I feel sorry for people who don’t get the NFL network. How do they handle the football off-season? All they have is ESPN with its yapping about the Sawks and Yankees, college softball, the NBA, and poker.
The NFL network has its share of fluff (although it is football fluff). They also have the best sports series ever created: America’s Game
, a history of the teams that have won the Super Bowl.
Each episode mixes game footage with interviews from three or four people from the team. These interviews are a nice blend of superstars and role-players. We hear from Starr, Namath, and Staubach, but we also hear from Randy Grossman and Chuck Mercin.
There is poignancy to many of these interviews, especially those for the first dozen or so Super Bowls. The players, superstar and role-player alike, are old men and have had decades to reflect on their shining moment. Dwight White reminds us that when Time
magazine put the original Steel Curtain on its cover it was putting four black faces on real estate that was a white preserve at that time. My favorite Cowboy--Bob Lilly--hearkens back to another era when he confesses his embarrassment at throwing his helmet when Dallas lost upper Bowl V.
The film highlights and interviews recover history from the tyranny of the stats tables. When commentators talk about great running backs, they rarely mention Franco Harris anymore. His numbers look unimpressive today. But in America’s Game the viewers can see the Franco who was a marvel: a 235 pound bull going up the middle and, then, past the line of scrimmage, breaking into that long, gliding stride that made him a fullback with something extra.
In volume 10 we see the essential Franco. On a frozen field covered by icy artificial turf, Harris takes the ball against Oakland. The play is designed to go inside but there is no hole. He reverses field and breaks outside. Al Davis still whines that the Steelers iced the field that day to negate the Raiders’s team speed. Yet, there goes Franco down the sideline for a 25-yard touchdown.
The greatest Steeler, Joe Greene, give props to his old teammate. The Steelers, he notes, never won anything before Franco. But with Franco, “all we did was win.”
Winning, obviously, is the common theme to all the episodes. Despite all the changes in the game, the keys to winning remain constant. One week we see Bill Belichick in 2004 exhorting the Patriots to play “fundamentally sound football.” The next week Randy Grossman admits that Steelers football was not flashy; Chuck Noll just stressed the fundamentals, each day, every day, for years. Of course, there is Lombardi and the Sweep, refining fundamentals down to the elemental in the blast furnace of his personality and the practice field.
The two volumes on the Dolphins are notable for their insight into the alchemy of victory. The players are, rightfully, proud of their group achievements, especially the perfect 17-0 season of 1972. Yet they emphasize selflessness as the key ingredient for their success.
Larry Csonka marvels at Bob Griese play-calling in a victory over the Vikings. With the game on the line and the Dolphins driving on Minnesota’s 3 yardline, Miami used a play-action pass to score the go-ahead touchdown. Csonka, the greatest power back of the Super Bowl era, shows as much satisfaction with this play as he does for any of the times when his number was called to seal the victory. He is happy to be the decoy while Jim Mandich catches the winning score. All that mattered is that the Dolphins walked away winners.America’s Game
makes an interesting counter-point to the ESPN’s documentary “Third and a Mile
.” Two of the stars of the ESPN production played on the Dolphins and Steelers. To William C. Rhoden and the WWL, Joe Gilliam and Marlin Briscoe were victims. They are, simply, black quarterbacks who were denied a chance to play that position because of their race. With America’s Game, we get context. Larry Csonka avers that that he would not have traded Bob Griese for Joe Namath. Griese’s field generalship was the key piece of the Miami machine. It was not skin color that kept Briscoe at wide receiver with Dolphins; it was Shula’s masterful orchestration of his available talent. Griese was the man who could keep the machine running without a hiccup.
When Joe Greene is asked about the quarterback controversy in 1974, he is forthright about his belief at that time that Bradshaw, not Gilliam, was the man who could best help the Steelers win.
Rhoden told his story looking only through the prism of race. He ignored the complex alchemy of winning and created a fake history. America’s Game
, thankfully, rescues “the ultimate team sport” from the tyranny of the highlight clip and the falsity of ideology. It shows us what football success is all about.