Transcript of the Conference Call for the NFL Network Debut of NFL Films’ Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League
on Friday, Jan. 8 at 8 PM ET
Featuring: NFL Films’ president Steve Sabol with producers Paul Camarata and David Plaut
Here are quotes from the call, the complete transcript is below:
“When you go back to look at the AFL and the rivalry they had with the NFL, which is really the guts of this series, is the battle between these two rival leagues and the owners and the players…” –Steve Sabol
“There was this emphasis on this big‑bang‑style of offense that was brimming over with a lot of energy and it was really characteristic of that era, the new frontier.” — Sabol
“That war was precipitated by Al Davis, and he in his own way was the one that really brought this to a head because he went right after all of the quarterbacks.” — Sabol
“(Scouting) was one of the key developments was the rivalry of the NFL forced the AFL to look and to be a little more creative in their scouting and to dig deeper into some of these small colleges, Florida A&M, Southern University, places like that, and out of those schools came some of the great players in pro football history.” — Sabol
“The treasure hunt to find material for these was something unprecedented in the 30‑plus years that I’ve worked at NFL Films.” – David Plaut
“We are offering up some elements that haven’t been seen since they aired in the early 50s and some which have never been seen at all. And, through the ability to take these elements and enhance them with digital capabilities, to make the color more vibrant and the picture crisper; the footage looked like it could have been shot in a camera a week ago.” — Plaut
“Throughout the first show we went through some of the early trials and tribulations of those guys in the AFL, the players, the owners, and in a lot of ways it was sort of the early follies period of the league, both in the quality of the play, the visual quality of the uniforms, the empty stadiums and how they had to try to persevere in those first couple of years.” – Paul Camarata
The five‑part “Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League” series debuts on NFL Network Friday, January 8, at 8 PM. The series was on Showtime last year will feature new introductions by Hall of Famer John Madden on NFL Network.
PAUL CAMARATA: Just a few thoughts about the first show and what we are trying to achieve with it. We knew at the beginning of the process that we had a really rich story to tell, a decade of football stories and there was a lot of American history stories we thought were relevant to weave in, and we knew we were going to be loosely chronological working our way through the decade.
But in the first show we tried to look at it from a foundational perspective and set things up, set up the main characters, the main problems, what they were facing, what their goals were. Just like any great story, just let everybody know, kind of get them in the door so they could kind of get an access point to who these people were and the story they were going to shape over the next ten years.
So we found ourselves telling stories of getting together the Foolish Club, the original NFL owners but providing context not just in pro football, coming off the famous ’58 Championship Game and the stature of the NFL. But like I said in America with the advent and the growth of television, the election of Kennedy and the attitudes in the country at the time at the start of the 1960s. And throughout the first show we went through some of the early trials and tribulations of those guys in the AFL, the players, the owners, and in a lot of ways it was sort of the early follies period of the league, both in the quality of the play, the visual quality of the uniforms, the empty stadiums and how they had to try to persevere in those first couple of years.
And we built towards, again, in that first part of the decade, the ’62 Championship Game, which was sort of the first watershed mark for the AFL in that it was a match between one of the early dynasties of the league, the Houston Oilers, who had won the first two titles in ’60 and ’61 with the Dallas Texans who in a lot of ways were sort of the ‑‑ kind of the face of the league in terms of a franchise, owned by Lamar Hunt, who is the league founder, coached by Hank Stram, who would go on to be one of the more colorful personalities and quarterbacked by Len Dawson, who would eventually go to the Hall of Fame after his AFL and NFL career.
So that’s where we really focussed in show one, and again just tried to set up who the players were and what their goals were and how they were going to try to basically take on the NFL both in business and on the field and the goal of capturing the attention of the nation.
DAVID PLAUT: The series is five one‑hour shows, and the treasure hunt to find material for these was something unprecedented in the 30‑plus years that I’ve worked at NFL Films.
We bought some footage from other companies that had shot AFL footage because NFL Films initially shot only the National Football League. And we have used quite a bit of it, but we had many hours of it that were still sitting in our vaults that had never been transferred to digital, so we didn’t know what we had.
In addition to that, we also went out to local markets, TV stations, ballclubs themselves, to see what existed out there; and we also looked for still images, anything that we could do to help sell this story. And we were astounded of what we were able to uncover. Just wonderful elements with both sound, and the picture itself of this very significant and distinctive time in American history.
That, I think is part of the excitement of this series, is that we are offering up some elements that haven’t been seen since they aired in the early 50s and some which have never been seen at all. And, through the ability to take these elements and enhance them with digital capabilities, to make the color more vibrant and the picture crisper; the footage looked like it could have been shot in a camera a week ago.
