Curtis Monk’s heart stopped for the first time in 1971, as he was playing basketball at University of Virginia’s Memorial Gymnasium.
About two years ago, his family’s collective heart nearly stopped when he announced he was personally guaranteeing $300,000 to make a documentary film on the UVA’s 2015 national championship baseball team.
“When I came home and said, ‘I’ve guaranteed the $300,000 and decided to move forward,’ the reception was not like, ‘Great decision!’” Monk said. “It was more like, ‘With what?’”
Monk, a longtime Richmond native who underwent successful heart transplant surgery in 2016, knew he was taking a financial risk, and that there would likely be many other hurdles in trying to make the film. But he kept going anyway.
The “Double Hoo,” who earned his undergraduate degree from UVA in 1974 before getting his MBA from the Darden School of Business in 1976, thought there was a great story to be told and, one way or another, he was going to tell it.
On Saturday night, Monk’s labor of love came to fruition when “1186 to Omaha” – an hourlong documentary on the 2015 baseball team’s unlikely road to an NCAA championship – premiered at an invitation-only event at the Paramount Theater on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.
The film will make its public debut Saturday at UVA’s Meet the Team Day event at John Paul Jones Arena. Gates open at 4 p.m., with the film scheduled to air on the Hoovision screens at 5.
Narrated by ESPN’s Karl Ravech (who was on the play-by-play call for the 2015 College World Series games), the film will make its television debut Feb. 9 on the ACC Network and is also set to run on ESPNU on Feb. 12 at 6 p.m.
It begins with the championship-winning home run by Vanderbilt University’s John Norwood in the 2014 College World Series, and ends with UVA beating Vandy in the title game the following year. In between, it details how the Cavaliers battled injuries and the pressure of high expectations to even qualify for the NCAA Tournament and travel the 1,186 miles from Charlottesville to Omaha, Nebraska, for the championship.
Monk first developed the idea for the film as president and CEO of the Commonwealth Public Broadcasting Corporation, which owns public television stations WHTJ and WVPT in Charlottesville.
“I had conceived it as an opportunity to open up audiences in the public broadcasting world,” he said. “I thought it was a really good fit, and honestly thought that the City of Charlottesville could use a good story. If you think back to 2016-17, it had been a tough time for UVA and Charlottesville in general.”
Originally, Monk wanted the film to focus on the parallel paths of UVA and Vanderbilt University.
However, after taking a break from the project to receive a new heart (he had been on the waiting list four years), Monk said Vanderbilt didn’t seem quite as enthusiastic as it had been. In addition, there were logistics and financial challenges, so Monk opted to focus solely on the Hoos.
He gave UVA head coach Brian O’Connor a short pitch at a UVA basketball game.
“I was certainly all for it,” O’Connor said, “though I didn’t really know what it would take to pull something like this off. I committed to doing our part to make it happen.”
Monk provided working capital for the film, and committed to paying for the film entirely if he couldn’t raise the money.
“As an alumnus, I like to help the University,” Monk said. “I’m not in the position to make a $10 million gift, but this is a way I thought I could help these guys, a little bit.”
Monk knew the film could be ideal for ESPN’s ACC Network, which was just launching and looking for good content. Subsequently, he got ESPN (the network’s parent company) on board as the distributor.
Sensitive to the fact many people don’t get the ACC Network in Charlottesville, Monk made sure that part of the agreement required the film to run on ESPNU.
Monk, who enlisted director and producer Bill Reifenberger to helm the project, had four objectives: tell a good story, raise awareness about what he believed to be a positive athletic culture at UVA, honor a group of players and coaches he respected, and give O’Connor a recruiting tool.
“For me, it came down to the fact that once in your lifetime, you get to tell a story like this,” Monk said. “And to have the best baseball coaching staff in the country have confidence in you to work with you and tell the story – it just doesn’t happen every day. They really put their trust in me, and I felt like I didn’t want to let these guys down.”
O’Connor said he didn’t. “This isn’t like a lot of other documentaries that are just some highlights with a few interviews,” he said. “It’s pretty in-depth and it tells the whole story.
“I’m forever grateful for his passion of wanting to do it. Over the last few years, there have been many roadblocks to pull this thing off, and he was just so persistent and determined to see the thing through.”
The film features 20 interviews with UVA coaches and former players – including Nathan Kirby, Brandon Waddell, Kenny Towns, Ryan Zimmerman and Sean Doolittle – and members of the media.
Monk raised funds day and night, cold-calling when he had to. Early on, he decided that the goal of the film wasn’t making money (hoping instead that he just wouldn’t lose too much of it) and that he wouldn’t ask former UVA players for financial support.
“This was their story, and I wanted to do this for them,” Monk said. “I think every once in a while it’s just good to say thank you to these guys and say, ‘Hey, job well done.’ This was a way to do that.”
O’Connor said he is forever grateful.
“When these players are 65 and 70 years old, they’ll be able to show this to their grandkids,” he said.
O’Connor said the 2015 season “feels like yesterday.”
“Going through four seasons since then, it reminds you of how hard it is to win a national championship,” he said. “Not only how good you have to be, but how many of the pieces have to fall in place.
“One of the great things about doing this is it also forced us to sit around with the producers and recollect on everything that happened. It brought back some great memories and little minute details of why things went the way they did. Hopefully, it gives you wisdom to maybe put yourself in the position to maybe have it happen again.”
Monk, who said he is doing “fantastic” health-wise now – he plays racquetball five days a week – said it was special to watch the film’s final cut for the first time at the Paramount.
“I believed in all of my heart that it would be a good project,” he said, “and that I could make it work.”