Editor's Note: On Saturday evening, Chris Long was named the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year presented by Nationwide. The story below was originally posted in December 2018 prior to the premiere of the documentary. Long is the third player in franchise history to win the award, joining Harold Carmichael and Troy Vincent.
It was originally supposed to be a six-minute short-form feature.
But NFL vice president Rick Qualliotine and NFL Films producer Jason Weber quickly realized they had a much more powerful story on their hands.
Tonight at 8 p.m. on NFL Network, Chris Long's commitment to bringing change at home and around the world is the subject of a two-hour documentary film called The Way Up. When NFL Films first pitched the idea to Long before the start of the 2017 season, the story was going to be solely about Waterboys, an initiative to bring clean water to East Africa.
But the plot developed. Six minutes certainly weren't going to be enough. Not even close.
Long was moved to take action following the tragic events in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. He became the first player in NFL history to donate his entire season's worth of game checks to fund educational programs in his hometown of Charlottesville as the three communities in which he played professionally: St. Louis, Boston, and Philadelphia.
"The thing was that no matter what happens with the story as it grew and shifted and changed, Chris stayed the same," said Qualliotine, the film's executive producer. "Chris' attitude in the midst of it all was, 'I'm going to figure out what I can do and I'm going to do it.' He never changed. Chris was the solid one. He's the one who said, 'I believe in being a good teammate. I want to use this gift of playing football as a platform to bring attention to things that I think are important.' That's what was consistent."
NFL Films conducted around 15 hours of on-camera interviews during the 2017 season which ended with the Eagles' first Super Bowl Championship. Two weeks after the Parade of Champions down Broad Street, Weber was part of an eight-person crew from NFL Films headed to Tanzania to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with Long. It was a dream come true for Weber, a lifelong Eagles fan from Pitman, New Jersey, who produced the video component that complemented the music for A Championship Season, which was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra at The Mann Center this past summer.
"I hope they come away from this film realizing he genuinely cares about people," Weber said of Long. "There's no doubt that this is a guy who is selfless, who wants other people to succeed, and when he sees issues in the world and sees people who are suffering and don't have what he has and what he was lucky enough to have throughout his life, he was able to do something about it and make a great change.
"It is not lip service with him. This is a guy who honestly cares significantly in that he's not just a football player. Football for him is a path to doing greater things. I think it's pretty apparent in the film and I hope people notice that with him. He's genuinely an amazing person and to just kind of be there for the last year to get a glimpse of what it was like in his shoes, it was pretty special."
Weber learned at this time a year ago that they would be able to accompany Long to Africa. Long went over with former Eagle Connor Barwin, former Seahawk and Green Beret Nate Boyer, and other military heroes and support staff to climb the longest free-standing mountain in the world – 19,341 feet at its peak – to bring attention to the water crisis in Tanzania. The Waterboys' initial goal was to raise enough money to build 32 water wells for 32 NFL teams. That was accomplished in February, the same week that the Eagles won the Super Bowl. Now, Waterboys wants to provide millions of people with clean water.
"There are people around the world who are struggling to access clean water and that people in East Africa have a lot to go through every day just to get something to drink," Weber said. "That we can shed some light on that story and help Chris with an amazing cause, it's pretty impressive. It's more than a cool project to edit and produce. Hopefully, it changes some perspective on things."
Weber and the crew spent a day at a local school in Tanzania, seeing first-hand how the children travel every day to collect muddy water. NFL Films spent another day at a ceremony for a water well financed by the Waterboys. Then, it was off to Mt. Kilimanjaro. The entire travel party, including guides and porters, surpassed 100 people. On the fifth day of the hike, they started the ascent to the summit in the middle of the night. In all, six days were spent on the mountain.
In his 11 seasons at NFL Films, Weber never had to plan the logistics to film a mountain climb. The NFL Films team was broken up into two groups. Weber's group went ahead to make sure they were in position to document when Long and the rest of the party made it to the summit. "Pole pole," which is Swahili for "take it slowly," was something that Weber heard from Ake, the lead tour guide, many times on the hike. Weber admits he struggled with that as he wanted to make sure all of the shots were perfect.
"NFL Films has an amazing tradition of using all of the tools of cinema at the highest levels to help tell stories," Qualliotine said. "That's NFL Films and the integrity of Chris and the project."
Long's journey caught the attention of some of the entertainment world's biggest stars. Uma Thurman is the film's narrator and musical acts Dave Matthews Band and Imagine Dragons lent their songs to it as well.
"Here's what's awesome about this," Weber said. "Every step of the way, other people that have gotten involved have gotten excited about being a part of the project and excited that they can be a part of telling the story of what Chris has done."
The Way Up debuts tonight. But with Long as a nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award presented by Nationwide, it's not going to be the last time that this story is told.