Sabol's film epic is icing on NFL's birthday cake

ON THE AIR

September 13, 1994|By MILTON KENT

Eight months ago, officials at TNT approached NFL Films president Steve Sabol about producing a documentary to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NFL, but with a twist.

Instead of a "by the book" glorification of the mayhem and action that have vaulted the NFL past baseball in the nation's consciousness, the cable network wanted what Sabol called "a thinking man's history" of the league.

Sabol more than met the challenge with "75 Seasons: The Story of the National Football League," which premieres tonight at 8, with repeat airings at 10 p.m. and midnight, and subsequent airings through Oct. 3.

After interviewing 62 current and former players and reviewing more than 100 miles of film from a host of sources, including the 1960s dance show "Shindig," where the "Fearsome Foursome" defensive line of the Los Angeles Rams appeared, Sabol and his crew have pieced together a moving two-hour film that easily should draw in even those who claim no interest in the game.

"This is a film about violence, love, passion, hate, friendship -- all the elements that make football a great sport," said Sabol.

The film begins with Arda Bowser, who at 95 is the oldest surviving player from the league's inaugural season in 1920. That year, as a member of the Canton (Ohio) Bulldogs, Bowser earned $200 a game, which, given today's 16-game schedule, would net him $3,200 a season.

Bowser recalls playing four games in four days under different names during a Thanksgiving weekend. That love for the game is exhibited time and again during "75 Seasons," which wisely skips the mythology of the game and heads for the people behind the legends, through deft narration by actor John Mahoney, who portrays Martin Crane on the sitcom "Frasier."

There's former Washington quarterback Slingin' Sammy Baugh, one of the game's greats in the 1930s and '40s, who, when he isn't being a little profane, says with a touch of wistfulness that he'd love to play today because of the liberalized passing rules that govern the game.

There's a sense of barely controlled frenzy in the words of former Philadelphia Eagles great Chuck Bednarik, one of the last men to play on both sides of the ball, who recalls simply wanting to "Get 'em, get 'em" on game day.

There's a remarkably moving moment at the end of the film's look at the rise to prominence of the long-dormant Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s as quarterback Terry Bradshaw, at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, looks skyward to salute Steelers owner Art Rooney, long considered one of the grand gentlemen of the game.

Then, there's the look of unrestrained joy in the eyes of Joe Namath as he recounts the feeling as he glided off the Orange Bowl field after making his guarantee of a Super Bowl III victory over the Baltimore Colts stand up.

Speaking of the Colts, the film pays an extended tribute to the 1958 world championship club, with a nice use of the film "Diner" to punctuate the city's love for the team.

"They were the forerunners of today's modern game," said Sabol. "This team, to me, was a part of football history, not only because they were world champions, but they opened the horizons for the game to come."

The viewer should be mindful of the fact that NFL Films is a public relations arm of the league, so don't look for anything negative, such as the relocation of the Colts, Raiders and Cardinals, persistent labor disputes and the like.

Sabol should, however, get credit for keeping in the film interviews with O. J. Simpson, believed to be the last before he was arrested on murder charges.

It would have been easy to cut the comments out of the finished product, given Simpson's recent notoriety, but his place in football history warranted their inclusion.

All in all, "75 Seasons" is a worthy biography of the nation's new pastime, and sets an interesting standard for Ken Burns' "Baseball" epic to reach, starting next week.

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