Now into the heart of training camp, the crew for HBO’s “Hard Knocks” has been around long enough to dive beyond the Detroit Lions’ obvious stories.
The documentary series opened this season focusing on the Lions’ coaching staff, a cast of former players with big personalities, as well as first-round draft pick Aidan Hutchinson. And in the second episode, star running back D’Andre Swift and hotshot rookie Malcolm Rodriguez were the top two storylines.
The show is unquestionably excellent in what it does, bringing viewers behind the scenes and adding depth to the team’s most thoroughly covered topics. But as the show progresses, it’s unmatched access is also able to take us into the world of the roster’s lesser-known players, the ones who exist on the bubble and are fighting every day to carve out a spot on the team.
In the third installment of the five-part series that aired Tuesday night, “Hard Knocks” featured a pair of undrafted rookies and an unheralded running back who came out of nowhere to claim a job last season and is drawing unconventional motivation from a family member.
The undrafted rookies, wide receiver Kalil Pimpleton and offensive tackle Obinna Eze and, took far different paths to this point.
Pimpleton, a Michigan native, was a standout at Muskegon High School and went on to star at Central Michigan. Eze is from Nigeria and had never seen a football until he moved to the United States at the age of 15.
Earlier this week, offensive line coach Hank Fraley talked about Eze being a lump of clay being molded, praising the youngster’s work ethic and steady improvement. Again, “Hard Knocks” shows how that sausage is being made, with Fraley pushing Eze on the practice field and in the meeting room.
“Who are you cheating?” Fraley asked Eze in a meeting room after showing the rookie not going full speed on a practice rep. “You’re cheating yourself. You’re cheating us. I can’t count on that.”
Much like Hutchinson in the first episode, Pimpleton had his rookie talent show in front of the team featured. And like the first-rounder, the undrafted receiver got off to a slow start with his juggling exhibition, drawing jeers from his teammates before settling into a groove with under-the-leg and behind-the-back tosses that won over his peers.
That led into a montage of Pimpleton making plays on the practice field and even drawing some one-on-one coaching from Dan Campbell after one snap.
“The greatest asset you have is your feet, your quickness. So why would you ever want your feet off the ground if you don’t have to?” Campbell said to Pimpleton after he failed to come up with a diving catch.
We were also brought behind the scenes with running back Craig Reynolds, who was having a seemingly innocuous conversation with his older brother, bantering as siblings often do.
As it turns out, Reynolds’ brother is in prison, serving a lengthy sentence for armed robbery. But despite being in far different places in life, the two remain close.
“He’s still a role model, just shows you what not to do,” Reynolds said. “We have a great relationship still. He calls me all the time. It’s motivation, it’s about life, it’s about everything. We only get a certain amount of time, but it puts it in perspective, for sure.”
The episode also heavily featured Detroit’s joint practices with Indianapolis, which showcased the team’s gritty resiliency while also providing some laughs.
As noted in our coverage of the event, the Lions were outclassed and dominated in the first practice against the Colts. The coaches acknowledged this in the episode, including a comical scene where running backs coach Duce Staley chews out his group after losing his voice, sounding more like Mickey Mouse than a coach.
The message clearly got through, not only to the backs but to the rest of the roster as the Lions more than held their own on the second day. After that practice, Campbell hammers home the lesson with his players.
“Match and go beyond the intensity of opponent,” he said.
Beyond all the football moments and montages, the highlight of the show might have been the comedic stylings of Josh Adams, who was brought in to perform a private set for the team. In the brief segment they showed, he poked fun at Hutchinson for looking like a member of a boy band and Campbell as an over-the-top character.
It’s these small moments, outside the public’s eye, that bring a team closer together and can play an unheralded role in success.
Speaking of success, this week’s episode closed with the preseason game against the Colts, which the Lions held on to win, 27-26. And while it felt like HBO overdramatized a meaningless game in some ways, they matched how important Campbell made the victory feel for a young roster that needs to learn what winning feels like.
“There is nothing like (expletive) winning, men,” Campbell said in a passionate postgame speech. “There is nothing like winning. And I’m telling you right now, it doesn’t matter if it’s dominoes, it’s spades, it’s Booray, it’s croquet, it’s (expletive) chess, it’s preseason, ass kicking, it does not matter, men. Winning is winning and it feels good, men. We needed to taste that because that’s where we’re going. That’s what we’ve got to get used to.”