Category Archives: On Writing

The genius of NFL Films

I wrote this piece a couple of years ago to promote the practice of content marketing. With the Super Bowl coming up, it seemed kind of timely to re-print it here.

NFL Game of the WeekAs I was watching football this weekend, I got to thinking about how we talk about football on Mondays at work.

Football is a game of tactical maneuvers, defensive adjustments, explosive violence and, at times, great beauty. And when we gather with our co-workers on Monday mornings, we weave facts and statistics into a narrative of what happened in a way that can be quite moving.

Think about it. We put no conscious effort into fabricating a complex story made up of dozens of men, complex play calling, yards gained and lost, passes completed versus passes attempted, and we do it in a compelling way that gets the blood boiling 24 hours after the fact. And yet, we often fail to move our readers when we apply the same storytelling skills to the copy we write for our customers.

I won’t get into why that’s so except to follow the breadcrumb trail of thoughts that led me back through the years to my boyhood and the genesis of the storytelling tropes that enliven discussions of professional football and served as the template for sports networks like ESPN.

I’m talking about NFL Films.

I grew up in Louisville in the 70’s with a lot of boys my age. We were into football, basketball and baseball and each had its own well-defined season. While each sport had great announcers who added drama and gravitas to the games they called, there was nothing in the world like NFL Films, which existed solely to promote the brand of the NFL, but inspired me and my friends to imitate, in mock slow-motion, improbable runs, catches and passes made by our heroes. It was propaganda 101, but we didn’t care. It was glorious.

NFL Films and the cult of football

The genius of NFL FilmsNFL films was founded by Ed Sabol, who, according to Wikipedia, was a dad who liked to film his son Steve’s football games and discovered he had a knack for it. In 1962, Sabol won the bidding rights to shoot the championship game and impressed Pete Rozelle, the young league commissioner who revolutionized the game with many innovations.

The NFL bought Sabol’s company and left him in charge to film every game and produce highlight reels for each team. What evolved was an operatic style that featured Wagnerian music, stentorian narrations and lots-and-lots of slow-motion photography that inspired generations of wannabe all-stars. Looking at the clips on YouTube now, I’m filled with a mixture of elation and mild embarrassment at how serious every facet of the game was taken.

If you’re in your thirties or forties and grew up on NFL Films, you’ll know what I mean when I say that I still get teary-eyed when I watch Willie Brown’s pick-six of Fran Tarkenton in Super Bowl XI.

How they did it

So, what does NFL Films do so well? Why is their stuff some of the best, if not THE best, content marketing ever produced? Let’s take a look.

  • Relevant. For me and my friends, who loved the game and had the stats of our favorite players committed to memory, the NFL was one of the biggest things in our lives for half the year.
  • Regular. For about six months out of the year, me and my friends were glued to the TV every weekend, waiting for new highlights. Today, the NFL is a year-round endeavor, bigger than ever, with 24 hour sports networks clamoring for content.
  • High Quality. Ed Sabol, followed by his son Steve, set a standard for quality in sports cinematography, especially where slow-motion was concerned. It could be argued that NFL Films made the NFL what it is today.
  • Helpful. For young boys interested in learning the game, NFL Films was useful in not only teaching the basics of how to play the game, but also for teaching the culture of the game. NFL Films indoctrinated millions of people into the cult of professional football.
  • Engaging. With its mix of music, slow-motion photography and stirring narration from voices like voice-of-god John Facenda, NFL Films set the gold standard for engagement in sports broadcasting.
  • CallTo-Action. NFL Films never failed to leave me wanting more. The call-to-action is to watch the NFL, to root for the NFL and even to live the NFL…and for initiated, me and my friends were happy to oblige.

Some may shrug their shoulders and say, “People don’t get worked up about companies or brands the way they do about football.” Really? What about Apple? What about Chevy vs. Ford? What about Nike?

People care about products just as much as football fans do about their favorite teams…when they’re given something worth cheering about.

How about you? What do your customers say about you on Monday mornings?

A new challenge

The year is 1/12 over, and so far, I’ve kept my challenge of blogging something…anything…every day. 31 days, 31 blog posts. For the blog posts, the focus has been on quantity, not necessarily quality. As with any workout regimen, the first challenge is just doing it, so the blogging challenge is all about re-creating the discipline of creating, of making things every day.

Now that I’ve gotten that habit established, it’s time to think about quality.

The blogging will continue for at least the next 11 months, but I want to add another wrinkle to this challenge. To set the stage, I need to digress.

