As a kid, my favorite NFL Film was The NFL’s Best Ever Runners. It got to me. Still does. It opens with the ringing of church bell in a small town square, followed by a brief, Capraesque tour of the American landscape. A sprawling wheat field is followed by a cold inner city bridge and both are accompanied by the deliciously rich John Facenda voice over.
“They come from cities and towns all over this land.”
There’s a wide shot of a football field, partially covered by dirt. It lay near an overpass in some industrial city. The camera zooms in closer and we see uniformed kids doing calisthenics.
“From the amber waves of the Kansas wheat, to the tough back alleys of the city street, there beats the heart of the aspiring young runner.”
Chills. Every time.
I watched that tape over and over and over again. I watched it because I was a running back at the time. I wanted to study all the guys in the film—Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Earl Campbell. At least I thought that was my reason for watching it.
But now, many years later, I realize there was something more at play than a simple ranking of the running back position. It was an invitation to indulge in the game, to allow it to actually move you. An NFL Films production was always an ambitious one.
NFL Films is as much about us as it was the players.
In 1962, we were still a year away from Kennedy’s assassination, James Meredith was the first black student admitted to the University of Mississippi, and Jackie Robinson was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. Amid the turbulence, there was hope.
It was the perfect time for Ed Sabol to launch Blair Motion Pictures, as it was called at first. It was named for Sabol’s daughter and he ran it with his son, Steve.
Its purpose was to package and preserve professional football games in a manner that made them bigger than they were. Games weren’t games at all. In the retelling they became historic battles. Candlestick Park and Soldier Field were Normandy and Luxembourg. It may have been slightly overdone, but it was harmless. And it was great.
Now, there’s a call to paint everyone with broad strokes and a need to appease a cynical audience that wants to hear how everyone sucks, how they’re all jerks, and that they’re trying to get something over on us.
The Sabols never courted that audience. But I think even the most cynical among us, given the chance to view this operation up close, might be moved by the Sabol family’s earnest intentions.
In ‘99 I made my first trip to NFL Films headquarters in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey. I was working for the World Wide Leader in Sports at the time and one of my duties included a small technical installment that required me to break down game tape. The only place this could be accomplished was at NFL Films.
From the outside, the building didn’t make much of an impression—much like the NFL Hall of Fame building in Canton. But once I made it into the foyer, there was a small fortress of Emmy awards.
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting quite a few studios. Among them, the Emmy seems to be the most common denominator. It’s a necessary vanity when you need to present a calling card and the standard 3” by 2” just won’t cut it. Most executives keep their Emmys in their offices, plainly visible for credentials sake. But these awards were in the foyer, in a common area, for all to touch and to claim ownership.
Steve Sabol wasn’t there that day, so I peeked into his office. There were personal photos with Dick Butkus, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, and every major figure who had a hand in NFL history and who played a role in an NFL production. I was left with the impression that these particular tokens were of considerably more value than any of the gold statuettes out in the hall.
While I watched tape, I was allowed to sit in a small corner of the vault. There were all these shelves housing thousands of canisters containing 16 mm film. The canisters were stacked like the mysterious artifacts pictured in the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark—twenty feet high, infinite and ominous. I’ve never been to the Louvre. I’d like to go there one day. In the meantime I’m content with the memory of those dusty archives in north Jersey.
Maybe that’s why I should go back to where it started for me. It was all there in The NFL’s Best Ever Runners, released in 1984, at the height of the Cold War. While it was on one level, a superficial evaluation of the running back position, it was actually an ode to idealism. Our idealism. Go back and listen to Facenda’s voice and Sabol’s words. That was no mere voice over. It was a testimony to our willingness to be inspired.
“He’s a king on a cruise. Cast in his spell, we all wear his shoes. His heroic course is clear, and like him, we are without fear.”
These last words wash over a slow-motion image of Rocky Bleier—the Pittsburgh Steelers running back who returned to the league after a tour in Vietnam. I’m not sure if that was intentional, I like to think that it was.
Bleier was carrying shrapnel in his legs but he made it back to join Lambert, Bradshaw, and Franco on what was then the greatest team in football.
I’m not sure NFL Films could be launched today. I’m not sure there’s a place for something that entertains and inspires without also demeaning. That’s why this is such a dark day.
Hemingway wrote a short story called Fathers and Sons. There was a line from that story that resonates, especially now.
“All sentimental people are betrayed so many times.”
Follow Alan Grant on twitter@ AlanGrant_NFL