The first thing that really — I mean, REALLY made me love the NFL and follow it religiously, was a VHS tape called “NFL’s Greatest Hits”, a highlight video that my dad received as his “free gift” for subscribing to Sports Illustrated.
In the tape, which I’m sure many of you are familiar with, two janitors get trapped in the production room where an NFL video is supposedly being made. The two guys are treated to an NFL history lesson by Felix the talking computer until the bosses show up to break up the party.
This tape was where I learned about the NFL.
About Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath and Jim Brown and Walter Payton. About Lynn Swann and John Madden and Bart Starr and Deacon Jones. Where I learned that football coaches are funny and linebackers are insane. Where I first saw Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal and Franco Harris’ immaculate reception.
These were the men I emulated in my backyard as a kid, and this tape made me want to read every book and magazine article ever written about the NFL, and was yet another factor in leading me to seek out my current profession.
I loved the mic’d up clips from the sidelines. The coaches screaming, the players huffing and puffing and talking trash as the pads crunched with the sound of a thousand beer cans being crushed at once.
I vividly remember Lawrence Taylor encouraging his teammates to “Go out there like a bunch of crazed dogs and have some fun.”
I remember Boomer Esiason telling his offensive linemen: “Guys, if it comes down to a sack or a hold….hold their ass, seriously.”
I remember Bum Phillips walking the sideline in a Cowboy hat, complaining to the refs in an almost unintelligible southern accent.
And I remember laughing at the bloopers and goofy sound effects that accompanied every fumble or bobbled ball.
Who doesn’t remember these sound effects? (God I love this stuff, and no, I’m not related to the linguist they hired for this piece)
Now. I don’t honestly know if NFL Films actually produced this particular tape, but I suspect they did, and even if they didn’t, it was cut from the same mold.
Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films, died yesterday at the age of 69, and while it seems like the tributes to Sabol in the aftermath have actually been somewhat overwrought, I don’t think it’s an understatement to suggest that Sabol was as responsible for the NFL becoming the cultural phenomenon that it is today as anyone else.
His grainy, slow-motion replays (I used to think TV in the seventies must’ve been super grainy, but I now realize they intentionally make the old footage look like that, because nowadays I see clips of games I watched as a kid and they look the same as the old clips of Terry Bradshaw and Jack Lambert) set to the music of Sam Spence, with narration from John Facenda (the voice of God), glorified the NFL and its history to an almost religious degree. It surrounded the game and the league in an aura that was and remains totally unique. It’s what separates football from baseball, and it’s what separates the NFL from college football.
(By the way, if you didn’t click the Facenda link, go back and do it.)
NFL Films kept pumping out those highlight tapes, but any sports fan with cable surely spent a few nights slumped in a chair watching NFL’s Greatest Moments at 2 a.m. on ESPN.
Sabol would spin yarns about Hank Stram or Ray Guy or some other player, game or team that was little more than a footnote in the game’s history, and even if you were only half-watching, it was that kind of stuff that resonated with football fans over the years, and added to the game’s history and the way in which we consume it.
In some ways, Sabol was the author of the NFL’s history, and he did a tremendous job of telling the story. He sucked me in from page one, and I haven’t put the book down yet.