If you think you'd like to be famous enough to have a movie made about your life, Jon Abbate can tell you what that's like. The story of Abbate and his family is the subject of "The 5th Quarter," a film making its way into theaters now.
"The 5th Quarter" centers on the Wake Forest University football team's Cinderella season in 2006. Abbate played linebacker and dedicated that season to the memory of his 15-year-old brother Luke, who had died in a car accident. With Luke's memory as inspiration, Wake Forest went on to win that year's ACC title (its first since 1970) despite being picked to finish last in most preseason polls.
Abbate is played by actor Ryan Merriman in "The 5th Quarter," which also stars Aidan Quinn and Andie MacDowell as his parents, and Cary teenager Stefan Guy as Luke. But seeing his story onscreen wasn't easy for Abbate, who is now a medical supply salesman in Raleigh after three seasons in the NFL playing for the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins.
"It's definitely been pretty surreal, but also extremely hard to relive because it involves the worst event in my life," Abbate said. "I've only seen the movie once and it's really good, but that will probably be the last time. It's already still fresh in my mind, and I don't need something to help visualize the pain."
Another football movie Abbate won't ever see again is "Rudy," the 1993 underdog story, which he was watching when he got the news about his brother. Luke was a passenger in a car crash caused by the recklessness of another teenager behind the wheel.
Something positive came out of the accident, through organ donation. Five of Luke's organs went to patients awaiting transplants, something else the movie touches on.
Luke had also been an athlete, wearing the number 5 in football and lacrosse. So his brother changed his Wake Forest jersey number from 40 to 5. Jon would also pay tribute to Luke by holding up five fingers to mark the start of the fourth quarter of every game, a gesture that soon spread.
"The first game of the season, it was just me and my family doing that," Abbate said. "Then it slowly expanded to the rest of the team, then to the fans. And by the ACC Championship Game, it was the entire crowd - the Georgia Tech fans, too, and even their team. It was extremely touching. That was a good moment."
That makes for good drama, and director Rick Bieber contacted the Abbate family about bringing their story to the movie screen. Although they eventually agreed to cooperate, they initially hesitated.
"The biggest reason to follow through was that the movie will help Luke's memory and spirit live on forever," Abbate said. "It's also an opportunity to reach millions of young drivers about the dangers of reckless driving, and to spread the word about organ donation. That can change and save lives. Luke gave five other people a second chance of living."
On the set
The Abbates were on the set during filming, giving advice to keep the movie close to what really happened. That had its difficulties for everyone, including the actors.
"I got to see how emotional this whole story was," Guy said. "Some of the scenes were pretty deep with the emotional part of the story. That was the hardest thing, putting myself in Luke's shoes and thinking about how it would affect my family if I died."
Now it's just a matter of how many people will see the film. "The 5th Quarter" was released regionally in theaters across the Southeast in late March. Locally, it's playing at the Park Place 16 in Morrisville.
"I hope the movie is extremely successful, so that it will touch lives," Abbate said. "At the same time, it's something that's obviously hard to talk about. I can't wait for it not to be the first topic of conversation."