Keepers of flame still light a spark.

By Bob Socci

January 31, 2022

After learning a favorite colleague and I have similar pre-broadcast rituals, I wrote about the story tellers and myth makers who helped pro football become our most popular sport and influenced a kid who would grow up to call it.

Millions of miles of NFL history are kept in a vast climate-controlled room at NFL Films.

By Bob Socci

For all but the past few months of my nine seasons as a New England Patriots broadcaster, I kept an admittedly peculiar ritual a secret between me and my playlist, positive that it was exclusively mine.

It’s one of my first acts settling into my seat on the bus before leaving the team hotel on the road or heading to the home radio booth at Gillette Stadium. I pull out my iPhone, insert ear pods and search the music library for one artist in particular.

One composer, actually. Seeking one song, specifically. 

Sam Spence, and The Raiders

Maybe you know his name. If you love football, surely you know his score. 

Probably, you’ve heard it as a drum-beating bed beneath poetry being read by a Philadelphia news legend with the ‘Voice of God.’ 

The Autumn Wind is a pirate

Blustering in from sea,

With a rollicking song, he sweeps along, 

Swaggering boisterously.

So goes the opening stanza of The Autumn Wind, which even to a childhood Raiders-hater, resonates from the lips of the late John Facenda and returns me to the mid-to-late seventies; again a kid dreaming of doing what I’d someday be lucky enough to do.

When I hear the song, I reflect. It’s a reminder as I ready for air that I occupy the seat of a dream fulfilled, in the role of all-time Patriots predecessors like Bob Starr, Curt Gowdy and Gil Santos.

Nerdy, I know. But, that’s me. 

Until early October, I couldn’t imagine anyone else observing a similar game-day rite. 

During the August week of Patriots-Eagles joint practices in Philadelphia, I toured nearby NFL Films.

Few colleagues calling NFL games locally or nationally on radio have done it longer than Kevin Harlan. First hired by the Chiefs in 1985, he’s about to broadcast his record 13th consecutive Super Bowl for Westwood One. 

When Kevin speaks, either thunderously and painstakingly describing a live play or as an interviewee humbly dispensing lessons from a career as full as his baritone pipes, I listen. 

Around the fifth week of this season, Harlan appeared as a podcast guest of the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen. As soon as the episode appeared, I pressed ‘play.’ Halfway through, I discovered I had company. 

Harlan shared some anecdotes about people who’ve influenced his career. One was Steve Sabol, who with his father, Ed, co-founded NFL Films in 1962. Another was Facenda.

“The first real voice that captured my imagination,” Harlan said, while reaching for and fiddling with his phone. He looked down, trying to access something he listens to before every football assignment — on Sundays for CBS and Mondays for Westwood One. 

Then he hit play.

The Autumn Wind is a pirate

Blustering in from sea,

With a rollicking song, he sweeps…

“I won’t get too emotional here,” Harlan gushed, his face aglow as he paused the recording of Facenda reciting words written by Steve Sabol to a song composed by Sam Spence. “When I hear that it just, it just puts me in the frame of mind of doing the NFL…we all feel so lucky and privileged to be a part of this great thing.”

Don’t you know, he was speaking for me.

Facenda’s voice, Kevin explained, was his “first football memory.” Much like the music of Spence was the soundtrack to mine. Lyrical and lyric-less, both take us back in time. We are men living dreams of children.

For me, those dreams flourished first in the finished basement of a duplex in Auburn, N.Y., a small city smack dab in the middle of the state. We lived a half-block from a large park, the Y-Field, where kids convened daily to play the main sport in season. When done for the day, I retreated inside to our downstairs TV to watch the athletes we had just imitated.

On fall Saturdays, following mornings of two-hand touch, I made sure to be back for afternoon college football offerings on ABC. Bill Flemming or Chris Schenkel, then Keith Jackson handled play-by-play. Dave Diles came on with the Prudential College Football Scoreboard. Once he dropped in a Slippery Rock update, we were off to church for 7:15 mass.

Sunday worship started with Notre Dame highlights, hosted by Lindsey Nelson, before moving along to further action with “This is the NFL” and “NFL Game of the Week.”  The latter opened with locker-room scenes, including players speaking the last line of the Protestant version of the Lord’s Prayer. Over the next half hour of slow-motion replays, orchestral strains and gospel according to Harry Kalas, I found my religion.

