Remembering Chadwick Boseman's Role as an Unstoppable Underdog in Draft Day

Before he was Marvel's first Black leading superhero in Black Panther, late actor Chadwick Boseman tackled a different kind of heroism opposite Kevin Costner in often-overlooked sports drama Draft Day. Just his fourth movie credit, coming after a starring turn as baseball icon Jackie Robinson in 42, Boseman plays the fictional Vontae Mack, an Ohio State University linebacker turned top prospect in the 2014 NFL Draft. When Cleveland Browns general manager Sonny Weaver Jr. (Costner) finds himself wielding the first overall draft pick, he agonizes over selecting Mack — his gut pick — or making a splash with top quarterback prospect Bo Callahan (Josh Pence).

The stud quarterback is pro-ready and the preferred pick of Browns analysts as well as team owner Anthony Molina (Frank Langella), who threatens to fire Weaver if he fails to "make a splash" for the win-starved city of Cleveland. Weaver's decision-making sees him butting heads with Browns head coach Vince Penn (Denis Leary), who isn't swayed by the sentimental and character-based reasoning behind Weaver wanting Mack.

"If I was you, I'd take a lightning-quick middle linebacker who can murder the gaps in a 3-4," Mack tells Weaver over a phone call, making his case to be the Browns' pick at seventh. Declining a trip to New York's Radio City Music Hall, preferring instead to watch the Draft with his immobile grandmother in Virginia, Mack admits he "can't afford" dropping into the late teens.

"I can't take no late-teens paycheck," he says. "Vontae needs a seven-pick paycheck. I got a gaggle of nephews who need to get fed."

Later, after Mack learns the Browns traded up to take Seattle's number one pick with eyes on Callahan, Mack tells Weaver to review game footage showing his last matchup against the "poser" QB. "Watch me sack him four times in one game, then watch what happens after," he says, dismayed but not deterred by the possibility of falling out of the top ten.

Watching a third-quarter sacking that strips the football from Callahan, allowing Mack to return the ball for a touchdown, Weaver notices Mack goes missing from the fourth quarter after his big play. A rewind reveals Mack — flagged for giving the ball to a fan — was ejected from the game for making contact with a referee.

Weaver recognizes the fan as Mack's sister, who passed away from cancer six months after Mack's big game. A doting uncle and a dedicated player, Mack is surrounded by family when he's named the overall number one pick — a decision unilaterally made by Weaver, who then tables a note scribbled to himself on Draft Day morning: "VONTAE MACK NO MATTER WHAT."

After Weaver maneuvers his way around the shady dealings of Seattle's general manager Tom Michaels (Patrick St. Esprit), Mack, along with Browns starting QB Brian Drew (Tom Welling) and seventh pick running back Ray Jennings (Arian Foster), ushers in a new era of the Cleveland Browns with Mack leading the charge on the opening day of the 2014 NFL season.

Mack and Weaver's joint victory in Draft Day makes the Ivan Reitman-directed feel-good sports movie a winner, most of all for Boseman's portrayal of a big-hearted underdog who — like the embattled Browns GM — ultimately scores by persevering and pressing forward "no matter what."

Coming after big-screen roles in 2008's The Express and 2012's The Kill Hole, as well as his star-making turn in 2013's 42, Boseman's role in Draft Day came at a time when the actor — whose credits mostly included TV work — was starting to be looked at as a big deal ahead of his attention-grabbing performance as James Brown in Get on Up.

In an interview with Black Tree TV at the Draft Day premiere in 2014, Boseman laughed off rumors Marvel was eyeing him to play Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, saying with a laugh, "I don't know anything. There's a rumor, yeah."

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Two years later, Boseman would make his debut as T'Challa, the prince and then king of Wakanda, in 2016's billion-plus grosser Captain America: Civil War. Another two years later, the Draft Day standout was the quarterback of his own Marvel movie — filmmaker Ryan Coogler's Black Panther — a role Boseman reprised months later when Avengers: Infinity War released in 2018. The King would return once more in Avengers: Endgame, since crowned the highest-grossing movie of all time.

"The greatest victories don't always happen on the field," reads the tagline for Draft Day, about underdogs who find a way to win — no matter what.