Two cities, separated by 2,254 miles, are inexplicably linked.
There’s no reason on this Earth this link should exist, even in a globalized 21st century connected by aviation and the internet. The two couldn’t be more different, further apart, appear to have less in common — complete opposites, other than a shared, mostly desolate highway in I-10.
Yet on a cool 63 degree night in January nearly seven years ago they collided in an open-air theater surrounded by garnet roses overlooking a stage of emerald grass. Tens of thousands of people flocked from one city to the other while millions more watched on television, all eager to witness the blending of history and entertainment and the transformation of dreams into memories.
They were rewarded. They were Los Angeles, California and Tallahassee, Florida.
Los Angeles is a vibrant home of fame and fortune.
An American cultural powerhouse of Hollywood, Madame Tussauds, the Griffith Observatory, Venice Beach, the Rose Bowl, the Staples Center, and eleven major league professional sports franchises. It carries a population of nearly 4 million people — a whopping ten percent of the most populated state in the United States. It’s the second-largest US city by GDP, behind only New York. If LA were a country its $1 trillion GDP would place it 17th out of the world’s 195 countries.
Tallahassee on the other hand, is...not that. Located intentionally halfway between the military outposts of the port of Pensacola and the now touristy 17th-century coquina fort of St. Augustine, Tallahassee is one of the most economically isolated cities in America. Especially so for a capital city of the country’s third-largest state. It accounts for just one percent of Florida’s 20 million people and the city’s GDP totals just $14 billion.
Tallahassee may be a capital city but today its identity and culture is similar to that of any other small but growing US college town, home to both Florida A&M University and Florida State University.
But Tallahassee’s connection to LA flows through Florida State. The two cities’ collective memory of that January night — of joy and pain, of power and loss, of lights, cameras, and action — could be passed off as mere coincidence. But coincidence cannot explain the recurrent confluence between the two, nor does it explain American providence. If LA’s golden ethos is a mainstem of American culture, FSU is a tributary; their memories and souls are made of the same stuff.
Nobody perhaps understood this more or first, consciously or not, than “Neon” Deion “PrimeTime” Sanders. Sanders was a first-team All-American as a sophomore at Florida State in 1986, and he only got better from there, ending up in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame.
Though Sanders never played for a professional sports team in Los Angeles, his flash, confidence, excess, swagger, and high-stepping fed straight into the heart, soul and culture of America, which in turn has exported it to the rest of the world. An arrogance that could only be born of the fruits of a country that knew it was the greatest on Earth and liked to show it off.
That’s not to say Sanders lacked substance. His work ethic and determination was genuine and well-documented; the embodiment of the idealized American Dream, not dissimilar to the thousands who flock to LA every year to try their hand at stardom. Where talent, grind, and opportunity meet, that’s where Sanders stood in 1989 when he was made the fifth pick in the NFL Draft while dressed like Mr. T’s understudy.
Sanders helped put FSU on the college football map, kicking off a dynasty that would last more than a decade. In 2014 BBC writer Tom Brook likened Hollywood to an octopus with tentacles extending across the globe.
Global blockbusters have spread Hollywood’s and by extension American culture and influence across the world. Florida State’s dynasty and blockbuster players like Sanders continue to serve the same purpose across America.
And occasionally, FSU has fed Hollywood itself. In attendance that night in Pasadena in 2014 were talented and funny Hollywood character actors Tony Hale and Dan Bakkedahl, famous for their roles on the HBO comedy Veep and other projects, as well as accomplished comedian Tom Segura. So was the lovable Lee Corso, who played for FSU in the ‘50s and has been an analyst on ESPN’s College Gameday since 1987. Bakkedahl is an alum, while Hale is from Tallahassee and Segura is a fan.
FSU also sort of claims stand-up comedian Bert Kreischer, a self-identified machine and former FSU student who is rumored to be the inspiration for National Lampoon’s 2002 film Van Wilder, played by now A-list Hollywood actor Ryan Reynolds.
Florida State also boasts Curb Your Enthusiasm actress Cheryl Hines and workout warrior Richard Simmons, as well as the late actors Paul Gleason and legendary Burt Reynolds, both of whom once also suited up — together with Corso — for Florida State’s football team. Reynolds took time to show love to the team even after he shot to Hollywood stardom. When FSU completed its football dorm in the 1980s and named it after him, Reynolds brought with him to the ribbon-cutting ceremony Dom DeLuise, Ricardo Montalban, Ben Casey, and other Hollywood stars. The following decade Reynolds got legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden to appear in an episode of Evening Shade, playing a coach who makes an in-home recruiting visit to Reynolds’ TV son.
2016’s Moonlight, the Golden Globe and Academy Award winner for Best Picture, was written and directed by FSU alumnus Barry Jenkins, who attended the school’s College of Motion Picture Arts. Moonlight’s cinematographer, producer, editors, and actor André Holland are also alumni. The College is revered as one of the nation’s best film schools.
It’s not totally a one-way street. Hop on I-10 in Los Angeles and head due east toward Tallahassee for just 50 of those 2,254 miles and you hit Fontana, the hometown of current FSU blue-chip defensive back Jaiden Lars-Woodbey. One hour in the other direction lies Oxnard, the home of former FSU running back Lorenzo Booker, who suited up for the Garnet and Gold from 2003-2007 and played five seasons in the NFL.
The pipeline between the two isn’t limited to film and football, either. Perhaps the earliest example is former NBA All-Star Sam Cassell, who was once part of a Seminole backcourt in 1991-1993 who led FSU to an Elite Eight run.
Over a successful 16-year NBA career Cassell played in part for the Los Angeles Clippers in the Staples Center from 2005 to 2008. Cassell is now an assistant coach for the Clippers, helping mold young players and fellow FSU alumni Terance Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele, who were both drafted by the Clippers in 2019 at 48th and 27th overall, respectively.
Kabengele, whose uncle is NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, and Mann were on the 2017-2018 FSU squad who traveled to Los Angeles for the NCAA Tournament, upsetting No. 1 seed Xavier and 4-seed Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen to advance to their own Elite Eight, the school’s first since Cassell’s.
They would return to LA the following year, ending a potential Cinderella in Murray State before falling in the Sweet Sixteen to another Gonzaga squad bent on revenge.
Florida State would similarly return to the same Rose Bowl stage the following year in January 2015 and also lose, ending an infamous winning streak of 29. But those years and the ones that followed have produced some of the best talent FSU has ever had, including NFL All-Pro defensive back Jalen Ramsey and running back Cam Akers. Both Akers, who is sixth on the school’s all-time rushing list, and Ramsey currently play for the, wait for it, Los Angeles Rams. Fellow All-Pro defensive back Derwin James plays for the Los Angeles Chargers.
The twisting relationships and interweaves, like the intricate arms of an octopus or the tangled layout of the Amazon river, of “Tally to Cali” is varied, complex and wide-reaching.
The connection transcends and stretches through time and arguably all reason, perhaps nothing more than the plaything of the god of chance, but still something that cannot be denied or refuted.
Whatever the nature and genesis of it, however it evolves or reinvents itself and whatever industry it chooses to express itself through, it is undoubtedly real and tangible. It connects our feelings, our memories, and our souls in an authentic and lasting way.
Perhaps most importantly, whatever the universe has in store for Tallahassee and Los Angeles, it’s not done with us yet.