I Love The NFL Against My Better Judgement

Dodging Responsibility for Loving the Gladiatorial, Cripplingly Backwards, Sport of Football, because it’s all Ed Sabol’s fault.

Against my better judgement, I find myself drawn in. In the scheme of things, I know none of it matters. My life is not affected either way. But still I watch.

I know that the NFL is involved in one of the greatest class action lawsuits this side of big tobacco; that football wrecks the human body and mind. But still I watch.

And I will not accept any responsibility. I was indoctrinated as a child. So don’t blame me. Blame Ed Sabol and blame NFL Films.

Learning The Game

When I say indoctrinated — I mean it. I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t associate Football with either the narration of John “The Voice of God” Facenda or NFL Film of the Week’s Harry Kalas; when I didn’t hear the music of Sam Spence and think of clashing lineman; or when I didn’t imagine a breakout play in wonderful slow motion. But if I had to date my brainwashing, it would be first grade.

The first grade is when I learned football and although the Famed Park Hill Pirates were a few blocks away — we taught ourselves the game. Games, if they were tackle, happened on the small strips of grass in front of our duplex apartments — all other games were played in the street.

We drew plays out on our hands and used cars, fences, and trees as our lines of scrimmage. Tightly designed curl routes had you catching the ball in between the Pinto and the Cadillac — go routes were in the middle of the street. There were no run plays. No offensive or defensive line — everyone went out.

Practice was throwing the ball up as high in the air to ones own self and catching it on the run as well as two other forms of practice: 500 and Smear.

500 was where one boy played Quarterback and however many people — could be two, could be ten — played receiver 50 yards away. The Quarterback would throw the ball as high and as far as possible while the receivers jostled for position. Each catch was 100. The first to 500 became the new Quarterback. Taller boys had the unfair advantage but tenacity and parasite ways were how a smaller player could collect tipped balls or balls thrown too short or too long.

Smear — That was a more violent game. We played from our fence to the Palmer’s house, three homes down. The object was to run from one end to the other without being tackled. The catch was — it was you against everyone. Similar to rugby, a tackled player had to get rid of the ball — tossing it up in the air. Whoever caught or picked up the ball was free game. Six or seven boys would rush to annihilate the one with the ball. You learned to be tough, elusive or both.

But when we weren’t playing some form of football, we were watching it — you hardly ever saw any of us out on Sunday — and the viewing started hours before the game with the NFL Game of the Week.

Slow Motion, And We Not Talkin’ Juvenille

The NFL Game of the Week featured one, sometimes two games from the previous week — a common practice of many sports. But this was not common fare.

Between the poetic narration: “A Spinning, Dancing, Dervish” (used to describe Gale Sayers), “Power is the prime requisite, quickness — an asset” (the description of of a fullback), “One ton of muscle with a one track mind” (yes, the description of the line of scrimmage), The symphonic music — sometimes jazz, the close-up, slow motion shots of brutal blocks and tackles, and the mic’ing of the players and coaches, the game always seemed larger than life.

My older brother and I would imitate the slow-motion shake of shoulder pads, the frustrated yank of the chin guard, and the also slow-motion tackles…in the tight hallway of our apartment — sorry mom. We counted down yards, “the ten, the twenty, he’s going all the way,” despite the fact that that hallway couldn’t have been more than ten feet long.

Watching the NFL Game of the Week, you inadvertently learned the players of the leagues, the coaches, the personalities of teams and it was packed nicely in a 22 minute package, perfect for the attention span of a young tike.

The NFL’s Growth in Popularity

We began making the game personal for the fans, like a Hollywood movie. Violent tackles, the long slow spiral of the ball, following alongside the players as they sidestepped and sprinted down the field. The movie camera was the perfect medium at the time to present the game the way the fans wanted to see it. Ed Sabol

While it seems hard to believe now, the NFL was not always that popular. Baseball was truly America’s past time and the love of College Football dwarfed that of the NFL well into the 60s.

It wasn’t until Ed Sabol, an amateur filmmaker, secured the rights to cover the 1962 NFL championship that all that began to change.

Sabol and his son turned football into an art and tackled one of the greatest obstacles of the sports — they made it personal.

One of the reasons that people could connect with baseball was the fact that they could see the player’s faces. The excitement after a home run (or the disappointment of the pitcher) could all be seen on the faces of the players. And with the growing popularity of television in the 50s, it was a sport that lent itself to the close-up.

Football didn’t have that advantage. For one, it was a far more difficult sport to understand. Take any person off the street, unfamiliar with sports and you can explain most sports and the rules to them in a minute: Baseball: hit the ball, get on one of the three bases, round those bases until you come home — Basketball, bounce the ball down the court, put it in the basket — Soccer, using only your feet, kick the ball down the field into the goal. Not the case with football.

You have hand-offs, pitches and throws. You have screens and posts and blah, blah, blah, terminology out the wazoo — but the biggest obstacle of them all — you couldn’t see the players.

What Sabol did was revolutionary. He covered all aspects of the sport. He covered practices. He covered locker room pep talks. He even covered the coaches’ confrontations with the referees. He made the sport personal, real, close.

“I wanted better music. I wanted to copy Hollywood. I wanted to be enterprising and exciting. Even though the people saw the game on television, I wanted them to have a reason to watch the game again.”

And we did.

Waxing and Waning

All-22 Angle

Football took a backseat to life as I entered college and after that, my career but it was never far away.

And over the past ten years, despite the growing knowledge that the sport ruins the minds and bodies of those who play it, I’ve found myself drawn back in.

Unlike, when I was younger though, my attention has turned more to the tactics of the game. Once again, NFL Films is there — eager to feed that addiction — introducing the All 22 angles (the camera angle. shot from above that coaches and teams use to study how plays actually took place), the Sound EFX shows…don’t get me started on Hard Knocks — the HBO show that sets the tone for the beginning of each season, and countless other programs — NFL Films has advanced with the appetite of the viewers.

So — although I can’t say that I have any desire for any of my boys to play football, and this is surely messed up, I wouldn’t be adverse to them wanting to rise up through the ranks from scout to coordinator to manager. And although my conscious objects to. how the NFL continues to sweep under the rug the vast amount of CTI cases, I’ll be watching the playoff games today…and after that the Super Bowl.

Maybe one day it will be too much for me. But for now, I’m a willing participant in the crime that is football. And I don’t accept any responsibility. I blame Ed Sabol.

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