Ex-Steeler Rashard Mendenhall Talks Dream Job Writing for HBO's 'Ballers'

Bonsu ThompsonFeatured Columnist ISeptember 21, 2017

(Getty Images)

Tossing away an NFL career and millions per season while at the center of your prime looks masochistic from the outside, perceived by many as throwing your fortunate life away. That could've been a truth for Rashard Mendenhall, except three years after walking away from the shield, he's now the executive story editor for HBO's tantalizing hit Ballers.

In 2009, Mendenhall erupted as one of the NFL's most dangerous combos, rushing for over 1,100 yards and receiving for an average of 10.4 yards per game. That season, he was the Steelers' leading rusher.

The following year, he earned nearly 100 more carries and clocked in over 100 more rushing yards. After five seasons with the Black and Yellow, Mendenhall took his talents to Arizona, where both he and quarterback Carson Palmer played their first year in the desert. The Cards' offense was tailor-fit for the Illinois native. So it made little sense when the completely healthy 26-year-old just up and retired from pro football.

But for Mendenhall, Ballers is a dream job: an outlet for his inner scribe, who used to pen raps and ballads for high school friends and short stories at leisure. The show is centered around an ex-NFL player—played by a charming Dwayne Johnson—who is trying to navigate the life-after-the-League transition. Dream job.

"It's been an incredible journey," Mendenhall tells Bleacher Report from his home phone in Santa Monica, California. "Knowing that I wanted to write, but not exactly how, when or where. The way I've grown in this writing business and just seeing how the show's being received...it's something I couldn't have drawn up."

Rashard Mendenhall at the premiere of "Shake The Dust."
Rashard Mendenhall at the premiere of "Shake The Dust."(Getty Images)
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While Ballers, with its South Beach-lit scenes and constellation of A-list athletes (Steph Curry) and entertainers (Travis Scott), could easily be dismissed as eye candy in HD, it's more. This show is intelligently grounded by the nuances of American sports and the cash that rules everything within it.

From on-field performance to front-office negotiations to thirst traps, Ballers is authentic, and Mendenhall has pulled from many an experience to keep the show "real." Remember when Ricky Jerret, played by Denzel's son, John David Washington, had his belongings tossed in the ice tub his first week as a Dolphin? That came directly from Rashard's rookie year.

Fittingly, the character who has received the most of its story editor is the lead, The Rock's Spencer Strasmore, a former QB crusher who went from being retired and broke to trying to convince his active peers to trust him as their financial agent. Says Mendenhall, "Seeing him balance his business while he tries to overcome what he's been through in the league, that's what I relate to the most."

"Rashard is the one who brings the integrity to Ballers," says wardrobe stylist Tiffany Hasbourne, who also works on other shows like Shooter and Atlanta. "Whenever we have football questions or scenes that are sensitive to the sport—like what players wear on first day of OTA [organized team activities]—we first reference back to Rashard."

As impressive (and difficult) as it is to help shape a hit TV show, most men wouldn't trade an NFL locker room for a writer's room. First off, Rashard Mendenhall is not like most men. Second, his six pro seasons under the helmet weren't the rosiest of times.

There was that Baltimore Ravens game his rookie year when he got his first professional start. He was on his way to completing a decent showing when Ray Lewis sent him and a freshly fractured shoulder to injured reserve for the remainder of the season. The Steelers won the Super Bowl that year with Mendenhall watching from the sideline.

Two seasons later, the Steelers made it back to the big game against the Green Bay Packers—this time, with Mendenhall as the starting back. He had a good game, but fumbled in the fourth quarter. Green Bay drove down the field and scored. By game's end, the Lombardi belonged to the Packers.

Professional lows are one thing, but nothing on the field would prepare the running back for the following offseason.

On May 1, 2011, President Barack Obama announced to the world the U.S. had successfully assassinated bad guy of the century Osama bin Laden. Americans rejoiced, and Mendenhall scolded them on Twitter.

Mendenhall with the Steelers in 2011.
Mendenhall with the Steelers in 2011.(Getty Images)

"What kind of person celebrates death? It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side…"

"We'll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style."

The tweets were seen as 9/11 conspiracy and awoke the scariest, most gargantuan and relentless defense Mendenhall had ever faced: the American media. He was feathered and tarred as unpatriotic. The Steelers organization openly distanced itself from its employee's views.

Mendenhall felt betrayed.

"I totally did," he says. "But I let go of that when I really understood the business and realized it was no hard feelings. Understanding I was one of the cogs in the machine helped me to be where I am right now."

