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One afternoon last season I was given a chance to direct a camera for NFL Films. It was a big game, too—the NFC championship between the Bears and Rams at Soldier Field in Chicago. I walked through the parking lots to the stadium like any other fan, but when I got there I went straight upstairs to a video booth, took a position behind the cameraman and, when the game began, told him whom to shoot on each play. He obeyed me, which gave me a feeling of omnipotence. I would yell out, " Bears, 55!" and as ordered, he would shoot Otis Wilson of Chicago. Let me tell you, directing a camera for NFL Films can do wonders for the ego. You feel like Steven Spielberg. But that's only when things go right. When they go wrong, which in my case was most of the time—well, then you feel like the amateur you are.
I leaped at the chance to work the game when invited by Steve Sabol, the executive vice-president of NFL Films. Sabol is the man most responsible for NFL Films' creative view of pro football reality. That he should invite me—a TV writer, yes, but just an ordinary football fan who barely knows how to use an Instamatic camera—was beyond reckoning. But I accepted on the spot and promised to bone up on the Bears and Rams.
Sabol assigned me to the iso unit—one of eight cameras to be used on the game, but the only one that required a director. I had butterflies in my innards, but Sabol told me to relax. I was the boss, he said. Before each play, my cameraman, Art Spieller, who has been shooting NFL games since 1948, would wait for me to call the team and number of the player I wanted him to isolate on. Sabol gave me seven players to highlight. "Go with your instincts," he said, "but whenever you feel as if things aren't going the way you want, just go back to these original guys. Think of yourself as Tom Landry. You've got to call the play before the quarterback goes into the huddle. There are 80 plays a game. Be a decision maker."
I knew that even if I turned out to be the worst director in the annals of cinematography, NFL Films would still be covered by the other cameras. But I didn't want to let Sabol down. After all, this was for real, and it wasn't a preseason game. I knew that whatever shots I got from the iso unit would have a good chance of winding up in several shows that NFL Films would produce that week—Inside the NFL on HBO, This Is the NFL for commercial syndication and The Road to the Super Bowl on a number of NBC affiliates. The idea of having some of my shots shown on the tube, even for a few seconds, was exhilarating. Surely I could hit on a dozen or so. But Sabol said four shots—a 5% ratio—would earn me an A. Three might be a B and two a C, depending on the quality. One or none, and I'd best start taking piano lessons.
I arrived at Soldier Field three hours before game time to avoid the crowd. I felt as though I were on a mission. I brought exotic Arctic gear—a friend of mine lent me his electric socks with AA batteries in them—but the temperature at kickoff was 39�, which is balmy for Chicago. Spieller was already there, polishing his lenses. I stood by, feeling uncomfortable, trying to act like a veteran director. I studied my depth charts and gazed through my 17-year-old binoculars at players limbering up on the artificial turf below.
"Ready to go, Coach?" It was Spieller, 14 minutes before the opening kickoff. I began to rub my hands in anticipation, the way George Allen used to do on the sidelines. It was as though the video booth had become a stage.
After that initial feeling of omnipotence, the thing that hits you about calling isolates is how difficult it is. Sabol was right. Except for a few bull's-eyes, I always felt frustrated. I called, " Rams, 21!" and Spieller shot strong safety Nolan Cromwell. But Cromwell was covering an empty zone as Jim McMahon passed for a touchdown. I gradually got down on myself. I had Mike Singletary isolated on one play and he did nothing. Then I switched to Gary Fencik on the next play and he was out of it while Singletary made the big hit. I missed five or six in a row like that. "Get with it, you need a big one," I told myself. Then the next play was on me in a flash.
That was the worst part—you never have enough time. At home in your living room it looks easy. But when you have to make each call, the plays seem to come on an assembly line. The belt is always running, and the tendency is to think about the play you just missed. Your concentration goes, and pretty soon plays start falling off the end of the belt. I can remember Spieller, half turning around, imploring me to make the call. I didn't choke, exactly. It was more like brain lock. Eight times I gave him a number so late that he couldn't find the player I wanted or had to improvise on his own. Had I been a coach or quarterback, I would have been booed right out of the stadium.
Still, I did get what seemed to be some good shots. In the third quarter I was on fire. I opened with safety Vince New-some of the Rams crunching Dennis Gentry on the kickoff, and on the very next play I isolated on the Bears' Emory Moorehead as he caught a short pass from McMahon. Spieller was impressed. He turned around and said, "You want to stop now, Coach?" I also got a brutal hit by Wilbur Marshall on the Rams' Henry Ellard later in the quarter, the kind of hit that took your breath away just watching it.
I shouldn't have been so cocky, though. You never can count on being the next Cecil B. DeMille until you look at the film in the cutting room the next day. I drove through a snow squall to Midway Airport, flew to Philadelphia and on Monday morning came to the studios of NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J. I realized instantly that my little show time was over. A producer named Lou Schmidt had my 2,000 feet of film in his viewer. "We burned a lot of film for a very marginal return," he said evenly. It amazed me how protective I became, knowing that he had dictatorial power to file all my work in the trash can.