mean, talk about somebody who is all in!

MH: This will be a harder question, and maybe there are no easy or obvious answers. But why do you think a society that talks so much about revering veterans and puts so much time and energy into cheering and claiming to love veterans, and yet we’re also guilty of turning our backs on veterans and not wanting to hear or think about the trauma and pain veterans face not just on the battlefield but also when they return home? Why, in a society that claims to care so much, isn’t there more willingness to do something about this, to fund VA hospitals better and stop cutting benefits to vets and their families, to try to deal with the suicide rates? Why do you think there’s this incongruity between what we say and what we do?

NB: There’s a lot of answers to that, and it is a tough question. Because I think there are a lot of people who do, and then there are a lot of people who don’t, where it’s just kind of lip-service, right?

For a lot of those who don’t, I think it’s guilt over not being willing to go do it when they wanted to. There’s certainly a lot of people that it just wasn’t for them and they knew that all along. But there are also a lot of people who wanted to but didn’t, because maybe they were afraid, or whatever the reasons are. So they feel a bit of guilt there, like, “Maybe if I ignore this, maybe it won’t bother me so much.”

But then I also think there’s a lot of making up for the way Vietnam vets were treated, right? I think that is why we see this showering of “thank you for your service,” and that’s why we kind of touch on it in the movie. Not that it’s an offensive thing to say to somebody, but a lot of times to us it just feels like an obligation coming out of someone’s mouth, it doesn’t feel genuine. And I think a lot of that is because of that. Those poor guys who came back from Vietnam 50 years ago didn’t get the reception we got, at least socially, you know what I mean?

And talking about the VA, it’s a lot better because of them. It still has a long way to go, you’re right, absolutely, but they fought so hard to get some of the resources we have today. That’s why we have to continue doing that — not just vets, but supporters, those who really do give a damn and put their money where their mouth is. We’re the ones who have to change that.

But it’s a tough one, and I think it comes down to every individual’s relationship to the military. Especially for those who don’t have a family member or someone close to them [in the military], it’s hard to relate to. It’s a little bit distant and foreign.

For me, when I was growing up, both of my grandfathers were in World War II, but they didn’t talk about it too much. And other than that, not really any of my family served, so I didn’t have much of a connection to it, and I don’t think I was very appreciative or understanding. I was a little ignorant to it. I was young, that was one thing, but also I just wasn’t around it. I mean, I grew up in a El Cerrito, a little place between here [Los Angeles] and Berkeley, where there just didn’t seem to be a ton of veterans living there, you know? So I think maybe that’s part of it, too.

MH: There’s a similar situation with athletes. As you say in the movie, not to compare the two literally, but society loves sports and we’re obsessed with it, we make heroes of our athletes and buy shoes or jerseys for them. But then we don’t want to talk about or think about the damage done to their bodies, the consequences for them and their families, the struggles they go through. And then suddenly you’re pushed aside and you’ve got to deal with a lifetime of aches and pains, going from enormous fame with stadiums full of cheering crowds to nobody wants you around anymore and people act embarrassed to talk to or about you. It’s odd that it exists with athletes, too.

Is that theme and what it’s like afterward, feeling praised but discarded, is that a uniting factor for people in MVP too?

NB: Absolutely. That’s the thing, once you transition out of that uniform and people don’t see you in that uniform, whether it’s camouflage or a jersey, they don’t recognize you most of the time. There are a few celebrity athletes and even veterans, but not many. Especially a game like football, where you wear that face mask. You can name half the team, but if you saw them on the street in blue jeans, you wouldn’t know who they were. You’d be like, “That guy looks like he’s an athlete, but I don’t know.”

There’s that kind of hero worship while they’re playing, but then when they leave— the thing about athletes that’s different than veterans that is an added challenge, is of course it’s not life or death situations for the most part out there, but for your career it is. And in an instant, they can just cut you and it’s over. I experienced that, and you don’t see it coming, you’re not prepared. It’s like, “Clean your locker out, and you have to be out of here in the next 15 minutes before team meeting starts.”

In the military, you know when your enlistment ends, so you’re a little more prepared for that. Do we do a good job of preparing for that? No. Has the military done a good job preparing for that? No, because it’s all about retention, they want to focus their efforts on those who are still overseas or about to go overseas, not the ones getting out. So I understand it. It doesn’t make it okay, but I understand where that comes from.

Then on the sports side of things, because it’s such a business, you could drop a pass on Sunday and on Monday you’re gone, you’re out of the locker room and you’re never playing again. It’s crazy. So from that regard, talk about feeling like you’re tossed on the scrap heap like a piece of equipment that was used and now it’s no longer functional.

That’s how a lot of these athletes feel, and I know vets feel similarly. They both want to be repurposed, for sure. That’s what MVP focuses on, repurposing these people, just like a good piece of military equipment or sports equipment, to be used again in another way.

MH: One last question — Is Tom Arnold really into Fantasy Football? That was such a good sequence!

NB: He’s not— as far as I know — he’s not deep into Fantasy Football. But Tom used to be on The Best Damn Sports Show Period, he loved that stuff. He’s a big fan, he’s from Iowa, a big Iowa Buckeyes fan and all of that.

It was funny, when I wrote that character originally, I wasn’t picturing Tom Arnold. It was kind of a younger guy, more smarmy. Then I developed this friendship with Tom. Tom lost a nephew [Spencer Arnold] who was a veteran and who took his own life [in 2016], and it really affected him. He’s very connected to this story and to MVP, so when I asked if he would help us out, he said, “Whatever you need.”

Him and these bigger name guys didn’t ask for anything. You have to pay them something, it’s a SAG project, but they were all just literally giving their time because they care so much about the organization and what we’re doing. Tom was really passionate about it, so when I asked him about this role, he got really excited. He loves football, but he thought it was important. And he has a fun banter with Mo.

I had the script written, and when we cast Tom, he and I sat down and kind of messed around with some stuff, changed a few things to suit him. And then he ended up improving a bunch of it anyway, it was hilarious. We had so much of that to go through and we had to make some hard decisions to trim it up, because I could’ve watched Tom for 20 minutes going back and forth with Mo.

Thanks to Nate Boyer for taking time to speak with me about his new film MVP, which releases this weekend for Veterans Day — you can find it on my list of the best films to watch for your Veterans Day viewing, too. Happy Veterans Day to everyone, especially to the veterans and their loved ones.