Although Mendenhall, whose Twitter bio at the time of Bin Laden's death read "conversationalist and professional athlete," has since deleted those infamous tweets, he stands by his six-year-old sentiments and blames the media for twisting his criticism of American hypocrisy into treasonous radicalism.

"The issue was more moral, ethical and spiritual," he says today. "The fact that we could look at someone else and say this wasn't right, but we're doing that exact same thing…We don't always take the time to be totally open throughout history. In our country, we do it with poor people or anyone we deem not like us or as important."

What exacerbated the Bin Laden comments was that two months prior Mendenhall supported (once again on Twitter) a statement by Adrian Peterson comparing the NFL to slavery. He tweeted, "Anyone with knowledge of the slave trade and the NFL could say that these two parallel each other."

It's an observation that has been echoed countless times prior and post the two running backs' opinions, especially with America's current racial fire burning over to Colin Kaepernick's unemployment.

"They see us as one-dimensional barbarians who hit and run through things," Mendenhall says. "But there's a lot more to these guys. I just think with the game and how people want to see the players, there's just not enough space for the person under the mask and their story."

By 2013, Mendenhall was out of Pittsburgh and in Arizona. But he says that, although he was healthy and playing "free and natural," there was an unexplainable feeling that his NFL chapter was coming to a close. In March 2014, he announced his retirement.

Mendenhall playing for the Arizona Cardinals in 2013.
Mendenhall playing for the Arizona Cardinals in 2013.(Getty Images)

While his exit came three years after his Twittergate, the stench of that spring lingered over Mendenhall's career. It was like those eight rushing touchdowns in his final season never happened. To his critics, he was still that anti-American player who gave up playing God's greatest sport for no sensible reason.

"Early on it kind of bothered me a bit," Mendenhall says of his bad rep. "The view that people had, even though it was skewed, it's real and it sticks and lasts. But what I learned from that is if you don't speak up and put your truth out there, then you're subjected to whatever is being said about you."

As many bullets as Mendenhall took for speaking from the heart, he never considered biting his tongue. Once retired, his passion for conversation only grew. He immediately started his own blog with the Huffington Post. Within a month, the blog had grabbed the attention of Leverage, the production company behind former HBO successes like Boardwalk Empire.

A sit-down with the ex-back was requested, and a month later he joined a team of nearly a dozen writers to create the sports version of Entourage. Mendenhall had come a long way from stacking rap bars as a teen, but he feels his wonder years are connected to his most wonderful years today.

"Donald Glover, Childish Gambino, once said acting and doing improv to graphic and freestyling [use] the same muscles in the brain. They're just being trained in different ways," Mendenhall says. "So doing those songs and those raps are part of what sparked my interest in telling stories. All of those different ways [of writing] got me here writing television."

Zach Robbins, who co-wrote episode 207 with Mendenhall, says the new writer became an integral part of the show, contributing perspectives beyond his former sport.

"Rashard was initially hired to validate and vet the football elements in our show, but quickly demonstrated that he had a nose for all things story and a grasp on what makes people tick," Robbins says. "He became invaluable to the process, not solely to the nitty gritty of football."

Unless it's the Cardinals, Steelers, Bears or a running back he likes, you won't catch Mendenhall watching his former employer. When he isn't spending entire weekdays holed up with his squad creating the fourth season of Ballers, he's practicing a personal mix of meditation and martial arts.

Mendenhall (center) at the premiere of "Shake The Dust" in Hollywood.
Mendenhall (center) at the premiere of "Shake The Dust" in Hollywood.(Getty Images)

The 30-year-old has lived more years crashing through giant men than he hasn't, so he's spent the latter half of his 20s searching for ways to avoid instinctually stiff-arming civilians. "If we're in the writer's room and things start getting heated, it's like, in football, this is the point we start screaming or running into someone," he laughs.

For the fourth season of Ballers, Mendenhall will be adding "producer" to his writing duties. He'll also be wrapping up his first documentary—he's producing it with his girlfriend, Sandy Romah, through their company, Nappy Rose Productions.

It's a wonderful time indeed for the former back. So good that it makes one wonder if he's considered taking his career as a TV creative even further—like stepping from behind the camera a la 50 Cent in Power.

"Not so much," he answers. "That was the part of being in the NFL that I didn't enjoy so much. I liked being a warrior. I liked preparing for the game and then going onto the field and competing, but having to be a brand and be a face with fame was always tough for me. In this world, I love being behind the scenes."