This article was originally written for Talk Nerdy With Us.
Brittany Wagner made a mark on people all over the world’s hearts last year as the star of Netflix’s docuseries Last Chance U. As the athletic academic counselor at East Mississippi Community College, Brittany worked close with the athletes to make sure that they were successful in the classroom and remained eligible to play football at the Division I level. Along the way, she helped these athletes in many other avenues of life outside of football and academics. I got the chance to talk with Brittany about a lot of topics that had been on mind ever since I watched season one last summer. We discussed what life has been like for her this past year, the emotional toll of creating bonds with players who are only around for a short amount of time, the comparison to Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights, and a lot more. Keep reading to see her answers.
First off, congratulations on season two!
You’re welcome. I know I’m not the only one who has been waiting a long time for this to come out. How do you feel now that it’s finally out?
Yeah, I’m excited. I mean there’s always that nervousness and anticipation even though season one’s reactions were so great. There’s still an anxiousness about whether the fans will love it just as much as they loved season one, whether the fans will still love me or love the players and see what people take to, what their thoughts are, there’s always anxiousness. So when it came out and I guess the next day, you know, getting online and reading the reviews and getting on Twitter [to see] some of the fans’ feedback, it was definitely a relief after that day.
This is a docuseries about a football team, but it’s so much more than that. If you had to describe what it is about without using the word ‘football’ or any sports related terms, how would you describe it?
Taking the football out of it, yeah I mean there is football in it, but I really think there is some deeper meanings to the show that really has nothing to do with football, athletics, or athletes at all. To describe it without using those words, I would say it’s a human interest story. I would say it’s a story about the struggles of college students, or just people in general. I think each athlete on the show shows a different struggle. I think the adults on the show [struggle too]. You see Coach Stephens struggling with himself and trying to change, you see me kind of struggle with kind of being in a rut. I think there are people everywhere that can relate. There are young people that can relate to the players and the struggles that they go through. But I think there are adults in all walks of life that can relate to feeling like they’re in a rut. We get in a comfort zone and we get comfortable and we are in a relationship or in a town and we get comfortable but we know that maybe its holding us back. And I think that was my struggle in season two, with just being comfortable and struggling with that. Just knowing that I needed to get out of my comfort zone a little bit and make a change.
A lot of people have declared you to be the breakout star of this documentary. What has life been like this past year since season one dropped? And with that being said, what expectations did you have of yourself and your role going into season two?
This past year has been crazy. [Laughs] I get asked that question a lot and I really need to come up with a different adjective but it’s just been a whirlwind. Certainly, I didn’t see or expect any of this. I’m not actress so I wasn’t doing a show to get famous or to get a following on social media, but it just kind of happened. I am beyond grateful for every single part of it. This past year has taught me a lot about myself, about humanity, about our country, and even world wide. The fans that we have that have reached out from all over the world have been wonderful. I’ve had to think, doing interviews and getting questions, deep questions, about our educational system or our criminal justice system or the NCAA and the regulations they put on student athletes. I get these questions, and people are looking to me to be a role model or to be a leader on some of these hard issues and I’ve had to stop and think about what is my position, what do I believe? It’s been tough. It’s taught me time management, it’s taught me how to prioritize my life, to still take time out for my daughter and my personal relationship and not get all consumed in the hoopla of the show and to stay grounded.
Going into season two, I was excited, obviously. Season one and the aftermath of that was fantastic. So I was excited about season two and doing it again and giving the fans, to show more inspiration. I knew that the players we had were inspirational stories, and I knew that it was going to be good, that the material would be good. But I was also stressed out if I’m being honest. Everyone was watching season one, and we were filming season two, and that’s what people don’t really realize. While I was doing five interviews a day and flying all over the country to do speaking engagements and answering hundreds of emails a day, I was filming season two every day and trying to handle that team that we had on campus. So it was a lot more stressful just because there was a lot more going on. But it was still fun and a great experience. I still bonded with the players. Yeah, it was a little different than season one, but it was still the same at the same time.