So you are going to get, in addition to grainy black and white footage, you are going to get astonishingly beautiful color stuff shot on Kodak stock, the very best footage stock that I think ever existed, which sadly we don’t use anymore. But people are going to see really incredible things and they are going to hear great sound elements, and it isn’t just about football; it’s about a lot of the current events that were happening in a very tumultuous decade of the 60s.
So we are very excited about the product we have been able to create because I think people will really enjoy it, not just football fans, but even people who are casual fans or fans of American history, I think there’s something here for everybody to enjoy.
STEVE SABOL: First of all, I wanted to congratulate Paul and Dave on the job they did. This was a six‑month period of research, of writing, a period of discovery, of developing the framework for a series of this magnitude. They just did a great job. I’m very proud of the work that they have done. And I think it’s really, as you look at this, it’s more than just a sports story. NFL Films, we pride ourselves in being storytellers, and we look at every game, every career, every bit of history in dramatalurgical (ph) terms.
When you go back to look at the AFL and the rivalry they had with the NFL, which is really the guts of this series, is the battle between these two rival leagues and the owners and the players; that the NFL in the early 60s was a game of power and there was a sense of moral balance to the game, because winning teams were not only considered superior skill‑wise, but also superior in courage and character and desire.
But in the AFL, in the minds of those of us in the NFL at the time, they all earned that moral balance by the passing games and that many people in the AFL felt cheapened the game with the long bombs and quick scores, which is something we go on to disprove in the series; but what the AFL was doing was perfectly congruent with an era, and that was the 60s.
There was this emphasis on this big‑bang‑style of offense that was brimming over with a lot of energy and it was really characteristic of that era, the new frontier. And I think one of the things that people found very fascinating when this show aired on Showtime was the way we blended the history of what was going on in our culture and entertainment and movie business and how we blended that in to what was happening in the National Football League.
Q. Can you talk about who are some of the people who really made the AFL and who really made this show?
STEVE SABOL: First of all, top to bottom, the AFL was a blend of innovators and colorful characters. And that goes from the quietly brilliant Lamar Hunt, who owned the Chiefs and founded the AFL to the more flamboyant Barron Hilton; he was a hotel magnate who named his franchise the Chargers after the Hilton’s charge card. That’s a fact most people aren’t aware of.
And the AFL began the practice of putting players names on the backs of jerseys; they were the first to sink the scoreboard and the game clock. They had a two‑point conversion. But I think the AFL’s greatest legacy, of course, was its role in the creation of the Super Bowl.
Q. You mentioned Lamar Hunt, you just mentioned Barron Hilton, but who were some of the other folks actually on the NFL side who were building the bridges? I know we hear the names from the AFL, but curious who internally was saying moving this way would be a good thing?
STEVE SABOL: Well, Tex Schramm for the Cowboys was the point man in negotiations in the very beginning, and he was meeting with Lamar Hunt, I believe it was in the lobby at the Fort Worth airport and the only people that new about that meeting was Lamar Hunt and Pete Rozelle and Tex Schramm. But these meetings were taking place at least a year before the actual merger, before the merger was signed.
But Tex was really the one that was presenting the NFL’s point of view to the AFL, because they both realized, they both were ‑‑ something would have to happen because they both would destroy themselves in the bidding for players.
And of course, that war was precipitated by Al Davis, and he in his own way was the one that really brought this to a head because he went right after all of the quarterbacks. There’s a segment in the show, I believe, Dave, about how ‑‑ it was Mike Ditka, John Brody, Roman Gabriel, all were given contracts by the AFL, those were big stars in the NFL and Al Davis thought right away, if you want to bring this to a head, we’ll go after the quarterbacks and that’s what he did.
DAVID PLAUT: Al Davis is really one of the three seminal figures in this league along with Lamar Hunt and Sonny Werblin. Those three individuals, if you had to narrow it down to the economic and political battles those are the three guys that when we talk about Davis for the reasons that Steve just mentioned, Lamar Hunt for being the founder the league, and Sonny Werblin for basically teaching the league how to market itself and the saving of the New York franchise, which was the weakest franchise and by learning how to take the marketing concept that he had used so well in television and entertainment packaging, bringing in Joe Namath and making the New York Jets a legitimate force in the American football league. He helped to bring about TV contracts and helped make the league much more glamorous.
PAUL CAMARATA: I think Sonny Werblin can be put into perspective by how bad the Titans were before he took over the team from Harry Wismer.
There’s a famous story about one of the Titans games and they announced the attendance as 18,000. And one theory was that the 18,000 referred to arms and legs, and the other theory was that 12,000 of those 18,000 game disguised as empty seats. But that’s a good indication of the condition of that New York franchise before Sonny came in; and Sonny was attuned to the entertaining business, he was an agent, and he was the one as Dave said that realized that we have to market this as an entertainment entity, as well as a sports league.
Q. You mentioned in the making of the films that this was a treasure hunt, searching for footage that was not previously available. Were there any artifacts that for whatever reason could not be presented, or anything left on the editing room for of stories that couldn’t be told that you wish people still had access to?
