NFL Network Puts Wyoming In Spotlight With Documentary On Heart Mountain Eagles

The NFL Network will premiere a half-hour documentary Monday on the Heart Mountain Eagles, the high school football team for the Wyoming Japanese-American internment camp during World War II that went undefeated in 1942.

AR
Andrew Rossi

May 27, 20246 min read

Scott and Rodney Fujita at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center near Cody during the production of  the NFL documentary "9066: Fear, Football, and the Theft of Freedom."
Scott and Rodney Fujita at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center near Cody during the production of the NFL documentary "9066: Fear, Football, and the Theft of Freedom." (Courtesy Preston Randolph, Cactus Productions)

A half-hour documentary featuring the unique story of the Heart Mountain Eagles — the football team for Wyoming’s notorious World War II Japanese internment camp — premieres on the NFL Network on Memorial Day.

And the NFL hired a Cowboy State company to tell the Wyoming story.

The documentary “9066: Fear, Football, and the Theft of Freedom” tells the story of the Eagles, a high-school football team of Japanese Americans incarcerated at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World War II. It was called a “relocation center,” but was in reality an internment camp.

“It's a cautionary tale of what happens when we, as a nation and a society, let fear and misinformation get the best of us,” said Christopher Jones, a producer with the Entertainment and Initiatives Division at NFL Media. “When people watch this documentary, I want them to be entertained, but also listen to and learn from it.”

The NFL hired Cactus Productions, an Emmy Award-winning media creation company based in Cody, to help tell the unique story. Their equipment and expertise are assets in a state without much infrastructure for film and media production.

“We were approached by the NFL weeks prior to the Wyoming shoots,” said Preston Randolph, producer and director at Cactus Productions. “We offered various production services to them, which allowed for an easier production process here in Wyoming.”

Undefeated

The Heart Mountain Eagles were a team of Japanese American teenagers who were forcibly relocated to the Heart Mountain Relocation Center with their families during World War II. Despite adversity on and off the playing field, the team went undefeated in 1942.

Jones encountered the story while reading Bradford Pearson's book “The Eagles of Heart Mountain: A True Story of Football, Incarceration, and Resistance in World War II America.”

“The more I learned about it, the more I wanted to tell this story and let people know about this overlooked part of American history,” he said. “That was the genesis of the documentary.”

To connect the story of the high school football team to the modern-day NFL, Jones enlisted Scott Fujita, a former linebacker who played for the New Orleans Saints when they won Super Bowl XLIV in 2009. Fujita’s grandfather, Nagao, was incarcerated at the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona during the war.

Scott’s father Rodney Fujita was born at Gila River. For Jones, combining the stories of the Fujita family and the Heart Mountain Eagles added more impact to an already powerful story.

“(Rodney and Scott) joined us at Heart Mountain,” he said. Rodney “wasn't actually at the Heart Mountain, but having him there and telling his son about living in a camp was really powerful. Combining those two stories was powerful and helped us talk about this part of American history that isn't as well-known as it should (be).”

  • Former NFL linebacker Scott Fujita being interviewed at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center for the NFL documentary "9066: Fear, Football, and the Theft of Freedom."
    Former NFL linebacker Scott Fujita being interviewed at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center for the NFL documentary "9066: Fear, Football, and the Theft of Freedom." (Courtesy Preston Randolph, Cactus Productions)
  • Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson being interviewed at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center for the NFL documentary "9066: Fear, Football, and the Theft of Freedom."
    Former U.S. Sen. Al Simpson being interviewed at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center for the NFL documentary "9066: Fear, Football, and the Theft of Freedom." (Courtesy Preston Randolph, Cactus Productions)
  • Rodney Fujita being interviewed at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center for the NFL documentary "9066: Fear, Football, and the Theft of Freedom." Fujita was born at the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona.
    Rodney Fujita being interviewed at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center for the NFL documentary "9066: Fear, Football, and the Theft of Freedom." Fujita was born at the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona. (Courtesy Preston Randolph, Cactus Productions)

Where It Happened

Cactus Productions specializes in documentaries and commercial marketing. The company earned an Emmy for “Moments in Park County,” a commercial campaign they created for the Park County Travel Council.

Additionally, the company provides crucial production services to businesses and larger media networks that need material shot in and around Wyoming. The NFL hired Cactus Productions to augment and assist its film crews during an on-location shoot at the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center.

“We shot two days with the NFL and then provided additional days of shooting after the main shoot,” Randolph said. “We followed (Scott and Rodney) Fujita during our shoot and conducted interviews with others, including Sen. Al Simpson.”

Simpson grew up in Cody during World War II. He famously forged a close friendship with Norman Mineta, a camp detainee who served in the U.S. House of Representatives and as the 14th U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush.

Jones said the NFL often enlists local film production companies to assist in its productions. Finding a company of such high caliber in northwest Wyoming “couldn’t have been more exciting.”

“We felt very confident working with them,” he said. “They knew everything. The footage we were able to get and the scenes we were able to capture with them were fantastic. I would ask them if they had any good ideas for the shoot, and they always and immediately had good ideas.”

Randolph said it was also a positive experience for Cactus Productions. He hopes the documentary will increase Wyoming’s visibility as a location where a growing community of talented people is eagerly ready to assist in future film productions.

“We really enjoyed working with the NFL crew that produced this film and hope to do more work in the future if that opportunity presents itself,” he said. “I feel the more projects like this that choose to shoot in and around Wyoming, the more it helps my company and all Wyoming media creators. We have a large selection of talented people here in Wyoming who just need the opportunity to work.”

  • Cody filmmaker Preston Randolph, behind camera.
    Cody filmmaker Preston Randolph, behind camera. (Courtesy Preston Randolph, Cactus Productions)
  • Cinematographer Alex Wohleber behind the camera.
    Cinematographer Alex Wohleber behind the camera. (Courtesy Preston Randolph, Cactus Productions)

Yesterday And Today

Jones said another highlight of the documentary was an interview with the last living player for the Heart Mountain Eagles.

“Being able to talk to him about the team and what that meant for everyone at the camp was really powerful,” he said. “There are several powerful interviews and testimony from people who were at the camp.”

The personal stories of courage, endurance and strength against adversity drew Jones to the story of the Heart Mountain Eagles. He hopes the NFL’s documentary will bring more attention to an often-overlooked piece of American history and its meaning in the 21st century.

“When people tune in, the most important thing we want them to know is that this is part of American history,” he said. “You’ll see the parallels of what happened back in 1942 and the similarities to what’s happened in more recent history.”

“9066: Fear, Football, and the Theft of Freedom” premieres at 6 p.m. on the NFL Network with a 9 p.m. re-airing. The documentary will also be available on all the NFL’s media channels.

Andrew Rossi can be reached at arossi@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Andrew Rossi

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