X's and O's: Former 49er Dwight Hicks in Play That Tackles Football and Head Injuries

The cast of 'X's and O's"

Playwright KJ Sanchez thinks there’s no better theater than football.

“It’s a perfect vehicle for narrative,” she says. “If you look at the way Joseph Campbell broke down the hero’s myth and how every great story follows the same principles, every game follows those same principles. You have series of trials, and you have the magic elixir. I also just admire how impossibly hard it is to do.”

For Jenny Mercein, the daughter of Chuck Mercein, a Super Bowl-winning former professional player, the game is all tied up with family memories.

“It’s this shared experience,” she says. “I love everything about it from tailgating to being at games to texting with my mom during the games.”

[jump] At a Cinco de Mayo party a couple years ago, the two women got to talking about their mutual fandom – as well as all the disturbing information coming out about how the violent sport affects the brain. This was shortly after former pro player Junior Seau had committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest at the age of 43. Later studies found he suffered from a type of brain damage, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which has been found in other NFL players, and the two women talked where the game might be headed and how it could change.

Sanchez and Mercein both felt football was at a pivotal point, and decided to investigate, interviewing players, their families, fans, physicians and academics, creating X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story), playing at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre starting January 30.

The two briefly considered a fictional story about a football family, but found the real life stories they were getting in their interviews were so moving and compelling they wanted to stick with them. Sanchez has done documentary theater for over a decade with her company, American Records, creating numerous stories, including ReEntry — a story about Marines coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. She likes working this way.

“I’m so bored with – and I could care less about – my own opinion,” Sanchez says. “I don’t need everybody to know what I feel about things. I’m not interested in agitprop theater. So the documentary format is the perfect vehicle for the audience to hear others’ stories, not mine.”

Sanchez says she immediately thought of pitching the play to Berkeley Rep’s artistic director Tony Taccone, a big sports fan, and she couldn’t imagine a better director for X’s and O’s.

“He encouraged us to widen the lens and ask the big questions about what it says about who we are as Americans,” she says. “And his production brings a lot of all the things we love about the spectacle of football to the stage. It’s very, very theatrical.”

Former 49er and two-time Super Bowl champion Dwight Hicks, a member of the cast, also appreciates the director.

“The actors in this play are phenomenal and then working with Tony Taccone – it doesn’t get a lot better than that. I’m getting about five years of information just being here,” he says. “I’ve been speaking with Tony about characterization and the script and the intention because it’s always about the intention.”

After retiring from football, Hicks had a corporate job downtown, but he hated being inside all day. One time while in the Pro Bowl, he’d been asked to do a spot for the Selective Service. The director told him he was a natural and could make a lot of money the way he read scripts. One day while playing golf, he heard that director’s voice in his head. Hicks called some agencies, saying he’d like to audition for commercials or, what the heck, movies. Days later, they offered him an audition on a Francis Ford Coppola film, Jack. He got the part and found himself in a movie with Robin Williams, Bill Cosby, and Diane Lane. Hicks’ other film credits include The Rock and Armageddon. On TV, he’s been on How I Met Your Mother and Cold Case, among others, and this play is his Berkeley Rep debut.

Hicks says he sees parallels between his former career and his current one – first you learn the fundamentals and then the nuances. Also, he says, with both, people just see the finished product of a game or a play, not the work that went into it.

Hicks loved playing football, which he says taught him a lot about setting goals and working with others. He says something needs to be done to address the safety issues though. And he knows someone working to do that.

“They need to find a better way of tackling to take the head out of the equation, but what they’re talking about with CTE is the sub-concussive hits which is the linemen banging each others’ heads,” he says. “I have a friend who has a patent that addresses that. He explained to me the science of it all. He’s an inventor – his dad worked for Cal Tech and invented the helmets for the astronauts when they were going to the moon.”

For a while, after interviewing people who had lost loved ones to CTE and early onset Alzheimer’s, Mercein and Sanchez had a hard time even watching the game, but they also have hope things will change.

“You can still be disgusted at how long it took the NFL to confront the issue, but now they are confronting it,” Mercein says. “I do have hope they’re no longer running away from it, and there’s an opportunity for a positive evolution.”

The playwrights hope X’s and O’s will offer insight into the appeal of football.

“Hopefully the story is universal in that I think we all have something in our lives we love that we know is either hurting us directly or hurting someone else,” Sanchez says. “What is the exchange rate when it comes to what you get out of something that someone else pays a price for? We are all in a series of engagements where, if you look under surface, a group getting a greater good where individuals pay a cost, and what’s our responsibility in that?”

X's and O’s (A Football Love Story) plays at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley through March 1. Tickets are $29 -79. For more information, please call 510 647-2949.

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