Talking about the players, the documentary both in season one and two does a good job at showing the different sides of these players. But it can still only show so much as it’s a documentary with a limited amount of time. So what do you think people most misunderstand about the athletes you worked with?
I mean, yeah. It can’t be a 200-hour show; they film us for six months, so they have to edit it down. I don’t know that you could show anyone’s complete self in an eight-hour documentary. But I think they do a very good job at getting pretty darn close with all of us and really showing who we are and the struggles that we have. I don’t think they portrayed anyone in a wrong light. I think everyone was portrayed pretty true to who they are. I respect and trust and appreciate Greg Whiteley, the director of documentary, for that, for his ability to film us and really be honest and open about what he’s showing the world [in terms of] who we are. For me, season two was a little bit heavier. It wasn’t as lighthearted and funny maybe as season one. I think there were some players who really were funny. I think Chauncey Rivers, he’s really a funny guy, and I don’t think that came off. There were some of the players that I kind of did wish that a little bit more of their lighthearted and funny side shown because it seemed so serious. But yeah, they were shown pretty true to who they were.
Going off of that, I definitely thought season two had a much heavier, emotional tone to it. Was that something you noticed while you were filming or was it something you only saw after they put it all together and edited down the six months of footage?
I think there were definitely times throughout the year where I definitely noticed it. Because we had so many transfers, all the guys that they really showed were Division I transfers, and anytime you have a transfer like that, they’re coming in and they’re not going to be there for two years. Ronald Ollie, in season one, and DJ Law, those guys were high school players; none of them were transfer players. So we had them for two years. And when you have someone for two years, you’re not in as much of a hurry academically. So you have more time to spread out the classes and the load, and you have more time to establish the relationship and deal with some of the issues. But these transfers, what people don’t realize, you saw in episode one them checking in when they arrived in Scooba. Well that was in June. I mean they checked in in June and they were gone by December. I only have them for a semester and then a few months. And when you only have someone for that short amount of time, you’re cramming a lot of hours, a lot of academic work, off the field work, in such a short of amount of time. But it is stressful and there’s not a lot of time for goofing off and fun and games and lighthearted conversations because everyone is stressed out. So I think that was the difference in the heaviness, maybe. And the situation was heavier, because we had so many transfers and everyone has the same goal of getting out in December and then going back to Division I, there’s just a lot of pressure on everybody to get that done.
You did touch on how much time you have with these athletes, and you do create these special bonds with them. I know you put a lot of work into continuing these relationships after they leave EMCC. But what kind of an emotional toll does it take on you when they leave, knowing that you only had such a short amount of time with them?
Yeah, that part is really tough, and it’s really rough for me because I do get attached and I do form a bond and then it’s like having kids leave your home every couple of months and that’s tough. I believe it was the year before Ollie came, so it would have been two years before we filmed the first season of the documentary, I had kind of made the pact with myself. I had this player right before Ollie who I had gotten really close to, and when he left it was just really hard for me to get over that player leaving. And Ollie came in, and the class that Ollie was in, I just kind of made this pact for myself that I wasn’t going to get attached to anybody, that I just wasn’t going to do that anymore. I was just going to do my job and keep all of the players at arms length and not get attached and form those bonds anymore because it was just too heartbreaking. And then walks Ronald Ollie and five minutes later, I am putty in his hands [laughs] because of his story and how much help he needed. And then I found myself, with that group, forming some of the most intense bonds that I have ever formed. So I think that just goes to show you that the minute you think you have it figured out, the universe is going to sling something different at you. Thankfully, I broke myself and allowed myself to get close to that group. John Franklin and I have a special bond, Ollie and I have a special bond, Marcel Andry and I have a special bond. That group, I’ll probably have more relationships with that group than any group I’ve ever had.
