Tales from the Vault: Gods and Quipsters

Kansas City Chiefs, Steve Seidman, Tales from the Vault

I remember the late sixties as being a good time for comedy.  Johnny Carson ruled late night, Woody Allen starred in Take the Money and Run, Mel Brooks directed The Producers, and Richard Pryor was a stand-up standout with his razor-sharp riffs on race.  It fits, then, that during this comic age NFL Films played a role when it gave us the Football Follies and Hank Stram wearing a wireless microphone.

When NFL Films first started, the company’s productions reverentially created a veritable Valhalla of gridiron gods that included Unitas, Lombardi, Butkus, and Sayers.  But Films’ early success in selling the NFL rested on creating a neat contradiction: while players and coaches were placed on a pedestal, they were also cut down to size.  With the birth of the “Football Follies,” the game’s gods became clods, and in this guise, they became instantly relatable to any fan who ever spilled coffee on a new pair of slacks.

Humor helped NFL Films create an intimacy to pro football that was unmatched in the filming and storytelling of other sports. The follies were only part of the equation.  When company founder Ed Sabol began to convince head coaches to wear wireless microphones, the result was different from the slapstick slip-ups of the football follies. The caustic sideline chatter of men like Allie Sherman and Norm Van Brocklin unspooled stream of consciousness comedy, and helped to further demystify the sport.

Hank Stram, AP

The miking of Hank Stram in Super Bowl IV is arguably the most important wiring NFL Films has ever done. But it wasn’t easy for Ed Sabol to convince the Chiefs’ head coach to participate. Sabol tried an appeal to Stram’s sense of history. Stram countered with an appeal to Sabol’s checkbook and asked for an “honorarium.”  When Sabol offered him 250 dollars, the coach who referred to himself as “the mentor” responded by saying that “$250 isn’t enough to cover ‘the mentor’s’ dry-cleaning bill.”  Ultimately, the two agreed on an “honorarium” of 500 dollars.

The stocky Stram was a natural entertainer whose rapid fire patter made him seem like a comedy quipster doing an opening act in Vegas (Shecky Stram?). His well-tailored suits and ill-tailored toupee underscored the idea of Stram as a comedian, as did his nervous habit of tugging on his tie. In this regard, he predates Rodney Dangerfield by a good 15 years. Stram’s semi-maniacal cackle and his idiosyncratic turns of phrase (“Keep matriculating the ball down the field, men”) furthered the sense that Stram was “performing.” Stram’s verbal sparring with the head linesman plays like something concocted for a TV sitcom. It’s not surprising, then, that a few people have claimed that a Hollywood writer actually supplied quips for Stram to write down on the rolled-up playsheet he clutched in hand throughout the game.  Steve Sabol vehemently denies the rumor and admits that while Stram was pure ham, every piece of audio captured in super bowl fame was 100% “all natural.”

After all, “65 toss power trap” wasn’t a punch line, it was a play call – and it worked like a champ in Super Bowl IV. Stram was more than an entertainer – he was an innovator. He was one of the best head coaches of his era, and he won two championships, including Super Bowl IV.  Even though Stram’s wiring had plenty of laughs,  it also demonstrated the pure joy he derived from coaching, the love he had for his players, and the thrill involved in winning on the NFL’s biggest stage.  It still stands as one of the most comprehensive — and most entertaining – portraits of how a head coach behaves.

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