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White: 1980 documentary a labor of love for producers

There was little optimism when filmmaker Lenny Daniel began making a documentary on Georgia’s 1980 national championship football team.

He had little response when trying to set up interviews with former players and coaches, and the exorbitant cost of the stock footage from that season led some to advise him it was a bad business decision.

When former Georgia linebacker Frank Ros, a captain on the 1980 team, offered to put Daniel in touch with his teammates and former Georgia coach Vince Dooley agreed to be the first interview, Daniel felt the project picking up momentum. And once the emotional reviews started to roll in from friends and Georgia fans, the 1981 Georgia alum and former Red & Black sportswriter poured himself into the project.

“I was discouraged at first,” Daniel said. “I was pretty much ready to give up on the project because I thought there wasn’t enough interest. But once I heard from Frank and Coach Dooley, and (former Georgia quarterback) Buck Belue, that was all the green light I needed. And once I started to hear back from people who saw some clips, I realized people really wanted to see something done on the 1980 team.”

Since its release just more than a month ago, the documentary, titled “1980 Dawgs: The Inside Story of the National Championship Season,” has generated positive buzz with 3 1⁄2 hours of interviews with more than 25 former players and coaches mixed with footage from each game of the historic season.

“We have had an overwhelmingly, incredibly positive feedback when people see it,” said Mike Moss, a 1983 Georgia graduate, entrepreneur and producer of the film. “I get calls saying it brought people to tears. I had one person tell me it’s more like a leadership seminar and a movie about teamwork.”

Daniel’s interest in the 1980 team was reinvigorated three years ago as the 30th anniversary of the Bulldogs’ title run approached. He searched for a documentary on the championship run, but found only short vignettes or raw highlight reels and interviews.

At least initially, few agreed to be part of the seemingly first-of-its-kind project.

“I started sending out some feelers to old players and coaches, but I didn’t hear anything back for a while, and I started to wonder if I should even pursue it,” Daniel said. “Then, out of the blue, I got a letter back from Frank Ros, who was excited about the idea. … The more people he put me in touch with and the more people I interviewed, the more I started to realize it was an even more fascinating season than I remembered, and there were so many stories to tell.”

If there was any shred of doubt about the project, it was erased when Daniel began sorting through the interviews.

“I knew it was going to be special when I was editing it and would come across so many powerful soundbites from the players and coaches I interviewed,” Daniel said. “I kind of knew it was going to strike a chord with Georgia fans, which was a real sense of satisfaction and relief for me because I had put in so much into this documentary.”

Funding, however, was going to be an issue. Daniel had no problem investing his own energy — “My family had to put up with a lot of late nights with me working at home,” he said — but the licensing fees for the footage he wanted to use totaled roughly $20,000, a daunting fee for a production company whose owner is also its sole full-time employee.

“When I started putting it all together, I really took a leap of faith,” Daniel said. “I didn’t know how I was going to secure all of that.”

Daniel set out to find a sponsor, and when that failed, began contacting longtime friends and fellow Georgia graduates asking them if they knew anyone interested in backing the documentary.

Moss, a longtime friend of Daniels’, stepped in to help.

“I knew the business model looked difficult, but we learned a lot of the things about the business through the process,” Moss said. “When I got involved, we formed a production company, found a way to fund the clips, and I dealt with all the representatives from the university, the NCAA and the SEC — all the boring business stuff.”

With the documentary now available, Daniel will be on hand today at The Red Zone on East Clayton Street with former Georgia All-American Scott Woerner; actress, Bulldogs fan and Georgia native Susan Walters; and her husband, actor Linden Ashby. Daniel, Woerner, Walter and Ashby will be on hand to talk with fans and sign autographs from 9:30-11:30 a.m., and Daniel and Woerner will return to the store shortly after Saturday’s Georgia-New Mexico State game until about 6 p.m. Copies of the documentary will be available for purchase.

Daniel and Moss don’t know what today’s crowd will be like, they don’t have an expectation for how many documentaries they will sell as their audience expands, and they still aren’t sure they will make a profit from three years’ worth of work. But little of that seems to matter now.

“It may sound corny, but it really felt like this was a work of passion for us that had to be done,” Moss said.

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