U-M grads rush toward their goal to bring life and career of Bob Ufer to Hollywood

By Fannie Weinstein / Special to The Detroit News / January 18, 1996

Screenwriters Eric Champnella and Keith Mitchell never doubted the life of the late Michigan football announcer Bob Ufer was the stuff Hollywood movies are made of.

Convincing producers they had a contender, however, was another story.

"My fear was that we'd tell studios our idea and the response would be, 'So what?' " admits Champnella.

So, instead of presenting the idea themselves to executives of Touchstone and Caravan Pictures, the Southgate natives, boyhood friends and U-M graduates, let Ufer himself sell the execs on the idea.

"Right away, they were like, 'Wow!' " says Champnella, describing how executives reacted to an audiotape of Ufer doing the play-by-play of a 1979 football game. By day's end, Champnella, 29, and Mitchell, 28, had scored a deal in the mid-six-figure range.

They turned in their first draft of the Ufer script earlier this month. If and when the film is made, however, Ufer won't be the first time their work hits the big screen.

Last year, Champnella and Mitchell were hired to rewrite Eddie, a film starring Whoopi Goldberg as a pro basketball coach.

"Whoopi Goldberg becomes head coach of the New York Knicks," Champnella says he and Mitchell were told by producers. "Run with that.'" And they did; the movie is scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend.

An original script by Champnella and Mitchell that's likely to be shot before Ufer is 3,000, the fictitious story of an embittered former Detroit Tiger who, after being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, learns that instead of amassing 3,000 hits, he's actually three short of the milestone.

"So at nearly 50, he decides to make a comeback," explains Champnella. "In the process, he rediscovers his love of the game and what's really important." Appropriately enough, the role of the lead was just offered to two-time Batman Michael Keaton.

Although all three scripts revolve around athletics, Champnella and Mitchell say they're about more than sports.

Rather than a biography of the broadcaster, who died of prostate cancer in 1981 at the age of 61, Ufer tells the story of his last days and his relationship with a fictitious Michigan gridiron star who suffers a career-ending injury.

"He thinks his life is over," Champnella says of the player. "But through his relationship with Ufer, who's dying of cancer, he finds out that while football may be over for him, his life is just beginning."

That the cinematic incarnation of the Voice of "Meechigan" Football would spend his last days counseling a U-M athlete is fitting, according to the screenwriters, both of whom grew up watching Michigan games on television with the volume off and the radio on.

"Bob Ufer got close to every one of the players, whether they were a third-string punter (or a star quarterback)," says Mitchell, who played tight-end for the Wolverines between 1985 and 1988 and who graduated with a degree in communications in 1989.

"He was more concerned about (the players) as people and as college students," adds Champnella, also a communications major. "He didn't go up to them and ask, 'How are you feeling about the game?' He'd ask things like 'How's your mom doing?' or 'How are your classes going?'"

As a youth, Champnella -- if his last name sounds familiar, it's because his sister Julie married actor Tom Arnold last year -- dreamed of filling Ufer's shoes himself one day.

"I wanted to take over for him," says the 1988 graduate who, while at Michigan, called football games for WJJX, the university's AM radio station. "That was my big dream in life."

Champnella says it was Ufer's love of U-M football and his genuine, unabashed, on-air enthusiasm that sets him apart from other broadcasters past and present.

"You hear a lot of 'good' announcers and it sounds like they're reading off a stat sheet," says Champnella, who, like Mitchell, now lives in Los Angeles. "He didn't need a stat sheet. He called it from the heart."

Before they began writing, Champnella and Mitchell interviewed members of Ufer's family, former coach Bo Schembechler, former Michigan players and others who knew Ufer away from the mike. Among them was the broadcaster's son, David.

"Certainly, my father had a real passion for life, and it was reflected in his love for Michigan football," says David Ufer, 44, co-owner of Ufer & Co. Insurance Agency in Ann Arbor. "But I found it curious that someone felt that could carry the storyline of a movie."

Ufer became convinced after hearing the plot Champnella and Mitchell had in mind. "Over the years," he says of his father, "it's become apparent that he had a strong and a very positive influence on a number of players."

Mitchell himself didn't wear a maize and blue jersey until four years after the death of Ufer, a distinguished track star in his own right who began broadcasting Michigan football in 1945. Still, he says, Ufer was a legend among players well after his death. Mitchell recalls hearing, for instance, that Ufer often advised athletes, "If you're going to do something, you might as well do it 110 percent or not at all." Intent on becoming a Hollywood producer, Mitchell carried this philosophy with him to L.A., where he moved only months after graduating.

He arrived there not knowing anyone. But by working the phone and pounding the pavement he soon began landing jobs as a production assistant on low-budget movies. Less than a year later, he was joined by Champnella, who hoped to make a living acting and doing stand-up comedy. (In Michigan, he performed at clubs like Mark Ridley's Comedy Castle in Royal Oak and the Main Street Comedy Showcase in Ann Arbor.)

It's not known when Ufer will go into production. But the screenwriters already have a few casting suggestions.

Champnella says he can envision a bespectacled Steve Martin in the title role. "He can play drama and go over the top," he says.

For the young player Ufer befriends, Champnella says, "I think someone like Chris O'Donnell would be great, or someone like Noah Wylie from ER."

Mitchell says he, too, can see Martin as Ufer, and possibly Friends stars Matthew Perry or David Schwimmer as his co-star.

As for the film's box-office potential, Mitchell says he'd naturally welcome a hit, but adds that's not why he's involved in the project. "If it makes $100 million, I'd be really content," he says. "But if it doesn't make a penny, I'd still be perfectly content.

"As long as it does Bob Ufer justice, I'll be happy."

Flashbacks of his life

Bob Ufer, who introduced "Meechigan" to the lexicon, remains as much a part of U-M football lore as anyone who came before or after him. And we have highlights:

* The son of a lumber broker, Ufer grew up in Mt. Lebanon, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh.

* Ufer himself played freshman football at U-M in 1939, but track was the sport at which he excelled. He broke numerous Michigan records and, in 1942, shattered the world indoor record in the 440.

* In 1946, a year after he began broadcasting Michigan football games on WPAG-AM in Ann Arbor, Ufer came down with ulcerated colitis. Doctors ordered him to give up his broadcasting career. He agreed on the condition that he could continue to call U-M football games.

* The last U-M football game Ufer broadcast was against Iowa on Oct. 17, 1981. He died 10 days later.

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