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For anyone who remembers watching Brian Bosworth play football for the University Of Oklahoma—and later, briefly, in the NFL—it’ll take about a minute of the new 30 For 30 episode “Brian And The Boz” to bring back everything that was detestable about him. The cockiness, the wild hairdos, and the self-promotion are all there in the opening montage of “Brian And The Boz.” And then director Thaddeus Matula spends the next hour or so undercutting that initial impression of Bosworth. In fact, it only takes about five minutes for Matula to make one of sports’ greatest villains seem… maybe not so bad.

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“Brian And The Boz” is the second 30 For 30 episode Matula has directed. Back in 2010, Matula wrapped up the first official season of 30 For 30 with “Pony Excess,” the story of the Southern Methodist University football program’s rapid rise and subsequent devastating NCAA penalties. “Pony Excess” was a great piece of broadcast sports journalism—thorough, and relevant—if not all that memorable as a piece of filmmaking.

“Brian And The Boz,” on the other hand, has a stronger hook. After the teaser, the documentary opens with Bosworth and his teenage son driving to Bosworth’s late father’s storage locker, where Foster Bosworth kept Brian’s trophies and press-clippings. Matula uses the locker as a framing device, telling Bosworth’s story through interviews and archival footage and then cutting back periodically to two generations of Bosworths standing in a garage rented by a third, trying to ascribe some meaning to the memorabilia of five frenzied years.

Given how infamous Brian Bosworth was, it’s hard to believe he was only in the spotlight for a short time. Bosworth really rose to national prominence in 1985, his sophomore year at Oklahoma, when his tenacity and speed as a linebacker helped OU to its first national championship in 10 years. According to the interviewees in “Brian And the Boz”—and according to Bosworth himself—he started out his college career as a studious, polite young man, ground into timidity by his demanding father. But the more comfortable he became with being away from home (under the relaxed leadership of his coach Barry Switzer), the more outspoken Bosworth became. When he started shaving the sides of his head, writing messages on his socks, and talking to reporters about how much he hated the opposing teams, Bosworth became “The Boz,” a larger-than-life figure that the sports media couldn’t get enough of—even if columnists and broadcasters spent a lot of time clucking their collective tongues over whether his behavior was bad for college football.

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As with “Pony Excess,” Matula uses “Brian And The Boz” to question the hypocrisy of the media and the NCAA, asking whether “The Boz” was really so terrible, or if Bosworth was just ahead of his time. Yes, Bosworth’s hype-jobs were excessive, and sometimes detrimental to his teams. But he also called attention to where all the money was in football—college and pro—and who should be getting it. Bosworth was even a savvy enough businessman to exploit how much he was hated, selling anti-Boz shirts that his own company manufactured. And though Bosworth’s reputation was damaged by how short his NFL career turned out to be, “Brian And The Boz” points out that Bosworth was actually a good pro linebacker, who might’ve gone on to be great if injuries hadn’t forced him into an early retirement.

The real question though is what Bosworth thinks about his heyday, and whether it was worth it in the long run for him to create this pro-wrestling-like super-asshole character. And it’s here where “Brian And The Boz” has the edge on “Pony Excess,” and approaches the level of some of 30 For 30’s best character-sketches (like “Run Ricky Run,” “Youngstown Boys,” and “The Best That Never Was”). With hindsight, Bosworth can see how much of his manufactured “rebellion” was a misdirected attempt to lash out at his dad—understandable to some extent, but still embarrassing.

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Which brings us back to that storage facility, where Bosworth’s son looks on admiringly at the press photo of his dad sprawled out in front of a Corvette, and where the teen says he’d love to have the homemade “National Communists Against Athletes” T-shirt that “The Boz” wore on the sidelines during the Orange Bowl, after being suspended by the NCAA for steroid use. Maybe it’s not fair that Bosworth still gets to reap rewards (in fame and fortune) for his past misdeeds and gets to appear publicly contrite for being such an ass. After all, he did do a lot of harm—particularly when he co-wrote a tell-all autobiography with Rick Reilly that led to sanctions against Oklahoma. But as 30 For 30 so often reminds us: Most athletes are cocky kids when they’re making the decisions that ultimately define them. Bosworth may not deserve to be forgiven for his mistakes, but when his hands and voice are shaking, and he’s telling his son, “See, you see awesome, and I see lost,” it’s hard not to at least feel a little sympathy for the devil.

Stray observations:

  • It says something about Rick Reilly—something not so flattering—that he clearly still thinks “The Boz” was terrific.
  • Isn’t it kind of hard to believe that this is still, officially, only 30 For 30’s second season? (And that the first “season” ended four years ago?)
  • What did y’all think of last week’s episode, “When The Garden Was Eden?” I’d rank it as one of the better 30 For 30s. It wasn’t quite up to the level of the episodes that match great subjects with great filmmaking, but to me it was squarely in the middle of what I expect from a 30 For 30: a personal touch from director/host Michael Rapaport, a little bit of style, great archival footage, nice use of music, comprehensive interviews, all cut together with a sense of pace and storytelling. I especially appreciated the effort Rapaport made to capture the culture of the NBA and New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which felt like the whole reason for the film—to let Rapport take a trip back to his childhood.

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