Ed Driscoll


SORRY FOR THE LACK OF POSTS: I have multiple articles due in early August, and I’ve spent big chunks of the past couple of days with my ear pressed to a telephone, gathering quotes and background material for them. They’re mostly for consumer electronics magazines. I feel like a police beat reporter, or maybe Jack Webb himself asking questions, getting the facts (and hopefully a lot more), and taking it all down on my trusty Radio Shack recorder.

How I’d love to retire this thing for something digital. But I don’t know of anything as reliable, that I could plug mini-plugs into, and then plug a phone into it. So I keep using this thing, and going through about a half dozen or so cassettes a week.

This afternoon, I spoke with Bob Ryan and Steve Sabol of NFL Films for an upcoming article. I grew up near NFL Films–their main offices are in the Philadelphia suburb of Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, about 15 minutes away via Route #295, from where my parents still live. I went down a couple of times myself in the early 1980s, to purchase highlight films for that new fangled top-loading, rotary channel dial-equipped VCR that I talked my parents in buying.

Ryan (who coined the phrase “America’s Team”, for a highlight film, and unwittingly boosted the Dallas Cowboys’ promotional machine into the ionosphere) and Sabol were all business (and Sabol sounded exactly as he did on the numerous shows he hosts for ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classics, and probably for the NFL Channel, which will debut this fall.) So I didn’t get a chance to go into Full Gush Mode about growing up watching the shows his company has been putting out since the 1960s.

What’s amazing to me about NFL Films, is how radically they changed how sports documentaries are presented. The NFL is basically divided into before and after NFL Films. Watch a team’s highlight reel from as late as the early-1960s, and it sounds like a college team: lots of “boolah-boolah” marching band music, a breathless newsreel-style narrator, and a combination of long shots watching a play unfold from scratch, and goofy, obviously-staged closeups of the clean-cut well-scrubbed, closely-shaved athletes looking clean cut and well-scrubbed (and closely shaved).

Compare that to NFL Films’ stuff: the plays are cut to the apex of the action, so there are view few long shots of the refs placing the ball, the snap count, the QB yelling “HIKE!”. The players are shown in closeups from the bench, where their faces are caked with sweat, mud, blood, tears, pain and an occasional broken nose. Extreme closeups of the players in action alternate with slow motion tracking shots that would make Haskell Wexler blush.

Arguably the most important element: the endless Winchell-style narration is replaced by the clipped, deep tones of “The Voice of God”, the great John Facenda, the Man Born To Describe Football.

Facenda was one of the first TV news anchormen in Philadelphia, but he had a burning passion about football. In the mid-1960s, a mutual friend introduced him to Steve Sabol, and Sabol’s dad, who ran NFL Films. (Cue Strauss’s “Zarathustra” from 2001: A Space Odyssey)

When I was a kid, this was an irresistable combination. NFL Films made football players larger than life, men who could do no wrong. Men who made Batman and Superman look like pantywaists. Of course, now we know they’re far from Supermen; indeed, their morals often appear far worse than average men fresh out of college who haven’t been handed a multi-million dollar signing bonus, and who don’t have his every move observed by minicams and sportswriters.

To this day, during the fall, I watch several hours a week of NFL Films’ material (in addition of course, to the regular network TV coverage of the games). Their technology has changed remarkably since then: they use synthesizers in their background scores, and computer-based editing tools in assembling their shows. But their basic story telling techniques remain remarkably similar to what they developed over 35 years ago–and it was great to talk to one of the men who created them.