Tales From the Vault: To Preserve and Protect


“It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun. 60 minutes of closed-in action
from kickoff to touchdown. This is pro football – the game of our time.”

By: The Vault Keeper

On Wednesday, it was announced that THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL was among the 25 films selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. Congress established the NFR in 1989 under the National Film Preservation Act to preserve America’s film tradition. Since its inception, The National Film Preservation Board has named 25 films annually that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” There are now 600 films in the registry, from classic Hollywood features such as GONE WITH THE WIND and CASABLANCA to experimental films, travelogues, animated shorts and industrial films. This year’s list included THE MATRIX, DIRTY HARRY and BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, as well as such oddities as “Kodachrome Color Motion Picture Tests” and “The Middleton Family at the New York’s World’s Fair.” And, of course, THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL.

For each title named to the Registry, the Library of Congress ensures that the film is preserved for all time, either through its own motion picture preservation program or throughThe Oakland Raiders in the 1960's. collaborations with other film archives or motion picture studios.

The process for nominating a film for inclusion in the NFR is multi-faceted and somewhat convoluted, but essentially, the public is invited to nominate films and these public nominations are eventually considered by the 40-member National Film Preservation Board, which is comprised of scholars, critics and members of craft guilds such as the WGA and DGA. The board convenes once a year to consider the publicly nominated films as well as their own choices.  Then, taking into account all the Board’s top nominations, a group of staff experts at the Library of Congress compiles a list of around 35 titles for presentation to the Librarian of Congress, who selects the final 25 films to be added to the Registry.  Films that don’t make the final 25 can be reconsidered in future years.

Certainly, the aspect of public nominations democratizes the process. A few years ago, some Indiana residents organized a state-wide campaign to get HOOSIERS placed on the registry. Their lobbying effort paid off, and the film is now included.. But strength in numbers is by no means a prerequisite. One person can start a campaign to get a film, and in the case of THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL, it was John Facenda’s son who submitted the nomination. I’m told that once THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL was placed before the national board, its inclusion was enthusiastically and unanimously endorsed. There are few sports-related films among the 600 titles in the registry and THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL is the first NFL Films production to be included.

THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL marked a stylistic departure for NFL Films, which up to that time had been producing weekly highlight packages and team highlight films. The early NFLKirk Douglas as Spartacus. Films rarely varied from a pattern established by newsreels and football highlights of the 1950’s — linear editing, presenting plays in their entirety, chronological story-telling and scripts that were notable for providing good information – and bad alliterations. But in 1966, the company’s third year of existence, both Ed Sabol and Steve Sabol wanted to try something different and hopefully move NFL Films in a new direction. Ed felt that the cinematography was developing, but that the editing and writing were outdated. Steve agreed and sought to make football films that resembled the Hollywood epics he enjoyed so much, sweeping action films such as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, EL CID, SPARTACUS and THE GREAT ESCAPE. It was in this spirit that Steve envisioned a film that would be sort of a “primer” about pro football — an overview of the sport’s key positions that combined thematic music and novelistic narration. Each section of the film would create film montages built out of footage shot from multiple angles and various speeds.

The one problem was that no one at NFL Films really knew how to cut film montages, not even Steve. So Ed Sabol brought in a film editor named Yoshio Kishii to cut the film. Kishii knew nothing about, nor did he have little interest in, the sport of pro football. But Steve and Kishii worked side-by-side: Steve taught Kishii about the game, while at the same time picking up editing techniques. Yoshio Kishii went on to edit just one more NFL FILMS production – LOMBARDI in 1968. It’s actually pretty amazing that Ed Sabol allowed him to do even one more, since, as you can see from the interview I conducted with Kishii for LOST TREASURES OF THE NFL: NFL Films Style, he was a rather arrogant gentleman who had a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of NFL Films.

THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL turned out to be a groundbreaking production for NFL Films. It was the first film to use John Facenda as narrator, the first to utilize Sam Spence as a composer, and the first to present the essentials of pro football in an impressionistic, non-linear style that would influence every NFL Films production that followed.

While Steve Sabol may have been motivated by his love for Hollywood epic-filmmaking, THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL is tough and compact, with the feel of a 50’s cop thriller. Crime jazz permeates the soundtrack and much of the narration is lean and elliptical, especially in both the “Hands of Combat” (“these are the hands of combat – the hands of pros”) and “Search and Destroy” (”Number 50 – search and destroy………Number 58 – search and destroy”) sequences. THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL more closely resembles the Stanley Kubrick of THE KILLING than the Stanley Kubrick of SPARTACUS. Jim Thompson could have written the dialogue, which incidentally, is given a goosebump-raising reading throughout by the great John Facenda .

THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL also utilizes every tool that was then in the NFL Films toolbox, slow motion cinematography with telephoto lenses, interviews, field sound and coach mikings. The result is a film that packed a wallop at the time of its first airing (the film won prizes at several European film festivals and more crucially, convinced NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle that the Sabols really knew how to make films).

Often referred to as the “CITIZEN KANE of sports films,” THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL ushered in a new era of creativity for NFL Films. The film also established Steve Sabol as an auteur of football movies, who over the next 5 years would write, direct and edit even bolder and more ambitious films such as BIG GAME AMERICA and MORE THAN A GAME. Steve was fond of quoting an old proverb that went like this:

Tell me a fact and I’ll learn
Tell me a truth and I’ll believe.
But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.

THEY CALL IT PRO FOOTBALL now lives forever, as part of America’s great film tradition.

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