'23 Blast' film crew came to Corbin to tell inspirational football story

Mark Hapka, whose credits include Days of Our Lives, stars as Travis Freeman in the film 23 Blast, based on the former Corbin football player blinded by illness.
Mark Hapka, whose credits include Days of Our Lives, stars as Travis Freeman in the film 23 Blast, based on the former Corbin football player blinded by illness.

Every small town in America has its stories, but not all of them make it to the big screen.

Corbin will see itself and an inspirational hometown story that caught national attention in theaters this week with 23 Blast, the story of Corbin football player Travis Freeman who overcame blindness to play for his high school football team.

The film follows Freeman as he goes from a healthy boy and athletically gifted football player to being stricken with bacterial meningitis, a condition that is often fatal or leaves the victim with severe brain damage. It was the summer of 1993, and he was rushed to the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center with a 106-degree fever and severe swelling.

Freeman survived, but his optic nerve was destroyed.

His gridiron dreams seemed to be gone. But Freeman went on to surpass all expectations and return to the football field, playing center for the Corbin Redhounds.

When Freeman recalls losing his sight at age 12, he says that through all the challenges he faced, he still saw a light at the end of the tunnel.

"I turned to them and said, 'I believe that I'll be able to see again. But if I don't, I believe God is going to use this, and I'm going to accept this," said Freeman, who went on from high school to be a student manager for the UK football team, earn a doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and is now an adjunct professor at University of the Cumberlands. "I was never bitter. I was never angry. I never questioned God. I believed that God was in control of the whole situation."

Freeman's story received national news coverage from USA Today, The New York Times and NBC's Today show. But Freeman was unaware that someone else — someone he knew — was also trying to tell his story and tell it in a big way.

Toni Hoover, a Corbin native and friend to the Freeman family, was co-writing a screenplay with her son, Bram. Bram was a freshman playing high school ball with Freeman when Freeman was a senior.

"The way that it turned out was one in a million," Bram joked. "Not many people can say they wrote a movie with their mom."

When it came time to cast the film, Bram, who already had had some success as a film and TV actor in Hollywood, wanted to play Freeman's free-spirited childhood buddy, Jerry Baker, who helped pull his friend out of the darkness. He cast another actor and close friend, Becky Ann Baker, as Freeman's mobility coach, Patty Wheatley.

When it came time to decide on a director, Baker told her husband, Dylan Baker, about the project. Dylan is a veteran TV and film actor whose recent credits include his Emmy-nominated role as Colin Sweeney on the CBS drama The Good Wife. But with 23 Blast, circumstances fell into place so that he could scratch becoming a film director off his creative bucket list.

"The fact that this story sort of fell in my lap, it had the earmarks of something I should do," said Baker, who also plays Freeman's father, Larry, opposite longtime Guiding Light star Kim Zimmer as mother Mary Freeman.

Others in the cast include Mark Hapka, who had extended roles on Days of Our Lives and Ghost Whisperer, as Freeman; Spy Kids star Alexa Vega as his friend Ashley, and Avatar star Stephen Lang as the coach.

When it came time to shoot the film, there was only one place to do it. The entirety of 23 Blast was shot in Corbin in April 2012 over the course of, coincidentally, 23 days. Dylan Baker said an initial visit to Corbin and meeting the inspiration behind the film was all he and the crew needed to make the decision.

"I said, I really want to go to Corbin and just take a look around," Baker said. "We just looked at each other and said, we've got to do it here."

The town cooperated fully with the 23 Blast crew, allowing access to wings of the hospital, Freeman's high school, the football field, pretty much anywhere they needed to go. The town even offered to put the cast and crew up during their stay.

"Since we were filming a film about a fellow Corbin-ite, it was totally open arms and open doors," Bram said.

Baker says he got a lot of help re-enacting the game scenes from local players and members of University of the Cumberlands' football squad. Plus, actors and crew members from Lexington were tapped and traveled down to participate in the project.

"I have to say I was really blessed in terms of the directing because I got a great cast and really great crew," Baker said. "I didn't deserve to have all those people come and do such a great job."

Even though Baker admitted his first time behind the camera was relatively painless, he said he felt a lot of pressure knowing his first film was based on a true story, and that the people it was based on would get to experience the film for themselves.

"I can tell you that I was really nervous the first time they saw it," he recalled. "They got up and hugged each one of us and said, 'You got it right.'"

"There's a lot of things in the movie that actually happened," said Freeman, who has told his story in his recently published autobiography, Lights Out: Living in a Sightless World. "What I really think they captured well is the spirit of overcoming obstacles in life and not allowing a tragedy that came in my life to keep me back."

The film is slated to open Friday on 600 screens nationwide, which the Internet Movie Database calls an achievement for an independent production. But first it will have a premiere screening Thursday night at The Kentucky Theatre with numerous members of the cast and crew in attendance.

"We really do feel like this movie is going to speak to folks from Kentucky," Baker said. "I think this is another film that they'll be able to take pride in being from Kentucky, and a town like Corbin can come together and support a young man through such a trying time. Lexington is a wonderful spot to have an obvious homecoming and bring everybody together for a great night."

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