Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Salute To NFL Films

I’m a little surprised I haven’t done a blog tribute to one of my all-time favorite sports entities, the good people at NFL Films.  Hard to believe they’ve been serving the National Football League for almost 50 years, and there is no equivalent in any other sport to their peerless documentation of NFL games since it was founded by Ed Sabol in 1962.  I’ve always said my “dream job” would be head film librarian for NFL Films, where I could have access to everything they’ve ever produced, because I could spend hours on end watching those old highlight reels (especially from the ‘60s and ‘70s).  Unfortunately, I don’t live near Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, where the company is headquartered.  Maybe I should move there—I’d be closer to my beloved NJ Devils too!

NFL Films was initially called Blair Motion Pictures (named after Sabol’s daughter) and Ed bought the rights for $3,000 to film the 1962 NFL Championship game between the Giants and Packers at Yankee Stadium.  Then-commissioner Pete Rozelle was impressed enough with the results that he brought BMP on board to film the action at all NFL games, and the name was eventually changed to NFL Films.  Sabol immediately hired his son Steve, who many now know as the face of NFL Films on their many compilation videos, including the wonderful “Lost Treasures” series.  The younger Sabol served as camera operator as well as editor, and in the early days of this venture, a lot of what the Sabols and their crew did was trial-and-error when it came to the equipment they used, camera angles they shot from, who and what they emphasized on the field (close-ups vs. wide shots, for example) and the film editing process, not to mention enduring harsh weather conditions—it never dawned on anyone initially that film freezes and cameras can jam when it’s 10-below outside!  It was quite a learning curve, but over time, the classic NFL Films presentation style evolved into the model of consistency and class that football fans have become familiar with today.

I came of age right when NFL Films was hitting its stride in the early ‘70s in conjunction with the AFL-NFL merger, and it’s my favorite era of highlights to watch over and over again.  I became addicted to them via several avenues, including the syndicated “This Week In Pro Football”, hosted by Pat Summerall and the late Tom Brookshier, where Pat and Brookie would recap the previous week’s NFL action, as well as the old “Sports Challenge” quiz show hosted by Dick Enberg.  I think a lot of people’s first big exposure to NFL Films (exposure/film pun partially intended!) was Howard Cosell’s venerable Halftime Highlights feature during “Monday Night Football”, where his “He…could…go…all…the…way!” and “Sir Francis Tarkenton—right there!” calls while narrating the previous day’s action became the stuff of legend.  For NFL Films, it was a fairly Herculean task back then to round up the footage from the selected games from all across the country as soon as Sunday’s contests concluded, get them all to New Jersey, and edit them down into the 10-minute MNF highlight package in just over 24 hours.

The early ‘70s/merger era was by far the most interesting to me because of all the changes that took place and altered the landscape of pro football.  You had new match-ups of teams who’d never faced each other before, like Miami vs. New Orleans, Philadelphia vs. Houston or Denver vs. the L.A. Rams.  This was also the period before the plastic multi-purpose stadium boom of the ‘70s, so most teams were still playing in their original home parks, or in the case of the Boston/New England Patriots, seemingly playing in a different stadium every year.  While all those new venues were under construction, the Philadelphia Eagles still called Franklin Field home, the Bengals played at tiny Nippert Stadium at the U. of Cincinnati, the Cowboys were still in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas and the Patriots hovered between Fenway Park, Harvard’s Alumni Field and Boston U.’s Nickerson Field.  The irony here is all six of those stadiums are STILL standing and still in use, while the facilities that replaced them—Veterans Stadium, Riverfront Stadium, Texas Stadium and Schaefer/Sullivan/Foxboro Stadium, respectively—are all either parking lots or vacant lots now.

I also love viewing those one-time occurrences like when the Dallas Cowboys visited the Bills at ancient War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo (and even had a brawl!), the San Diego Chargers playing the Giants at old Yankee Stadium, and especially seeing the Washington Redskins and Pittsburgh Steelers in their lone appearances against the Chiefs at my beloved Municipal Stadium here in K.C.  It was also fascinating to see Denver’s Mile High Stadium when it was still essentially a minor league baseball park prior to it’s mid-‘70s expansion or when Busch Stadium in St. Louis had real grass the first time.  I love seeing all those wonderful Vikings tilts in the snow at old Met Stadium in Bloomington, the beauty of the Detroit Lions playing home games outdoors on real grass (okay, real dirt/mud) at Tiger Stadium and even the heresy of the Chicago Bears playing on AstroTurf at Soldier Field.  Today’s fancy new stadiums with all the bells and whistles just can’t compete with the old joints in my eyes.  I’ll take San Fran.’s old Kezar Stadium any day over the new Meadowlands joint, even as nice as it seems to be.
The other aspect I love about the post-merger era was the helmets and uniforms the teams sported back then, some of which I think are light years better than today’s overblown and gaudy duds (Eagles, Seahawks, Bengals, atten-shun!).  I love seeing the Eagles in their white helmets with the green wings and the Redskins with the yellow helmets with the “R” on them that they wore for only two seasons (1970-71).  The Houston Oilers had silver helmets for a brief time back then that I thought looked really cool, and of course you had the San Diego Chargers in their famed power blue uni’s.  Given their popularity now, I don’t see why they don’t just revert back to them permanently—their current navy blue uniforms are rather boring to me.  And am I the only person who loves the L.A. Rams in just blue-and-white (during the Deacon Jones/Merlin Olsen/Roman Gabriel era) before they added the gold to their uniforms in 1973?  Cool uni's to me, anyway.  Other subtle stuff is fun to examine in the old reels too, like when there were no names on the players’ jerseys, none of the fans in the stands sported their team colors and the coaches wore suits and ties on the sidelines (with the ever-dapper Hank Stram of the Chiefs being the trend-setter).  It’s funny to see the goalposts in the fronts of the end zones instead of the back, not to mention those cheesy facemasks the players wore back then—I’m amazed there weren’t some major facial disfigurations in those days!  What’s also amazing about NFL Films is their ability to make a highlight reel look timeless.  Apart from the helmets, uniforms and stadiums, their game films from this past season don’t really look all that much different than the ones they shot 30 or 40 years ago.

