Ad of the Day: Russell Athletic Chronicles the Heartbreak and Grit of High School Football

A stirring documentary from Friday Night Lights' photographer

Headshot of Christine Birkner

Plenty of sports movies are about the thrill of victory: the game-winning shot at the buzzer, a go-ahead touchdown on the final play or a walk-off home run.

But it's the heartbreaking losses that often drive athletes toward future success and personal growth. Sports apparel brand Russell Athletic is celebrating those near misses in a new mini-documentary series shot by photographer Robert Clark.

The videos chronicle six high school football teams that lost their state championship games last year by a touchdown or less, and how their communities are rallying around them this season. High school football is something that Clark knows a thing or two about: He took the photos for the book Friday Night Lights, which later spawned the hit movie and TV series about football and life in a Texas small town.

The goal of the campaign, created with agency Barkley, is to help each team turn the one thing that haunts it from its loss into preseason motivation. The first film, "8 Seconds," features the Indiana's New Palestine Dragons football team and coach Kyle Ralph. Eight seconds is how close the Dragons were from victory in a 62-61 loss in their state championship game, and "8 Seconds" now blankets the town of New Palestine in the form of billboards, yard and window signs, and practice t-shirts.

"We didn't want to tell the clichéd stories of teams and sports; we wanted to tell the untold stories," said Chris Cardetti, vp and group strategy director at Barkley. "Instead of putting that loss behind you, this campaign says, 'Stare it down, and use it to come back strong.'"

The teams picked for the videos also bear a resemblance to the Friday Night Lights TV series' fictional Dillon Panthers and Kyle Chandler's Coach Taylor, who served as a mentor to his players. (The actual team profiled in the book, written by sportswriter Buzz Bissinger, was the Permian High School Panthers of Odessa, Texas.)

"The teams are beloved by their communities, and the coaches are more than coaches: They're father figures to these kids. We're showing that the team is more than the players: It's the coaches, it's the fans, and it's the community," said Matt Murphy, svp of marketing at Russell Athletic. "Telling the stories of champions is easy. This is a very compelling and unique way to tell untold stories, and it put the Russell Athletic brand where our heritage is, at the high school level."

Documentaries tell these stories better than any TV show or traditional ad campaign could, said Berk Wasserman, vp and creative director at Barkley. "We didn't want to hire twentysomethings to play high school athletes. We wanted to tell the real stories and act less like marketers and more like journalists. That made Robert Clark the perfect choice for us. His photography really captures that raw emotion."

The videos and photos of the teams are on a dedicated website, and Russell also will post content on social media under the hashtag #SettleYourScore. A group of student photographers mentored by Clark also took photos for the project, and the students whose photos show the most engagement on social will earn a trip to college football's Russell Athletic Bowl as a credentialed photographer.

"Whether you've played high school sports or not, [the videos are] relatable," Wasserman said. "Everyone's had things happen in their lives where they have to turn setbacks into ways to come back stronger. It speaks to sports fans and to a much larger audience, because it's a story we can all relate to."


Client: Russell Athletic

SVP of Marketing: Matt Murphy

Director of Marketing: Taylor Vernier

Sports Marketing Manager: Laura McCaslin

Agency: Barkley

Executive Creative Director: Jason Elm

VP / Creative Director: Brad Jungles

VP / Creative Director: Berk Wasserman

VP / Executive Producer: Susan Neuman

Senior Producer: Melany Esfeld

Production Coordinator: Jasmine Henry

Art Director: Matt Slider

Designer: Jen Beck

Content Producer: Sammy Greenberg

SVP Group Account Leader: Bryan Herrman

Account Supervisor: John Dobson

Account Manager: Alex Belot

Project Manager: Tifany Wrzesinski

VP / Group Strategy Director: Chris Cardetti

Content Strategist: Chris Mason

Associate Media Design Leader: Rachel Stelmach

Supervising Media Design: Jordan Stephens

Director: Robert Clark

Original Photography: Robert Clark

Executive Producer: Chris Bren

Producer: Anna Groth-Shive

DP: Byron Shah

Post Producer: Leslie Yoon

Editor: Winnie Cheung

Assistant Editors: Regina Spurlock, Philip Henken

Composer, Sound Design/Audio Mix- Dan Rosato for Gilded Audio

Colorist: Blase Theodore

Video Re-touch: Justin Acree

PR: Ketchum Sports & Entertainment

James Talamo, Account Executive

Patrick Wixted, VP

@ChristineBirkne Christine Birkner is a Chicago-based freelance writer who covers marketing and advertising.