Ryan Coogler's 112 career receptions as a Sacramento State wide receiver rank fourth in Hornet football history. His 1,213 receiving yards put him in the school's all-time top 20. And he's a three-time winner of the Big Sky Conference's All-Academic award.
Now, he's scoring big in Hollywood.
Coogler, 28, has risen in just a few years from an aspiring film student and football star to a man whom The Hollywood Reporter calls one of the most exciting young directors in Hollywood – one whose passion for film was sparked at Sacramento State.
Coogler followed up his award-winning, critically acclaimed major motion picture debut, Fruitvale Station, with the next installment in the storied Rocky canon, Creed, a critical and commercial success that grossed more than $42.6 million in its first week – the highest-ever total for a Rocky movie – and earned the young filmmaker a profusion of major awards and nominations.
Years after catching his final touchdown pass as a Hornet, the gridiron still informs his filmmaking.
"Whenever you direct something, I learned this from football: If you get talented players, a lot of the work is done for you," Coogler says. "If you cast the right actors, if you find talented actors who are great people to begin with, all that work is done for you."
2013's Fruitvale Station won 41 film awards and earned 49 award nominations while grossing more than $16 million worldwide. The film chronicles the last 24 hours in the life of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Oakland man who was still trying to find his way in the world when he was fatally shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on Jan. 1, 2009. Grant's story holds special significance for Coogler, who grew up in the Bay Area and was the same age as Grant when he was killed.
Coogler's sophomore directing effort is no less personally resonant: His father was a huge fan of the Rocky series and was diagnosed with ALS. While still a film student, Coogler got the idea for Creed in part as a way to connect with his father, who showed a young Ryan the Rocky movies to demonstrate how perseverance and dedication can overcome any obstacle.
It is a lesson that Coogler learned firsthand and applied to his filmmaking. To get the project off the ground, he had to personally convince Rocky Balboa himself, acting legend Sylvester Stallone. After the success of Fruitvale Station, the man whom teammates called "Coog" on the field was given the green light to take his camera into the boxing ring.
Coogler grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from St. Mary's College High School in Berkeley. He played football at St. Mary's College in Moraga in his freshman year. After the college dropped its football program, Sacramento State's coaching staff offered him a scholarship to play for the Hornets.
"I admired what the coaches had to say," Coogler says. "I really liked the environment. My family could come to games, and it was close enough that I could get home."
Ryan was a dominant force on the football field, but when he broke his cheekbone during a seven-on-seven drill one summer, he realized that football would not last forever.
While a St. Mary's College professor encouraged Coogler, an admitted film junkie, to start writing screenplays, it was at Sac State where his passion for filmmaking was born. Theater Professor Roberto Pomo, the coordinator of Sac State's Film Studies program, was among his early mentors.
"He was part of our pilot film studies program," Pomo says. "He took all our courses and excelled as a writer and director." Coogler frequently conferred with Pomo while attending the University of Southern California film school as a graduate student.
"I had heard about Dr. Pomo, who taught classes in film theory, and I showed him a script that was halfway done," Coogler says. It was one of the first times he had shown a script to anyone. Coogler says Pomo and Communications Professor Steve Buss, who taught classes in production and editing, played formative roles in his career.
"Dr. Pomo taught me how to watch film. In class, we saw Zoot Suit and Birth of a Nation," Coogler says. "I brought my football teammates, and they started taking the classes. Steve Buss seemed to know everything about making a film."
Buss, a USC alumnus, encouraged Coogler to apply to the Southern California university's highly selective graduate film program. Coogler did just that and, when he graduated from Sac State in 2007 with a degree in business administration, he was accepted into USC's School of Cinematic Arts.
"They put me on the path and gave me the tools to be successful," Coogler says of his early mentors. "Business was helpful; they do call it the 'film business.' "
With multiple films under his belt and demand for his talents surging, Coogler has come a long way since his time at Sac State.
Angelo Muhammad, who was Coogler's college roommate through most of his time in Sacramento and was cast in a short film Coogler made at USC, is not surprised.
"I told him it was just a matter of time," Muhammad says. "He always had a creative mind."
Coogler's in-your-face style – much of Fruitvale Station was shot with a handheld camera – is gritty, realistic and sharp with a razor-like focus, forcing the audience to experience each scene on an almost visceral level. Most importantly, however, Coogler tells stories that are deeply meaningful to him and are a part of his very identity; he leaves a piece of himself on screen alongside the actors and sets, and it shows.
If Fruitvale Station served to announce the young director's arrival, Creed has been his coming-out party.
The film won numerous awards in 2016, including Best Supporting Actor (Sylvester Stallone) at the Golden Globe and Critics' Choice awards, and Best Director from the African-American Film Critics Association; in addition, it was named one of the National Board of Review's Top Ten Films of 2016. Creed also received a 2016 Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and earned Coogler the Los Angeles Film Critics Association's New Generation Award.
With even bigger directing projects on the horizon – Coogler is slated to direct Marvel's Black Panther for 2018 – Coogler is fast finding his place among the ranks of Hollywood's elite. But however big or small a project may be, Coogler remains grounded in his guiding principle as a filmmaker, which, he says, is "not to think about making a sale but making a film that's true to your goal and has the impact on the audience you desire.