Image Source: Everett Collection
Spencer James, the central character in The CW’s All American, is a talented football player from a low-income neighborhood who is chosen to play on a new team with the money and resources to make him a star. You may have thought Spencer James’s story was written expressly for the screen, so it may surprise you All American is based on real life, and there are some surprising pieces of Spencer’s real-life story that you should know.
In the show, Spencer (Daniel Ezra) is tapped by Billy Baker, the varsity football coach at Beverly High in Beverly Hills, to come and play on his team. Spencer leaves his team at South Crenshaw High and moves in with the coach and his family so he’s eligible to play. While he experiences culture shock at the new school where his classmates are majority white and wealthy, he becomes a star athlete.
The show is loosely based on the life of NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger, who grew up in South Central LA but went to school and played football in Beverly Hills through their multicultural program. Paysinger came up with the concept for All American, and it was picked up by The CW, though the network takes some creative liberties with the storyline.
Unlike TV Spencer, Paysinger didn’t go back and forth between his South Central LA and Beverly Hills high schools. He spent his entire high school career at Beverly Hills High School and graduated in 2006. All American‘s Spencer went back to South Crenshaw High after briefly playing for BHHS. And one other stark difference between the show and real life is Spencer’s dad. Spencer’s dad dies in the show, but Paysinger’s father, Donald Paysinger, is very much alive and supported Paysinger throughout his football career. Lastly, while Spencer James’s football position is wide receiver, Paysinger was a linebacker throughout his real-life football career.
Image Source: Getty / David Livingston / Stringer
Paysinger overcame many hardships to achieve great success, which is mirrored in All American. He’s taken his beginnings in football and turned them into a show that tells an important story, one Paysinger hoped would highlight the beauty of his hometown that too often goes ignored. “I didn’t want to disrespect [South Crenshaw] and say Spencer went to Beverly and everything was great,” Paysinger told the Los Angeles Times in 2018. “Beverly actually exposed me to a whole new set of problems — rich kid problems.” He also told ESPN, “I wanted to tell the story of, ‘We’re a lot more similar on these different sides of the track than you guys think.’ Being from South Central, and knowing how South Central is portrayed in Hollywood as this desolate area with gang violence, drugs, everything — they have to realize that the sun shines there as long as it shines in Beverly Hills. The one thing I want the viewers to see is South Central is also a beautiful place. It’s a wonderful place. It’s a place that I call home to this day. I think we’ve been able to do that.”
In real life, Paysinger attended the University of Oregon, where he played for the Ducks football team before heading to the NFL. He started with the New York Giants in 2011 before having short stints playing for the Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and Carolina Panthers. Paysinger retired from football in 2017. He now works as a consulting producer on All American and has opened his own coffee shop. He also started an investment fund called Afterball LLC, which aims to help NFL players cope with their careers suddenly ending.