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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

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Two Fans chase down childhood sports heroes

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Ethan Cole, left, and Laurence Mandel Payne, write and co-host The Project, a TV show on The Score.  [Adam Makarenko photo] 

For sports mega-fans Ethan Cole and Laurence Mandel Payne, it’s never too late to pursue childhood dreams – even if they’re completely ridiculous.

The 28-year-old Jewish Torontonians write and co-host a television series called The Project, where they attempt to track down their athletic heroes.

In their documentary-style shorts, Cole and Payne cross items off their sports fans’ bucktet lists by chasing down their childhood sports heroes and setting them up in iconic – if not awkward – situations. Their 22-minute episodes are later edited and aired on The Score, the national sports television channel.

“So much sports content has a top-down, heavy-handed feel to it,” says Payne.

“We wanted to put the power back into the hands of fans, so we created a show where two fans do crazy things that only other sports fans would want to do.”

In one of their first episodes, the pair chased down arch-rivals Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis to meet for the first time in 20 years. Their goal was to get the pair to re-enact the 100-metre dash from the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, back when the filmmakers were just five years old.

 “We knew roughly where Carl Lewis was, because he was running for state senate at the time. When we got to New Jersey, we asked everyone in the area if they knew where to find him,” Cole says. “Then a guy at a 7/11 told us where he got coffee every morning, so we decided to wait for him there.”

Cole and Payne got Johnson in the car and waited for Lewis in the parking lot until the two could be brought together. “Sometimes you can’t write the stuff. You just have to take what’s given,” Cole says.

As the episode unfolded, the pair bonded with one of their longtime heroes.

“Ben called us idiots all the time, but in a fun way,” recalls Payne. “We really became friends, and we hope to work with him again.”

In another episode, the two chased around retired pro-wrestler The Ultimate Warrior, born James Brian Hellwig, in search of life advice. 

“He told us to always follow our own compass, which was pretty interesting and inspiring,” recalls Payne. “He also told us to get up really early in the morning, when there are fewer people competing for the world’s energy.”

But the most memorable moment for Cole was when the pair got Otis Nixon to re-enact a key moment from the 1992 World Series with them.

One snowy afternoon in Atlanta, Nixon re-enacted the worst memory of his career – the bunt that ended the World Series.

“Otis also taught us how to bunt and throw properly, and no one else had ever really taught us that,” says Payne. “It was really nice to get actual baseball tips from a pro like that.”

Of course, shooting a live, reality-style show is not without its challenges. Cole and Payne write, produce, and host the series but often have trouble predicting where their journeys will take them.

“You don’t have much control over certain things,” says Cole. “We’re trying to create 22 minutes of interesting content for every episode, but when we’re in the field, trying to track down athletes, we don’t know what will happen. We have to take what we can get.”

The key, says Payne, is to figure out how to make people laugh while keeping multiple backup plans in mind.

And in a sense, the creation of the show itself came as an unexpected event. Originally, Payne and Cole collaborated on a documentary about heavyweight boxing champion Buster Douglas.

“We showed a trailer of our film to people at The Score, and it was when we were all in that room together that we realized a more interesting idea would be to work off our bucket lists in a show where people could watch us as we attempt improbable things.”

Cole and Payne, who met as students at the University of Western Ontario, were more than happy to join forces and pursue something radically different from their day jobs.

Payne had worked extensively in entertainment licensing at a web startup. He specialized in aggregating online content and worked in advertising production.

Cole was also in the advertising world, after obtaining a master’s degree in international relations at Cambridge University. But Cole’s passion for film and storytelling led him to The Score.

“We’re basically two working guys with a crazy side project,” Payne says.

“If we never just took the risk of making that first documentary, even though we had no budget, then none of the rest would have happened.”

“You can’t wait around for someone to find you, you have to figure out a way to get that first step done and hope someone likes it,” Payne says.

For upcoming episodes, the two lifelong sports fans hope to become former NBA star Charles Barkley’s personal assistants, pick up girls with tennis pro Boris Becker and submit baseball’s Jose Canseco to a lie-detector test.

They’re also looking for suggestions from viewers and other sports fans. To contribute show ideas or watch clips of their new series, visit www.thisistheproject.com.

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