Network pregame shows set the table for our weekly family macaroni dinner coinciding with the one o’clock kickoffs. Unfortunately, the menu of early games via Syracuse affiliates — usually involving the then inept Bills, Jets or Giants — were often hard to stomach. 

Highlights for me as a viewer were, well, the highlights.   

It’s why I pleaded with my mom to let me stay up late on Mondays, to hear Howard Cosell’s halftime rundown, and so appreciated Friday invites to my pal Mike Murphy’s house. Unlike us, his family had HBO and, hence, Inside the NFL

Long before 24-hour sports networks, the internet and on-demand, I couldn’t get enough. Decades passed, and as I moved on from describing games in my mind as a kid growing up to calling them for real all over the country, I collected NFL Films originals on VHS tapes, DVD’s and, eventually, digital downloads.

They helped pass time on lengthy bus rides through baseball’s minor leagues and filled the background as I prepped for Navy football broadcasts. Years before marriage led me to Boston, I wore out early editions of 3 Games to Glory, the series chronicling each of the Pats’ championship journeys. I loved them as much for Gil and Gino as Tom and Bill. 

Then in 2008, my fiancé and I left Annapolis for Quincy. We got married, she started a new job and I began a search for same.  Still voice of the Midshipmen, I took Friday a.m. flights to BWI, returned to Logan late on Saturday nights and listened live on Sundays to the Patriots radio legends.

During the week, I knocked on doors. One opened a year later at 98.5 The Sports Hub, the fledgling all-sports home of the Bruins and Pats. I introduced myself to the program director and his assistant and handed them an audition CD on my way out.

Meantime, I continued canvassing for openings or, at least, critiques. An out-of-market radio producer thought my play-by-play had a ‘college sound.’ An agent who turned me down suggested voice lessons. 

I listened more closely, with real purpose, to the NFL Films radio cuts. What does an ‘NFL sound’ sound like? And how can I capture it? I paid a local opera singer moonlighting as a voice coach in hopes of losing my nasality. It was either that or pay a more harmful price by pairing cigarettes with scotch.

Real or imagined, I noticed a difference during Navy’s 2012 season. That December, three years after calling on 98.5, I heard back. With Gil retiring, they wanted samples of my recent work. I sent some, was granted an interview and got the job.

My first season began in Buffalo, only a couple of hours west of Auburn. Tom Brady led a fourth-quarter comeback that Stephen Gostkowski completed with his last-second, game-winning field goal. 

It felt awesome, yet didn’t feel real. 

Searching for validation, I turned on Inside the NFL two days later and waited for Pats-Bills highlights. Hearing myself, I cringed. Wow, I can do better. Then I smiled. Whoa, it’s really me! 

Now nine years in, little’s changed. I still listen critically, and the experience of hearing anything I say on NFL Films is still a stamp of authentication. It could be a regular-season call on a weekly show or turning point on postseason commemoratives like America’s Game and Do Your Job. And 3 Games to Glory

In my role, I’ve gotten to know the filmmaker who oversaw production of all that Patriots content, Ken Rodgers. He’s a protege of Steve Sabol, whose vision for the company endures more than nine years after losing an 18-month battle with brain cancer in September 2012.

Sabol saw himself as a storyteller and NFL Films as myth makers. Mixing the arts of cinematography, provocative writing, muscular musical scores and the raw reactions of mic’d up coaches and players, as author Rich Cohen once wrote in The Atlantic, they “taught America how to watch football.” (1) 

Sixty years have gone by since NFL Films grew out of a small company Ed Sabol started with a 16-millimeter Bell & Howell camera focused mainly on family events, including Steve’s high school games. Thousands of programs and features earning hundreds of Emmy Awards have had as much to do with pro football’s enormous popularity as the men and moments they’ve mythologized.  

Much of football’s history is archived inside rows of canisters at NFL Films headquarters.

The Immaculate Reception. The Holy Roller. The Catch. The Tuck Rule.

Mention of any one immediately conjures up the way they were captured among the millions of miles of film saved today inside endless rows of canisters stored at NFL Films headquarters. Built a decade ago at a cost of $45 million in Mount Laurel, N.J., about 20 miles east of Philadelphia, it sits on a 26-acre campus.

“Hollywood on the Delaware (River),” Steve Sabol called it in the Philadelphia Business Journal. (2)

Development of the sprawling campus was overseen by The Staubach Co. Yes, that Staubach, Roger, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Navy who went into commercial real estate when he retired from the Cowboys.

