Amie Just: How Sam Griesel landed ‘6-7, corn-fed Ivan Drago’ role in Netflix movie (2023)

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LINCOLN— Sam Griesel is sipping on a cup of The Mill’s daily roast — no room for cream or sugar.

He’s a self-proclaimed “big coffee guy,” taking a moment to snap a photo of his daily brew and send it to his coffee group chat.

It’s 7:30 a.m. Some people are irritable jerks before they’ve consumed their morning cup. Not Griesel. He’s as cheery and smiley as ever when he walks through the door.

He has every reason to be. It’s been a good year to be Sam Griesel.

“I tell my parents all the time, ever since I got to college, I look back on a year and I’m like, ‘Holy s***, that was incredible. How can I ever top this?’” Griesel said Wednesday. “And every year it gets better and better. It’s been unbelievable. What’s gonna beat this last year? It’ll be tough competition.”

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The proud Lincoln East product chose to play his last season of eligibility at Nebraska, returning home after four years at North Dakota State. He began his acting career, cast in a Netflix movie produced by LeBron James. He’s getting ready for a trip back up to North Dakota to present his favorite charity with a check from his NIL earnings.

Through it all, he has several irons in the fire for his next step in professional basketball.

“I used to love sleep,” Griesel said. “Now, I don’t like sleep because I just want to go to the next day. Every day is so exciting. There’s new things happening, new avenues. Every day is a blessing with a lot of opportunities."

NU reflections

Griesel could feel his grandparents’ presence.

His mother’s parents, Barry and Irene Moore, were diehard Nebraska fans. “Sports Event Barry,” a longtime fixture at Lincoln Northeast, kept the clock at NU basketball games for 41 years. He served on the sideline crew for Nebraska football games, gave memorable Memorial Stadium tours and worked NU volleyball and baseball games.

Barry died in 2021. Irene died in 2022, two months before Sam entered the transfer portal.

“I felt like this team and myself honored my grandparents,” Griesel said. “That was probably the biggest thing for me going into the season and during the season. I was thinking about them constantly. It was really, really special for my parents to be at every game. But knowing my grandma and grandpa were up there watching down and had to have had the biggest smiles on their faces, it was really special.”

Griesel came into the season without any concrete expectations.

All he wanted was to help Nebraska win, and through that, help change the narrative around Nebrasketball.

“With how our February went, I felt like this team did that,” Griesel said.

Hello, Hollywood

It’s January.

Griesel gets a direct message on Instagram. It’s from a woman he doesn’t know, sending over the description of a character for a Netflix movie in the casting stages.

“I thought it was fake,” Griesel said. “I sent it to my parents. They thought it was fake.”

Turns out? Not fake.

The woman was the assistant basketball coordinator for the movie, “Rez Ball,” a Netflix drama produced by LeBron James and directed by Sydney Freeland. It’s expected to launch on the streaming service next summer.

The premise of “Rez Ball” focuses on a Native American basketball team from New Mexico with dreams of winning the state championship game. The film is based on Michael Powell’s 2019 novel, “Canyon Dreams.”

Because it’s a basketball movie, the casting directors wanted actors with legitimate hoops experience. Hence, Griesel.

“I was like, ‘This is incredible, but I don’t know what I’m looking at.’ Obviously, I’m in the middle of the season right now and that’s what I’m focused on,’” Griesel said. “She was like, ‘Yeah, I totally understand. I’ll take care of everything for you.’”

The profile consisted of six or seven photos from his Instagram and a minute-long basketball highlight reel. After Nebraska’s season ended, the assistant casting director reached out to schedule an audition.

“They wanted a 6-7, corn-fed Ivan Drago,” Griesel said, referring to the antagonist from “Rocky IV” and “Creed II.” “That was the description of my character, so, I’ll take that.”

Six-foot-7? Check.

Corn-fed? Check.

Ivan Drago? Considering Griesel might be the nicest person on the face of the planet, that’s not a comparison I’d ever make. But, this is acting, not real life.

“I read my character description and I was like, ‘I don’t really want to be a racist bad guy in a movie for my first movie,” Griesel said. “But the director called me and was like ‘Hey, there’s going to be interviews around when the movie comes out and that’s when you get to be your true self. It’s acting. It’s all about telling a bigger story.’

“The story is really important in the movie because it’s about Native Americans and their struggle, stereotypes and their culture. It’ll be really cool to be a part of telling that story and being able to talk about it.”

Humble beginnings

From the moment NIL began, Sam Griesel knew exactly what he wanted to do with it.


“That was literally my first immediate thought: ‘How can I make as much money as I can so I can give it back to nonprofit organizations?’” Griesel said.

For Griesel, selecting the charity was an easy choice. While at NDSU, Griesel befriended Landon Solberg, a young NDSU fan with brain cancer. Solberg died in 2019, and his parents began the Landon’s Light Foundation, a nonprofit supporting children who are diagnosed with cancer and other medical conditions. Griesel interned with Landon’s Light in 2021.

Last year, Griesel donated $200 after he secured a $1,000 NIL deal — a lucrative deal for NDSU.

“To be able to give back to them, that’s something that money could never buy for me,” Griesel said. “To be able to give back to them in a financial way, even though it’s just $200, just felt really good.”

Since arriving at Nebraska, his NIL earnings have been much more than that.

Griesel will make his next donation to Landon’s Light in person next month. Without spoiling the surprise, it’ll be a smidge more than $200.

“I’m probably going to cry when I talk to them,” Griesel said. “But 100%, that foundation and those people changed my life for the better. I am who I am today, a big part of that goes to them. I know this money is in good hands and it’s going to help a lot of children in our area.”

What's next?

Lest you forget, Griesel is still a basketball player, too.

His agent is working on getting him an NBA workout or two for June. If that happens, then maybe a Summer League invite will follow. That’s the top goal for now.

“It’s not like, ‘If I don’t make a Summer League team, this summer is a failure, my whole life sucks,’” Griesel said.

He has other options. Griesel, who holds dual citizenship in the United States and Germany, is working on getting final offers from teams in Basketball Bundesliga, the first-tier league in Germany.

Griesel, since he’s holding out hope for a shot at the NBA this summer, respectfully turned down an invite to play on Germany’s U23 team this year. But that doesn’t close the door on him making the German national team eventually. He dreams of playing for Germany in the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

“Obviously that’s five years in the future, but that would be pretty cool,” Griesel said.

If Summer League doesn’t work out, he’ll go to Los Angeles for a few months and talk with some agencies in the entertainment industry with the hope of filming a commercial or two.

Then, from there, most likely to Germany to play for whichever BBL team he signs with.

“There’s a lot of different things going on, but I just take it day-by-day and appreciate the little things,” Griesel said. “That’s what I’ve learned in the past few years. Whatever happens is supposed to happen.”

Whatever happens, one thing is already clear.

Sam Griesel is a Renaissance Man.



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