Alumni Interview: Simeon Rice

“I’m thrilled to have an HBO project in the planning stages, with the great Spike Lee as our showrunner,” says Simeon Rice, ’96 LAS. (Photo by J. Vespa/Getty Images)
More than 20 years after leading the Big 10 in sacks, the legendary Sackmasta is now a 6’ 5”, 260-pound moviemaker

When I played for U of I in the early ’90s, football was my whole life. A football star—that’s all I wanted to be. I left college as the Big Ten’s all-time leader in sacks. Went third overall in the 1996 NFL draft, behind Keyshawn Johnson and my Illini teammate Kevin Hardy, ’96 BUS. You might remember some of what happened after that: In 12 years playing defensive end in the NFL, I had 475 tackles, forced 25 fumbles and sacked the quarterback 122 times. The Sackmasta, they called me. I made three Pro Bowl teams and won a Super Bowl with the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And then, in 2009, I retired from football. I was 35—too old for NFL combat, but still, by any ordinary measure, a young man.

So what next?

Football makes you feel old at 30, but I figured I had more than half my life ahead of me. I always loved movies—not Star Wars and superhero stuff as much as great stories told by great directors. I loved Quentin Tarantino’s work for the way he layered stories together. I watched Martin Scorsese’s films, from Mean Streets to The Departed, and everything by Francis Ford Coppola. And Antoine Fuqua—it’s hard to beat Training Day!

I’m thrilled to have an HBO project in the planning stages, with the great Spike Lee as our showrunner.

So I went back to square one. Film school. I started from scratch at the New York Film Academy, making student films, trying to prove myself all over again. Film school is like training camp for moviemakers. You’re a rookie again—getting knocked down, dusting yourself off and getting after it again. In a way, it reminded me of being back on campus. In college, you come off the football field where you’re a megastar, with thousands of people cheering for you, and the next day you’re sitting in a classroom, a student like anybody else. You try to be humble and be a good student. That’s what I did at Illinois and again in film school.

After making a lot of short films, I wrote a script for a feature of my own.  A thriller called Unsullied. It was about a female track star who gets kidnapped by a couple of bad guys after her car breaks down. There was some serious thrill-a-minute stuff in that script! I took it to Hollywood to shop it around, and that’s when my next education began.

Being Simeon Rice, the football star, was a help and a hindrance. Being famous for football can get you a meeting, but some executives and potential investors just want to ask about the Super Bowl! I’m thinking, “Can we talk about my project?” I connected with people who liked the script but wanted to bring in an established director. That was tempting but I said no. “It’s my script, my vision,” I said. “So I’m the director.” In the end, I lined up some investors and made the picture myself. We got some great reviews—and shrieks from audiences that didn’t know what kind of ride I’d be taking them on. You can see Unsullied on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, On Demand and other platforms. Check it out!

I think the future of movies is delivery on multiple platforms: tablets, phones and other devices. Unless you’re going to see the latest X-Men or Star Wars sequel, do you really need to go to a theater? The independent films I like will be seen in a thousand places, on all different devices. The barrier between movies and TV already is breaking down, and I’m thrilled to have an HBO project in the planning stages, with the great Spike Lee as our showrunner. I’ve also been putting together a reality program, Home Turf. A home-renovation show based on my work in Florida real estate—it’s realty reality. And I’ve got another production in the pipeline: The Gold Rush Boogie, starring Jennifer Lyons and Fred Williamson in a story of sex, drugs, music and nonstop action. Fred, of course, happens to be a former pro football player who’s had a long, illustrious Hollywood career.

As you can tell, I’m always moving forward in life. But that’s not to say I don’t think back to my college days. I loved that chapter of my life as well as the NFL career it led to. Now that I’ve turned the page and become a filmmaker and real estate investor, I’ve been thinking of a project that might bring past and present together. It’s an Illinois football story. Stay tuned.