While in Annapolis, Staubach was a hero to a young Bill Belichick, who grew up to become the subject of numerous NFL Films documentaries, before becoming an Emmy-winning co-host of the 100 Greatest series. 

In August, with the Pats in Philly for preseason practices against the Eagles, Belichick and his team crossed the Delaware to Mount Laurel, where Rodgers led them on a tour of NFL Films. The next morning, Rodgers did the same for a second group from New England. Thankfully, I was included.

Back in the summer of 2019, the Patriots paid a similar visit, stopping in Canton, Ohio on the way to joint practices near Detroit. The entire traveling party entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I studied the exhibits and stood in awe of its bronze busts, taking photos of many, including Staubach’s. And Ed Sabol’s. 

A statue of Steve Sabol and bust of his father Ed (middle right) at NFL Films, in addition to Pro Football Hall of Fame sculptures of Roger Staubach (upper right) and the older Sabol.

I snapped another upon entering the NFL Films lobby, where a similar sculpture of the older Sabol greets visitors. Winding in wonderment into and out of creative suites and recording studios, past photos and artifacts, we eventually ended our several-hour stay where the gears of the younger Sabol’s creative motor constantly turned. 

It is kept as it was. Boxes of index cards marked with Steve’s musings sit atop a credenza. Post-its featuring messages both banal and poignant, from phone extensions to life philosophies, stay pinned to cork boards. Though chairs around a conference table and at Sabol’s desk are empty, his spirit fills the room. 

You hear it in Rodgers’ voice and see it on his face as he talks about his mentor and runs his fingers along those index cards. And feel it, perusing what’s written and displayed on the surrounding walls. The same spirit has gone into every tight shot of a spiral or close-up of a cloudy breath since the early sixties, dramatizing a game to make it much more than it is. 

George Halas referred to NFL Films as “keepers of the flame.” In my life, they helped ignite a spark. Years later I still sense it in their work. 

Stumbling on Hank Stram calling for “65 Toss Power Trap” on an NFL Network special. Straying down the YouTube rabbit hole to find Billy “White Shoes” Johnson dancing in the end zone. Scrolling through football historian Kevin Gallagher’s Twitter content and coming across the 1971 Pro Bowl.

And when starting my game days with a song synonymous with the ‘Voice of God.’

Because like the voice of the Super Bowl, I’m so lucky and privileged to be a part of this thing.

Since Steve Sabol passed away from brain cancer in September 2012, his office has been kept as it was.

  1. – “They Taught America How to Watch Football” by Rich Cohen, The Atlantic, Sept. 18, 2012.
  2. – “NFL Films kicks off new digs” by John George, Philadelphia Business Journal, Oct. 7, 2002.

Remembering Jimmy Piersall

By Bob Socci

Since his death on Saturday night, remembrances of Jimmy Piersall’s colorful life have reexamined his nervous breakdown as a Red Sox rookie in 1952 and renewed appreciation for the way he played the outfield upon return.

Some rely on word of mouth, while others employ analytics to describe and demonstrate how Piersall’s guile and glove kept him in the big leagues for 17 seasons, despite volatilities that included a fluctuating batting average.

But for me, word of Piersall’s passing didn’t conjure up the image of a fleet center fielder running down fly balls at Fenway Park.  My first thought was of a clumsy slugger taking oversized cuts along the Mississippi River.

His name was (is) Alex Cabrera.  And if you saw him in any of his 31 major league appearances, all with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2000, you’d know exactly how Cabrera looked playing for Peoria six years earlier.

Cabrera was then the property of the Chicago Cubs and a Class A prospect whose every trip to the plate epitomized cliches like ‘feast or famine’ and ‘all or nothing.’  Pitchers threw him something straight at their own peril.  By breaking one off, however, they added to their own amusement.

In his brief stint with the D-Backs, Cabrera homered every 16 at-bats but fanned in nearly a fourth of his other trips to the plate.  For every prodigious hit there were a fistful of ugly swings.  And misses.

So it was in the summer of 1994, when Piersall was roving between Cubs’ affiliates as an outfield instructor and moonlighting on radio.

From 1977-81, Piersall had partnered, both famously and infamously, on White Sox telecasts with the legendary Harry Caray.  But outspokenness and too-frequently-unfiltered opinions eventually forced Piersall out of the booth.  The title of his 1985 book said it best.  The Truth Hurts.  Often, the pain was self-inflicted.

