23 Blast proves that real life stranger, scarier than fiction, but is also more inspirational

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Mark Hapka, left, stars as a blind high school football center in the movie with Alexa Vega as his childhood friend. (Photo from 23 Blast/Facebook)

Mark Hapka, left, stars as a blind high school football center in the movie with Alexa Vega as his childhood friend. (Photo from 23 Blast/Facebook)

 
Late October is the season for scary movies and stories of terrible fright, but in the mid-‘90s it wasn’t a movie that terrified Travis Freeman of Corbin. It was the fact that at 12 he’d gone blind overnight. Freeman’s story is told in the new movie 23 Blast in theaters Friday, Oct. 24.
 
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Freeman had complained for more than a week of a severe headache that doctors initially dismissed as a run-of-the-mill sinus infection. Nine days later, a rare bacteria present in the sinus cavity damaged his optic nerve leaving him totally sightless.
 
It seemed, at first, that a young boy’s plans, particularly of playing beloved football in one of the state’s most storied school programs, were now unachievable. But then his mother, his best friend and the local coach stepped in and got him suited up and on the field. Travis went on to play center for his eighth grade Corbin Middle School Redhounds team and then four years at Corbin High School.
 

In a story made for Hollywood told in a film made on location in Corbin, his team went on to win a state championship. Plus, his best friend turned out to need Travis more than Travis needed him, and this sleepy railroad town in the foothills of Appalachia learned there’s more to sight and vision than a working optic nerve.
 
The movie is inspirational and moving, while managing to be real. Unlike sentimental stories that end up in endless rerun on the Hallmark Channel, this film is made for the big screen. Director Dylan Baker told KyForward that he hates films with violins playing to cue the audience when to cry. If you cry while watching it, said Baker, you do so naturally because the story is told in a true-to-life manner.
 
It was actually another true high school friendship that got the movie made in the first place.
 

   The film attempts to be as real as possible with actors, football players, directors and Travis Freeman himself. Pictured here, from left to right, are: Stephen Lang, who plays Coach Willard Farris; Travis Freeman; Football University Coach Mike Wilson; and Director/Co-Producer Dylan Baker, who also plays Larry Freeman in the film. (Photo from 23 Blast/Facebook)

The film attempts to be as real as possible with actors, football players, directors and Travis Freeman himself. Pictured here, from left to right, are: Stephen Lang, who plays Coach Willard Farris; Travis Freeman; Football University Coach Mike Wilson; and Director/Co-Producer Dylan Baker, who also plays Larry Freeman in the film. (Photo from 23 Blast/Facebook)

Both cheerleaders at West Springfield High School in Virginia, Toni Hoover and Becky Ann Baker, Dylan’s wife, remained friends although they spent their adult lives states and careers apart.
 
Hoover married and moved to Corbin where she helped run a family business and raised a family. Baker married and raised her family in New York City, managing an acting career on the stage, on television and in film. Baker plays Patty Wheatley, the occupational therapist who worked with Travis Freeman in 23 Blast.
 
Hoover and her son, Bram, now an actor in Los Angeles who plays Freeman’s best friend Jerry Baker, decided several years ago to co-write a script telling the story of Travis and the Corbin town in which they all lived and loved Redhounds football. They shared it with Baker and her actor husband, Dylan.
 
Dylan Baker said in a phone interview from New York that Toni Hoover asked for his and Becky’s help with finishing the script and casting the film. At one point, she suggested he direct it.
 
Directing had been on his “bucket list” for a long time, he said, but life, marriage and raising children meant he’d never put the time and effort into it … until 23 Blast. Then, too, he said, no one had asked him to direct before. He’s very glad Toni Hoover did because he “loved every minute of it.”
 

The same can’t be said about producing, a task Baker took on as well. “I’m not so crazy about producing,” he said, citing the headaches of paper work, keeping everyone on schedule, crunching numbers, making sure every menial task is accomplished. But the people of Corbin and the Freeman family made it all much easier, said Baker.
 
“I think from the time we started working on it (the film), Corbin just came out in force,” Baker said. “They just wanted to get the story of Travis Freeman told well. They had a personal stake in it.”
 
Corbin residents housed and fed some of the actors and crew members, and provided a production office downtown on Main Street free of charge. The town provided all the extras needed for the movie as well as clearing the streets when necessary for filming. Two of the most helpful times, said Baker, were on the football field and at a local church.
 

Bram Hoover on the left, playing Travis Freeman's best friend Jerry Baker, listens to Mark Hapka, as Travis, explain things to the Corbin High School principal, played by Timothy Busfield, center. (Photo from 23 Blast/Facebook)

Bram Hoover on the left, playing Travis Freeman’s best friend Jerry Baker, listens to Mark Hapka, as Travis, explain things to the Corbin High School principal, played by Timothy Busfield, center. (Photo from 23 Blast/Facebook)

Hundreds sat in the high school stands for four hours during filming of the game scenes, said Baker, and even the band, the cheerleaders and the dance team came out in uniform.
 
When the director needed to film church scenes, Larry and Mary Freeman, Travis’ parents, offered up their church home – Central Baptist on Kentucky Street. Travis, himself, preached the sermon because he is now a full-time minister.
 
After graduating with a bachelor’s in business administration from the University of Kentucky, where he worked as the Wildcat’s equipment manager for the football team, Travis Freeman earned a master’s and doctorate from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He is now executive director of The Travis Freeman Foundation, working to prove that having a physical disability does not equal inability. His autobiography, Lights Out, went on sale Oct. 7.
 
Baker says it wasn’t just Corbin in Kentucky making the film possible, but Frankfort and Lexington as well. He needed to cast some of the smaller roles and went to Lexington to audition actors. He said the actors he auditioned in Central Kentucky were good enough “to have played the leads.”
 
He put on his producer’s hat and went to the state capital to lobby for Kentucky to continue its tax incentive program for films shot in the Bluegrass. Baker, who plays Larry Freeman in the film as well as directing and producing, says he first worked in Kentucky on the film Secretariat, which was one of the first movies made under the incentives program.
 
He said he hopes the state continues the practice because it gives filmmakers “a good reason” to make more movies in the Bluegrass.
Another reason is the groundswell of support the filmmaker says he and his team have experienced since making the film.
 
“The exciting thing about this is that even though we didn’t have a big budget, we have a dedicated group of supporters who’ve seen the film and fallen in love with it,” he said.
 
These supporters are promoting it on social media and the news media has picked it up with reviews in everything from Newsday to the Hollywood Reporter. Baker and Freeman have even made the rounds of talk shows, appearing together last Saturday on Huckaby on Fox News Channel.
 
Gov. Mike Huckaby told his audience that if they saw one film before Christmas to make it 23 Blast. Residents of Corbin told KyForward they were pleased to see the movie and Freeman’s story told on a national scale.
 
That kind of community pride doesn’t surprise Baker in the least. “Corbin would’ve made the movie for free if necessary,” Baker said.
 
View the movie trailer below which shows a cameo appearance by another one of Becky Ann Baker’s childhood friends – retired schoolteacher and new playwright Teri Foltz from Fort Thomas. Foltz and Baker have stayed in touch since seventh grade in Northern Kentucky. Baker was born in Kentucky at Ft. Knox:
 

 
Many of the actors in the film are recognizable from other film and television roles. See who’s in 23 Blast on the film website

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