Do you think the documentary plays a role in why you have such a special bond with that group and why you might have broken your pact?
I don’t know, maybe. I’ve never really thought about it or given the documentary credit for that. I think I would have definitely formed that relationship with Ollie anyway. We just would have. I don’t know. Maybe I was a little bit more vulnerable and open because I agreed to do the documentary and I wanted it to be honest and ope, so maybe I was a little bit more vulnerable than I was trying to allow myself to be. But I’m grateful that I was and, for whatever reason that I did it, I’m grateful that I allowed myself to get attached again and be vulnerable because it definitely changed all of our lives.
A lot of people compare Last Chance U to Friday Night Lights. First off, have you seen the show? Second, what do you think about your comparison to Tami Taylor?
You know, this is going to make a lot of people mad probably, but I have not seen Friday Night Lights at all. I was aware of the show but I hadn’t watched any of it. And then after season one, when people compared me to Tami Taylor and I was being compared so much to that, I did turn it on and started with season one. I think I got through about half of season two and then I just kind of fizzled out of it. So I haven’t finished it. I like it. It’s good. I don’t think I’m really far enough in yet to see the comparisons yet with Tami Taylor. Where I stopped with the show is when she just starts working as a school guidance counselor. Before that she was a coach’s wife, and I’m not a coach’s wife so there was really no comparison. But I could see, with the start of her getting the job at the school, why people were comparing us. I’m flattered by that. It was a great show and a successful show. I love Connie Britton so I don’t have any complaints about being compared to Tami Taylor at all.
Over the past year, Last Chance U has had such an impact on a variety of people all over the world. How would you like yourself and the show to be remembered as the years go by?
I want my part and my character, if you want to call it that, in the show to be remembered [by] the passion, the passion I have for what I do and the passion that I have for those athletes as whole people. I didn’t care if they played a game of football again. I knew it was important to them and that it was their way out of the life, they wanted to make a better life for themselves and a lot of times [football] was their way out and that was a good tool to help them get out. But I wasn’t helping them because they had the potential to be NFL players. I was helping them because they were beautiful people and I wanted to help them contribute to society in a good way, whether they are playing football or not. And I want people to remember that. I want people to have hope. I want people to watch the show and inspire them to be better themselves, whether it’s just to be nicer to people or to get to know stories before you make judgement, whether it inspires you to be a good teacher, mom, to be a better coach, I don’t know. But I want people to, when its over, to sit there for a minute and think about themselves and their own life and how they can be better with whatever path they’re on in their own life.
I have a few more “fun” questions to wrap things up. Why pencils over pens?
[Laughs] I love pencils. I love them because A: they have an eraser and you can erase your mistakes, which I think that’s symbolic in life as well as on the paper. Nobody’s perfect, we’re not all going to make 100; our first answer, our first draft is not always going to be perfect and I think its okay. I think its okay to erase, start over, re-do, fix, whether its on paper or in life. I like that aspect of the pencil that perfection isn’t expected. I also think that the pencil is what we first learned to write with. In kindergarten, no one hands us a pen. It’s a big fat, yellow, number 2 pencil. And I think that picking up that next big fat, yellow pencil every year is also symbolic of just continuing to put one foot in front of the other and continuing put forth the effort and move forward and a lot of times it starts with a pencil. I like that aspect of it. I also learned the other day, which I did not know, someone told me, and this has really impacted me and another reason why I love the pencil, is that if you write with pen and the ink gets wet, it runs. If pencil gets wet, it stays. To me, it’s also very symbolic of that pencil in a way, yes, there is an eraser but that lead is so strong. You would think of maybe the pencil being the weaker utensil, but in all honesty, that lead is so strong and so durable and stays on the paper, I think that is also a really good lesson in life. I just always have a pencil and I never really wrote with a pen when I was in college or high school. I always had a pencil so I guess I was just going with what I knew and it stuck.