Not that Jimmy stopped calling it as only he could see it.  Even while coaching, he appeared regularly on Chicago sports-talk radio.  When Piersall’s travels took him to the Midwest League, he pulled up a chair in the booth of the Peoria Chiefs.

The Chiefs were property of the late, great Pete Vonachen, who was every bit the outsized personality as his close pals Caray and Piersall.  Pete introduced Jimmy to the twenty-something calling games for his club — me! — and offered a standing invitation to sit in on broadcasts.

So Piersall spent pregame hours on the field with the Chiefs.  One of them, Dan Madsen, later made a name for himself in scouting by signing Dustin Pedroia for the Red Sox.  Another, Bo Porter, became manager of the Houston Astros.

Following warm-ups, Piersall put down his fungo bat, showered, changed and took a seat next to mine.  No different than when working with Harry on Chicago’s Southside, Jimmy aired whatever crossed his mind.

One early-May afternoon, Piersall was sitting in Davenport, Iowa, where the Chiefs were playing the Quad City River Bandits and Alex Cabrera was in full, free-swinging form.

As one of the few Chiefs with facial hair, Cabrera’s dark mustache lent years to his listed age of 22.  And at 6-2 and 217 pounds, he seemed even larger.

Cabrera’s swing must have been what poet Ernest Lawrence Thayer imagined for the Mighty Casey.  When he cut it loose, usually air (was the only thing) shattered by the force of (his) blow.

Every now and then, like in the game at Quad City, Cabrera flailed away to somehow contort his body into both a jackknife and corkscrew.

Having done that to corner himself into a two-strike count, Cabrera was fed another curve ball.  In his haste to devour it, he uncorked his massive right-handed cut.  Cabrera’s backside jutted toward the third-base dugout, while his head snapped hard over his left shoulder and his eyes rolled toward the sky.

With his weight pulled forward, Cabrera’s hands lunged high over the top of the off-speed pitch descending to the dirt.  The Mighty Alex had struck out.  Again.

So the author of The Truth Hurts lashed out.  Again.

“Will you look at where his ass ends up on that swing!” Piersall exclaimed, before muttering something not nearly as memorable as the three-letter synonym for someone’s posterior.

Remember, this was 23 years ago, when the a-word — believe it or not — was seldom heard on the radio.  Especially on small stations broadcasting to the Heart of Illinois.

The half inning ended, we broke for commercials and Jimmy removed his headset.   I needed mine on to stay in touch with the studio back in Peoria.  That day the young producer — probably no older than his late teens — was all but flipping out, fearful that we’d just run afoul of the FCC.  Which made two of us.

Jimmy couldn’t hear both sides of the conversation, but he did infer what was being said by the other party from my reactions and replies.  After 60 seconds or so, Piersall put his headset back in place and the bottom half-inning began.  Before I could re-set with the score, Jimmy interrupted.

“What’s wrong with the guy in studio?” Piersall asked, smiling slyly, as the first pitch went by.

“Hasn’t he ever read the Bible?” he continued, as the next pitch reached the catcher.

“Doesn’t he know about the story of the ass?” Jimmy quipped, quoting the King James and citing from the Book of Numbers while describing the so-called game of numbers.

It was his way of saying, “Relax kid.”

About a month later, Piersall re-joined the Chiefs in South Bend, Ind. for a series against the Silver Hawks.  I remember it well, because of the white Bronco.

It was June 17, 1994, and as Piersall hit fly balls to outfielders during batting practice, the radio station blaring out of the P.A. speakers broke into music with breaking news bulletins.  Wanted man O.J. Simpson was riding in Al Cowlings’ car, being chased by the California Highway Patrol on the Santa Ana Freeway (5).

In that ‘where were you when?’ moment, I was in foul territory, a few steps from Jimmy Piersall.

Later that year the Chiefs changed their affiliation from the Cubs to Cardinals.  Before they did, Jimmy gave me one more memory to hang on to.  He was talking to someone in the press box before a game and motioned in my direction.

“This kid’s going to be in the big leagues someday,” Piersall declared.

Maybe Jimmy was just trying to help me believe I could talk my way out of ‘A ball.’  But if it that’s how he honestly felt, that aforementioned book title was a bit of a misnomer.  Either way, the kind words meant a lot.  They still do.

Jimmy helped me learn about the game and kept me entertained.  He made me laugh and occasionally caused me to cringe.

Of course, I never would have experienced all of that if a young Piersall’s personal fear hadn’t met the same fate as so many Alex Cabrera at-bats — by striking out.