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The king of cleats: ‘Home Team’ star Kevin James talks Sean Payton and his dream Oscar host

  • January 28, 2022

Kevin James’ men, be it Paul Blart’s “Mall Cop” uniform or Doug Heffernan’s delivery-driver attire on “The King of Queens.” And in his new Netflix movie “Home Team,” nothing says “NFL coach” like James accessorizing shorts and sneakers with a whistle, a visor and an unlimited supply of chewing gum.

“It all feels very coach-y. I kind of Frankensteined it, but it was fun to do,” says James, who plays newly retired New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton in the family sports comedy (streaming Friday). If only the hair James sports was real: “I can’t do that with my hair. You wouldn’t be seeing this now,” he deadpans, pointing at his shaved head on a Zoom call.

Based on the former NFL coach’s real-life story, “Home Team” centers on Payton (who stepped down from the team Tuesday) being suspended for the 2012 season over the Saints’ infamous bounty scandal, in which players were paid bonuses for injuring opponents. With some extra free time, Payton heads to Argyle, Texas, to watch his 12-year-old son Connor (Tait Blum) play Pop Warner football. Connor’s Warriors team is the worst in the league and to help reconnect with his estranged boy, Payton agrees to help coach the squad, expanding the playbook and sparking a turnaround in their efforts.

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Produced by James and old pal Adam Sandler, “Home Team” appealed to its star because of the sports angle – James’ childhood dream was to play for his beloved New York Jets – and also the family themes, since James is a father of four: Sienna-Marie, 16; Shea, 14; Kannon, 10; and Sistine, who turned 7 this week.

“I wish I had them younger because I have the greatest time with them,” says the 56-year-old comedian, who’s going back on tour this year. “They’re doing their job as children: They’re giving their dad material for stand-up, which is very important.”

James talks with USA TODAY about “Home Team,” his athletic life and his dream Oscar host. (Hint: It’s not himself.)

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Question: This is the first time you’ve played a real person on screen. What was that like being Sean Payton?

Kevin James: The fact it’s a comedy gives me a little more leeway and I can play with it. Doing his accent while he was there on set, that was a little nerve-wracking, and him watching me take control of the team and coach them. But he was so great and so supportive.

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Q: Do you have an “Uncut Gems” in you?

James: I would love to be able to do something like that. It’s dependent on the story. That’s everything. I would hate to do a movie just to do a dramatic role, to just say, “Hey, look, I’m not falling down the steps!”

Q: How good of a football player were you?

James: I was a good running back. I had some speed. I was not quick as far as cutting to the sides, but I’d run over you and I was a bulldog in that way. And then I just got to the point where guys were better than me. In college, I had to realize the dream’s gonna end. It opened up another door, much like this movie, into comedy and acting for me.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice a coach ever gave you?

James: Just to get out of my own way, and it was from my dad who was a coach. He saw mentally I could block myself with anxiety or getting upset, and he was the one to kind of say, “Hey, just do it, man.” He knew me obviously very well, so he could see when I was creating a bigger problem getting worried about something than we really have.

Q: Who are you picking to go to the Super Bowl this year?

James: I guess my pick would be the 49ers against the Bengals. That’d be a good one. My heart’s not in it because my Jets are gone, but they were gone a long time ago so I’ve kind of healed already. I’ve already grieved. I’d like to see the Bengals (win) because we haven’t seen them in one for a long time and they haven’t won one.

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Q: There’s another big competition coming up after that: the Oscars. Who would be your dream host since they’re bringing that back this year?

James: I have no idea. Sean Payton? Let him do it. That would be more interesting.

Q: Would you ever do it if asked?

James: Me?! I don’t think so. I’m not an Oscar host guy. I would be too panicked. Even listening to my dad say, “Hey, get outta your own way, go do it,” I’m not doing that one.

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