STEVE SABOL: I don’t know, I think we emptied the bucket on this one. We’re looking at each other and sort of puzzled. As filmmakers, you want everything that’s funny or interesting or anything that has any kind of historical relevance, or anybody that is a little bit of revisionist history that makes the show more interesting and educational. We crammed it in there. I don’t think there’s anything.
DAVID PLAUT: It’s five hours or thereabouts. I think we covered most everything. Obviously there are certain players who you mentioned and you would like to show all of their great shots. But Lance Alworth was in three shows. He was the first AFL player inducted into the Hall of Fame. There are probably 50 other great shots that didn’t get in, but there are 30 that are there. So in that respect, I think we did Lance justice, even though there’s a lot more that we could should shown.
No, I agree with Steve, I think we set out and achieved the goals that we set to achieve as far as subject matter.
Q. The Super Bowl between the Jets and the Colts was such a game that everyone talks about, can you talk a little bit about what Joe Namath meant to the AFL?
STEVE SABOL: I think one thing that we do in this series is we sort of blow up that myth about Super Bowl III. First of all, it was a boring game. It was 16‑7. There have been so many other Super Bowls that have been more exciting. What Super Bowl III did, Super Bowl III was great theatre and that with as because of Joe Namath.
Super Bowl IV is what made the Super Bowl a legitimate competition. After Super Bowl III, the feeling in the country, and among sports fans, was that this could have been a fluke. It was the Jets defense played great, the Colts did not play as well, Unitas came in at the end of the game, there had been trouble with arm problems all season. They felt, in their mind, this was a fluke.
And I say this, because the following year, when the Vikings and the Chiefs played Super Bowl IV in New Orleans, the betting line was 13 points in favor of the Vikings. So in the public’s mind, the NFL was still far superior to the AFL, even though Namath had led the Jets to this incredible upset in Super Bowl III.
But in Super Bowl IV, that was an ass whipping. That was a physical beatdown by a much bigger, more talented Kansas City team over the Vikings. And the Vikings went through the NFL like a knife through butter that whole season. They went through the NFL, they beat the Browns in the Championship Game 27‑0. They had a rough quarterback in Joe Kapp that was the Purple People Eaters, they were one of most physical teams the NFL had put out. And they came to New Orleans to play the Kansas City Chiefs and were just physically whipped.
After that game, which was 23‑7, that game established the Super Bowl as a legitimate event and it also in the public’s mind, after that game, not after Super Bowl III, there was parity within ‑‑ between the two leagues.
So Super Bowl IV, to me, was the seminal game between the two leagues.
Q. Was Al Davis interviewed for the series, and did you go in‑depth with ‑‑ I don’t know if it’s myth or if it’s true or what’s true or what’s not true, between Al Davis and Pete Rozelle?
STEVE SABOL: There’s a lot of juicy stories about Al Davis in the show from Dan Rooney to other people we interviewed.
But we have interviewed Al Davis so many times and so extensively over the last 15 years, and Al’s ‑‑ there’s pretty much of a party line and I’m not saying that it’s not truthful, but we had Al’s point of view on almost every story and every twist and turn on history. So we didn’t think it was necessary to go back to Al, because we had asked him all the pertinent questions before.
But he appears significantly in this series in all episodes, and he is one of the key figures in not only the history of the AFL but the NFL. But he appears frequently throughout it. But it’s interviews that we have done that date back to 1968, 1969, interviews we did in the 70s and the 80s, and we put them all together and felt, geez, we have everything, everything that Al has ever said on this; there’s really no need to go back and interview him again.
Q. How did television influence the growth of the popularity of the AFL? Because it seems like the AFL would have fostered a style of play that would have played well on television, but how much ‑‑ I mean, then did ‑‑ I guess I’m just curious if there’s a chicken‑and‑the‑egg relationship between the AFL attracting television attention, or television making the AFL more popular, especially since a lot of these teams are kind of from smaller regions, smaller markets.
DAVID PLAUT: In the first show, I mentioned before about how it was sort of exploding in the country overall in the popular culture but particularly sports on television, and would be that, football above all the sports.
One of the stories and really areas we explored is the sort of perfect synergy that came about between ABC Sports and the AFL, beginning in 1960. ABC was the also‑ran among the three networks at the time, and they wanted to become big time. They wanted to have pro sports, but really they couldn’t have been a player for the NFL realistically, but it made sense business‑wise and every way for them to partner with the AFL.
Well, what ended up happening as a result of that relationship was a young producer by the name of Roone Arledge got the job. He had been doing the college football production for ABC, and then all of a sudden he took over the AFL broadcast. And with his innovations and his vision for how football and sports should be packaged and promoted on television, coinciding with the AFL’s willingness to try anything, they wanted to promote themselves and wanted to become popular and sell their product in new ways.
