#309) They Call It Pro Football (1966)

screen shot 2019-01-24 at 9.08.40 pm

#309) They Call It Pro Football (1966)

OR “Sunday Bloody Sunday”

Directed by John Hentz

Written by Steve Sabol

Class of 2012

The Plot: With the merger between the National Football League and the American Football League on the horizon, the newly formed NFL Films presents this epic look at football. With the dramatic narration of John Facenda and a stirring score by Sam Spence, Steve Sabol highlights the gridiron game with such then-revolutionary approaches as telephoto lenses and slow-motion recaps. There are highlights from the most popular teams, players, and games of the era, and yes, instant replays.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film no less than “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of sports movies” and praises the creative team, especially John Facenda’s “commanding cadence”. There’s also an essay by AMPAS documentary curator (and presumably football fan) Ed Carter.

But Does It Really?: “They Call It Pro Football” definitely stands on a piece of ground no other NFR entry can claim. It’s always a treat to watch a film whose groundbreaking techniques are so commonplace today you take it for granted. With wall-to-wall coverage of every sport imaginable at our disposal, it’s fascinating to watch Sobal and company create the look of televised sporting events that is still the gold standard. With a long-lasting cultural impact to go along with its innovative aesthetic, “They Call It Pro-Football” is a natural for NFR inclusion and a cinematic home-run slam-dunk touchdown. Come on, you think the guy with the movie blog knows any of this terminology?

Everybody Gets One: Ed Sabol had just founded Blair Motion Pictures when he was hired to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game. Thanks to the persistence of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Blair Motion Pictures became NFL Films and signed an exclusive deal with the League to film all of their games. With Rozelle’s encouragement, Sabol was allowed to adopt new filming methods of covering the games (up to then football coverage was mostly newsreel-esque wide shots of the field). Sabol also called on the talents of his son Steve to write the film’s narration, inspired by Steve’s love of Rudyard Kipling.

Wow, That’s Dated: The narration mentions the NFL Championship Games, the precursor to the Super Bowl and the NFL-AFL merger of the late ‘60s.

Seriously, Emmys?: “They Call It Pro Football” premiered on TV as part of the series “NFL Action”. That episode begins with Pat Summerall listing the awards the film has won, including Grand Prize at Cortina Film Festival and First Prize at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany. I could find evidence of “Pro Football” competing in Oberhausen, but nothing about its wins. Seriously, Internet? For the record, televised sports didn’t have their own Emmy ceremony until 1979. Ed and Steve Sabol would both receive Lifetime Achievement Emmys in 2003.

Other notes

  • The narrator is NFL Films’ “Voice of God” John Facenda. A broadcaster and anchorman from Philadelphia, Facenda narrated practically every NFL Films production until his death in 1984. I recognized him from the industrial short “Progress Island U.S.A.” about the booming Puerto Rico economy of the early ‘70s. Progress!
  • For those of us that are a little football-challenged, the film gives a quick recap of the major positions (quarterback, wide receiver, lineman) that’s not condescending to viewers who already know these terms.
  • How are they still the Washington Redskins? Even at the time of this film’s release, there were protests from Native American communities. Didn’t “Kimmy Schmidt” solve this problem once and for all?
  • I was very close to listing a reference to the L.A. Rams under “Wow, That’s Dated”, knowing that they moved to St. Louis in the mid-90s, only to learn that they moved back to L.A. three years ago. Turns out even the little I do know about football is outdated.
  • Among the few players’ names I recognized were Fran Tarkenton (“That’s Incredible!”), Gale Sayers (“Brian’s Song”), Johnny Unitas (“The Simpsons”), and Bart Starr (Again, “The Simpsons”).
  • That’s Vince Lombardi going over his “Packer sweep” maneuver on the chalkboard. I didn’t recognize him without his trademark fedora.
  • You don’t need to follow football to admire the athleticism required. The highlights presented here are still fun to watch.
  • The film showcases my favorite part of football; watching the head coaches cursing on the sidelines.
  • There’s nothing like watching slow-motion instant replay injuries. The games are over 50 years old, but the assailments are still cringe-worthy.
  • While exciting to watch, all of this football seems less intense than today’s game. I wonder how much of that is the presentation rather than the actual game?
  • What is the title of this film in Europe? “They Call It Pro Pseudo-Rugby”?

Legacy

  • The work of both Ed and Steve Sabol, as well as the tireless efforts of Pete Rozelle, helped propel football to become baseball’s rival for America’s pastime. Every dramatized reference to the games and players started with “They Call It Pro Football”.
  • Ed Sabol was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011, making him one of the rare non-athletes or coaches to do so.
  • I’m gonna trace this film’s legacy all the way to those “Bad Lip Reading” videos.
  • This film also paved the way for America to look deep within our own national conscience and ask ourselves, “ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?”

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