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They looked like still-life portraits of saints in stained glass—those Technicolor photographs, scissored from Sport magazine, that papered boys' bedrooms in the 1950s. "When we started, the media was a magnifying glass," says Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, which he founded with his father, Ed, in the early 1960s. "It amplified athletes. So as a kid you woke up with those Hy Peskin and Ozzie Sweet color photos pinned to the wall." Peskin and Sweet were photographers, yes, but also hagiographers, chronicling the lives of supermen.
By the '70s, of course, the media had morphed from stargazing telescope to high-powered microscope, and athletes were enduring extreme close-ups, 60 Minutes-style, of their every blemish and beauty mark. "And now," sighs Sabol, who will soon turn 60, "we've gone from telescope to microscope to proctoscope—we're right up your a—. No man is a hero to his valet, and television has become a valet, following a guy to his car, to his house, to the nightclub." Thus the Dallas Cowboys' dirty laundry was literally aired, for several weeks this summer, on HBO's Hard Knocks. And no episode of MTV's Cribs is complete until some gold-grilled rapper, ermine throw pillow in one hand, falls on his bed and says, "This is where the magic happens."
Mercifully what Hornung and Lombardi and Butkus had was NFL Films, the Hubble telescope of magnifiers, which rendered players larger than life, sure, but also larger than death. And so Johnny Unitas didn't really die last week but will remain forever preserved in a way that Ted Williams, for all his cryogenic yearning, cannot possibly be. Unitas, you see, was a movie star, and his best work, like Bogart's, is visible to this day. "It's too bad I'm not old enough to remember you playing," a thirty-something man with a ZZ Top beard said to Unitas a couple of years ago, by way of asking for his autograph. To which Unitas replied, as if baffled by the statement, "That's why they got old film."
Every NFL Film of Unitas begins the same way, with a signature slow-motion establishing shot. "We'd use a telephoto lens on the Colts breaking the huddle," says Sabol, "and the shot would just be of his shoes, the black hightops approaching the line of scrimmage at Memorial Stadium, which never had any grass after the first two games of the season. It looked like a sand-lot. And there wasn't a football fan in America who didn't know, from just that shot of the shoes, who it was and where it was."
The man who always shot the shoes was Morris Kellman. When Unitas pioneered the pump fake, it wasn't just cornerbacks who bit but cameramen, too. Except, that is, for Kellman, who has long since passed from this world. "Morris Kellman," says Sabol, "never went for the pump fake." As epitaphs go, a guy could do worse.
Kellman became the Capra of the Colts, the man who shot Johnny Unitas—who was, in turn, the man who shot Liberty Valance. Or more accurately: "He really was Gary Cooper in High Noon" says Sabol of the silent, bristle-brushed, coal-country square. Unitas was square in the best sense, of square meals and square deals and square jaws. When, in his final full season, in San Diego, he walked into a roomful of Chargers teammates passing a joint among themselves, the 40-year-old Unitas said, "You only got one cigarette for the bunch of you?"
"I looked at the game in dramaturgical terms," says Sabol, an art major and running back at Colorado College. "With Unitas the story was always the struggle: He was hurt, or leading the team in a final drive, or in a snowstorm, or it was raining. It seems like a clich� now, but in the '60s we looked at the mythic component of games, of athletes as warriors. With players like Unitas and teams like the Packers, we never mentioned statistics. They don't last." What lasts are images of Unitas, forever leaning—like a mime—into the wind.
So, 40 years later, those first NFL Films endure. "Because there were no domed stadiums," says Sabol, who speaks in the distinctive style of his films, "you could see the dust of Memorial Stadium, the frozen tundra of Lambeau, the vivid colors of Kezar Stadium. Cleveland Stadium was always wet—always. And we conveyed the passing of time. The games all started at one o'clock and ended in twilight, when Unitas was Rambo, coming down the field in the dust." Set to martial music and narrated by John Facenda, the Voice of God, these films still stir kids to try, in the backyard, to throw slow-motion spirals that hang in the air for an eternity before floating, like a feather from a nest, into the hands of a receiver.
Johnny Unitas is alive, and he will play the Packers for as long as film stock shall survive. "There's a proverb my dad liked," says Sabol." 'Tell me a fact and I'll learn. Tell me the truth and I'll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.' "