I think some of my favorite scenes were the ones, in both seasons, when the players were just hanging out in your office, joking around, and talking about life. Why do you think your office is such a popular destination for the team to hang out?
I think that was intentional on my part. It was a strategy on my part, from the beginning, and something that I thought really hard about and really tried. I created it on purpose. I think they hung out in my office because I allowed them to be who they were. There weren’t all these rules. In season two, you saw me getting on them a little bit more because there were a lot more players hanging out all the time so it was louder, noisier and a little bit crazier. But I think that they knew that those four walls in my office were safe and that they could come in and talk about what they wanted to talk about openly and freely. I wasn’t trying to force them into being someone else. Yeah I was allowing them to be who they were, and I let them listen to their music and cut up. There was a time to get serious and then there was a time to just have fun, and I think I just allowed it to flow freely and they respected that and loved that and I think it was just a place that they felt comfortable. And when you feel comfortable, you’ll respect it and you’ll feel like you can be who you are, you’re going to go back and you’re going to sit in that environment. And I tried really hard to create that with them, and I think that it worked, and it’s how I formed the relationships that I formed with them because I allowed that space to be safe.
Our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us and we love talking about the things we are so passionate about that it’s all we talk about. So what do you nerd out over?
Something that I nerd out over… gosh, I feel like I’m so busy that I don’t have time to nerd out over anything. [Laughs] I love food, I love to eat. I do nerd out over yoga. I am a yoga freak. I will read anything that has to with meditation, yoga. I’m fascinated by our minds and the whole mind-body-spirit connection so I nerd out over that. I nerd out over self-help books. I all the time have a self-help book in my hands. And I’m one of those people who highlights and writes in the margins of the book. I have a quote page in my notes section on my phone that I started years ago, and I have a hundreds of quotes. So when I see a good quote, I go to my phone and type it in my notes page. So I just kind of like flipping through that page and reading them and inspiring myself or other people. I guess I nerd out over our brains and our minds and how people work, what makes us who we are, how we operate, why we do the things that we do. That kind of stuff fascinates me.
Lastly, we see you leave your job at EMCC at the end of season two. Can you talk about what you’re doing now?
I am super excited. I am working for myself, which is a lot of fun. [Laughs] I like myself [laughs] so I like working for myself. But I have started a company called Ten Thousand Pencils. We call it 10KP for short. Basically, I can be hired by any athlete or coach or athletic program in the country to be Ms. Wagner to athletes everywhere. So if there is a high school athlete or junior college athlete out there who needs a little extra help or guidance or motivation or management, they can hire me to come on board and help them see their plan through, whatever that plan may look like. It is taking off in a huge way right now which is a lot of fun to read these emails I’m getting from people and read their stories and figure out how I can help them.
I am also on quite a little speaking gig run. I am in the car right now heading to New Orleans, Louisiana. I am speaking tomorrow at a NCAA conference there. So yeah, I’m doing a lot of speaking gigs which is a lot of fun because I love meeting people who are fans of the show and inspired by the show. When I get to go to these places and talk to people and they come up afterwards and you get to hear their stories, its just inspirational for me. I’m getting pretty booked solid. This morning I took some time to check some emails and I had about ten requests for speaking gigs just overnight. So constantly, yes, which is fun and I love it. A lot of them are athletic programs, high school teams, junior college teams, who want me to come speak to their teams or come to games and be on the sidelines and things like that, which is super fun. I will be doing that next year and then running 10KP. I’m just super excited about getting to work with athletes everywhere and programs everywhere and to see how different programs operate. I’m also being hired to train teachers and counselors. I’ll be in Detroit, Michigan, at the end of this month training some teachers and counselors that work at an inner-city school district on how to low socioeconomic at-risk students. So that’s fun for me too. I have an opportunity and we have an opportunity as educators right now, this platform has given me an opportunity to, we can go out and change the scope of our educational system and college athletics if we really want to right now.