The NFL Owes It All To a Storyteller

I walked in a restaurant this weekend and saw an offseason football practice on television. The scope of the NFL has become truly amazing. And it’s because of one simple reason: John Facenda.

Facenda was the original and classic deep baritone of NFL Films, the slo-mo orgy of grainy football that intoxicated my boy self with an epic buzz.

NFL Films, run by Ed Sabol, was amazing. In the old days, before constant media, they’d produce a yearly film for every team highlighting the contests of that fall. They could make a 0-0 tie look like the Battle of Midway. I am humming the bombastic orchestra tunes as I write this, remembering the shot of the football leaving FranTarkenton’s hand and eclipsing Too Tall Jones’ fingertips in super slo-mo.

Slo-mo breath on an icy day. Slo-mo steam coming off a bald lineman’s head as he stood on the sidelines watching the action. Hank Stram screaming “65 toss power trap!” over and over at random Chiefs and officials during Super Bowl IV. It was all completely riveting.

I am a Dallas Cowboys fan to this day because of John Facenda and grainy slo-mo. Tex Schramm was the marketing genius who saw the power of NFL Films and collaborated once to title a year-end Cowboys production “America’s Team”: glitz and glamour, cheerleaders, the stoic coach, the All-American Navy hero Roger Staubach. It riveted me, a seven-year old watching an old television in a small living room in rural Kentucky. When we moved to Texas my seventh-grade year and two years later my high school marched at halftime during the Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game, I passed into football fan heaven. (My high school from Temple, Texas, did that for 27 years, believe it or not. They quit in 1988 during my senior year, right before Jerry Jones bought the team. Now they have bands like the Black Eyed Peas and Creed play instead.)

All sports have great storytelling potential, and football is the best. They’re intense, with stirring battles, colorful characters, and dramatic endings. Because of the number of people involved, there are levels of sub-plots, too, like when Too Tall Jones quit for a year to pursue boxing, or later when Emmitt Smith broke his collarbone and kept playing so the team could win the division.

I still follow the Cowboys out of allegiance to my boy self. They don’t command the same kind of epic attention these days, and it’s not even because of the dysfunctional organizational climate. It’s just that nobody has figured out a new way to create the same level of stirring drama that Ed Sabol did back in the glorious falls of my childhood.

The NFL is a multi-billion dollar empire today not because of the power of its product, but because the skill of its best storyteller.

Who’s the storyteller in your organization?



Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).