As beautiful as their visuals were, no discussion of NFL Films is complete without mentioning two fundamental elements of style on the audio side that made their presentations special:  the background music and the narration by the late John Facenda. I’m a non-believer, but if there really is a God, then I'm pretty sure this is what He sounds like.  Facenda’s commanding baritone added that extra touch of drama to even the most mundane contest, like Super Bowl V, aka the “Blooper Bowl” between Baltimore and Dallas, for example.  Facenda was a longtime TV newsman in Philadelphia and huge football fan, and since the Sabols also hailed from Philly, the match was a natural.  He didn’t write “The frozen tundra of Lambeau Field…” but JF made it sound like his own.  Meantime, Facenda’s narrations were laid over some wondrous music beds, many of which were composed by musician Sam Spence.  Most of these musical pieces were 2-3 minutes in length, and they fit the various highlight packages like a glove.  My personal favorite piece was called “The Over The Hill Gang”, and many are instantly recognizable, like the Oakland Raiders’ theme "Autumn Wind" .  These recordings were even available on vinyl albums back in the '70s, and I was ever so pleased when much of the NFL Films music catalog was re-released on CD in the early ‘00s in a classy 10-disc box set called Autumn Thunder.

Another technical concept NFL Films pioneered was the use of mircophones by coaches and players during games.  Their first full-fledged effort was one of the most memorable, as Chiefs coach Hank Stram became an instant hit with his constant jabbering on the sidelines during Super Bowl IV vs. the Vikings, thus introducing "matriculate that ball down the field, boys" and "65 Toss Power Trap" into the pro football vernacular.  Hank was a real hoot, but the all-time sideline classic for me was the late Lou Saban on the Denver sideline pitching a fit over a botched Bronco play and exclaiming, "They're killin' me, Whitey, they're KILLIN' ME!"  Whitey was assistant coach Whitey Dovell, who ironically, later served on the Chiefs staff.  Miked players and coaches are all quite commonplace now, but in 1970, this was considered revolutionary.

NFL Films’ best-selling videos are their “Follies” blooper reels, which oddly enough, the NFL brass was initially very reluctant to make public.  The league was overly-paranoid about image and didn’t want the sport or its participants to be made out to look bad, but when Sabol and crew privately screened these films for the actual players in the late ‘60s, they found them utterly hilarious and even begged to see more.  And when it came to the stellar plays in NFL history, NFL films provided those classic tight spiral passes caught on film by the likes of cinematographer Ernie Ernst and other iconic shots like Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” (also by Ernst), Dallas Cowboys’ head coach Tom Landry silhouetted in profile against the Texas Stadium crowd, and Lynn Swann’s acrobatic catches in Super Bowl X.  My favorite shot is the one of Raiders defensive back Willie Brown (see photo) returning his INT in Super Bowl XII chugging straight toward the camera while his helmet bobbed around on his head with every stride and late Raiders’ play-by-play man Bill King screamed “Old man Willie!!  He's gonna go all the way!”  The “Lost Treasures” series that Steve Sabol narrates is must-see viewing for any NFL fan, as he chronicles the off-beat and quirky stuff the company accumulated in its vaults over the years, like an early interview with wide-eyed rookie Terry Bradshaw (when he had hair!), fashion faux-pas from the ‘70s like Tom Landry and Don Shula in tacky plaid slacks and even a feature on the short-lived and ill-fated World Football League.  The three-DVD “Inside The Vaults” collection is an excellent starter set for the uninitiated on “Lost Treasures” and is readily available.

Ed Sabol is now 94 years old and—almost too late—has been selected for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this year.  Ed has been long-since retired and Steve Sabol is now president of NFL Films, a company that is far more well-run than the outfit it services sometimes, given the currenly NFL labor strife.  I'm saddened to learn that Steve was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, and I hope he's able to recover—I thoroughly enjoy his stories from back in the day on the videos.  One also hopes that when the Sabols are gone that the baton will be passed to someone who can carry on the dynasty and uphold its stellar reputation.