Those two innovative viewpoints came together, and what was produced was sound from one thing, the use of sounds in television broadcast as it had never been captured and promoted before, which again comes to a head in our portrayal of the Championship Game. We actually have sound footage of a young Jack Buck midfield with a huge microphone looks like he’s holding a yardstick that’s three feet long, and he’s capturing the sound of the players and referee tossing the coin before the first over time.
In addition, it seems simple now, but just the use of super‑imposing players’ names on the screen, he explains how that was something they did just to familiarize the public. I believe the examples he used were when the Giants played the Bears, everybody knew the players, everybody already had a stake in the game and they cared about the traditions that were at stake and clashing.
But when the Oilers played the Los Angeles Chargers, no one knew who to root for, so they put players on the screens and they interviewed players at half‑time and pregame and whatever opportunity they could in order to familiarize the viewing audience with the players that were trying to make a name for themselves in the AFL.
STEVE SABOL: So I think the early broadcasts had great commentators, Al DeRogatis, one of the forgotten pioneers of football analysts, he was great and Paul Christman, a former quarterback for the Cardinals was the play‑by‑play. But they were really excellent. I think Curt Gowdy worked with them, too.
Q. Not to beat this horse again, but you mentioned that you had gotten a lot of footage or material from clubs, I was wondering if you found that there was actually a kind of ‑‑ it turned out that in the early stages, these AFL clubs were actually very obsessive about documenting their growth and existence in the first couple of years because that seems like it would have been a risky kind of pretense undertaking.
PAUL CAMARATA: Not more than others and it basically came down to economics. The teams that had some money to spend actually financed team highlights films, but much of the highlight footage of the early years was glorified coaching footage, very wide, the coaches probably used footage to break down the games.
Most of the sponsors, and this is something we found very amusing: The sponsors for these films were usually local banks or breweries, the local Coca‑Cola bottling company.
So you get these sponsors who would never be able to touch pro football today, but there was a certain charm, mom‑and‑pop, small town feel to it in these films that were done. But not every time did these films. In fact, the Titans were so cash poor that any of the footage that we have of Titans footage was taken from other teams highlight films because Harry Wismer did not have two nickels to rub together to do a highlight film, let alone put the lights on for games that started in late afternoon. They would be playing the game in darkness because he was too cheap to turn the lights on.
STEVE SABOL: He was a well known sportscaster in the New York area and he was a funny guy. He had a thing that whenever he would meet somebody, instead of saying hello, he would always sit down and say congratulations. I remember asking about that once and I said, “Harry, how come you don’t say hello?” And he said, it’s much better to say congratulations. Everybody has done something recently they are proud of, so if you say congratulations, it’s more personal and has more meaning to it.
Q. You had mentioned a number of different innovations and stuff that had obviously stuck with the league, and I think a lot of them have long‑reaching effects. But is there one ‑‑ maybe one that just really sticks out to you that you would say, wow, this really changed the face ‑‑ the way we in 2010 now kind of look at the sport.
STEVE SABOL: Well, I think some of it might be in the scouting. The AFL scouts in competing with the NFL were forced to search deeper for talent, and that broke open the small, predominately black colleges in the southeast, and teams like the Chiefs and the Chargers really mined those small colleges for talent and that’s where the Chargers got Buck Buchanan, Willy LaMere (ph). I think that was one of the key developments was the rivalry of the NFL forced the AFL to look and to be a little more creative in their scouting and to dig deeper into some of these small colleges, Florida A&M, Southern University, places like that, and out of those schools came some of the great players in pro football history.
DAVID PLAUT: In addition to the Chargers being innovators, the Raiders I would include in that group for mining the historically African American colleges. The Chargers also I think have more to shape the way pro football is played today because of their coach, a genius named Sid Gillman, who really is the father of a modern passing game. And so much of what we see today, particularly in the league ‑‑ not because it’s so pass oriented, but almost everything to Sid Gillman’s ideas of the vertical stretch, flowing the ball, using the entire field, the attack mode, pass blocking scheme, so much of that can be attributed to Sid Gillman. So I think that you have to look at him as a guy who influenced not just the AFL but the way pro football is now.
STEVE SABOL: And Sid was the one who always whenever we would interview him and there would be some gray diagrams there would be a lot of vertical lines, a lot of lines and he always would say: I want the big play, I don’t want the little play, I don’t want the average play. I’m not going to stay up all night trying to think of how to gain three yards. His whole point, as Dave said, was to stretch the field, not only horizontally, but vertically, as well, and Al Davis took that vertical game then to its apex.
THE MODERATOR: Just a reminder “Full Color Football, the History of the American Football League,” appears Friday on the NFL Network at 8 p.m. and is a five‑part series with new introductions by John Madden.