Larry Brown is one of my favorite writers. Back when he died in 2004 at the agonizingly young age of 53, I was getting up at 5:00 on workday mornings to go to Heine Brothers Coffee to write for 60-90 minutes before going to work. I’d even sneak off to write on weekends and holidays when my family would allow it.

On November 26 of that year, I rode over to Heine Brothers and got a coffee and the Arts section of The New York Times like I did each morning to shake out the cobwebs of the night’s sleep. When I sat down and opened the Arts section, what greeted me was the news of Brown’s death. When one of your heroes dies, it’s a tough blow to absorb.

I tell that story because it meant that the bucket of interviews, written and/or videotaped, would never increase. What was was all there ever would be. As the years have gone by, I’ve periodically searched YouTube to see if any new Larry Brown footage has surfaced, but each time I look, I find the same videos.

Larry Brown has been on my mind for a few days, and today I did that YouTube search and watched a few of those treasured videos and listened to Brown’s wisdom on persevering in the face of reason and adversity. It helps.

In a nutshell, his story goes something like this:

Larry Brown was born on July 9, 1951, in Oxford, Mississippi, about as famous a writer’s town as any in the country. But he wasn’t born into a literary family. Rather, Brown’s family seems like a bunch conjured up in a Faulkner novel. His father was a hard-drinking sharecropper. His mother was a shopkeeper and postmaster.

Brown managed to graduate high school in 1969 and serve a hitch in the Marines before coming home to a string of dead-end jobs. In the early ‘70’s, Brown joined the Oxford Fire Department, where he worked for 16 years.

When he turned 30, Brown decided to teach himself how to write. He was an avid reader, but when he made that fateful choice, his tastes ran to Stephen King and trashy page-turners. He carved out a quiet place in his house, and between there and his off hours at the fire house, Larry Brown taught himself to write by trial and error.

In one of those YouTube videos, Brown says that to have read a story from those first few years, one would have no choice but to come to the conclusion that there was no talent there. He admits, without a hint of irony or a self-deprecating wink, that the stories were awful. But he also says that something deep inside him knew that if he had the guts to put in the time and face the pain of repeated refection and failure, eventually it would all click and he’d understand how to write good stories.

And so it was that 8 years after embarking on a journey to become a writer that Larry Brown was “discovered” by Algonquin Books. Even so, he didn’t trust the success and didn’t quit his fireman’s gig until he had a few books under his belt.

Larry Brown is my patron saint of writing. Cormac McCarthy my write prettier sentences, and Ken Kesey may have had more soul, but Brown speaks to the scared little boy, the underdog from PRP and the under-practiced amateur in me. Brown presents himself as the encouraging big brother – “Hey, if I can do it, so can you, man. You just have to put in the hours and bleed.” That guy. My guy.

And so it is that I come back to Larry Brown once again to find encouragement after having stepped away from the pain a spell. This time, I want to stay for good, so I’m setting goals and shooting my mouth off about it, an old motivational trick I’ve always used to paint myself into a corner that requires action or embarrassment for having not followed through on my boast.

Today is February 1, a nice round number, and my goal is to write at least one short story each month for the remainder of the year. I don’t know if I’ll post them. We’ll see about that. If any are good enough, I’ll submit them around and write about what happens with that process. If any of them suck, I’ll just bury them in a folder on my MacBook and be satisfied with having hit my number for that month.

Wish me luck.

Echoes of Heine Brothers

Today has been one of those grit your teeth days…but then again, not really.

Let me explain.

This morning, I slept in, which was great. When I got up and looked out the window, it was snowing. Louisville was experiencing a Saskatchewan Screamer, which is a cousin to the Alberta Clipper, I’m guessing, a fast moving storm system that moves in, hits hard, then speeds off to wreak havoc elsewhere.

I had my coffee and checked email, while sneaking glances out the window at the snow falling. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and got dressed, grabbed my phone and my Canon and headed over to EP Sawyer Park and the nature trail.

The snow was dying down and the sun coming out when I got there, which made for a beautiful walk in the woods. The ice in the trees looked like polished glass, and as the temperature warmed, clumps of melting snow fell from the trees.

I did the normal route, and headed down to the creek, where I went from stills to video and back again, trying to get cool shots. By the time I got to where the trail turns away from the creek and heads up to the big open area by the old graveyard, the sky had turned an ominous pewter color.

By the time I made it to the graveyard, the snow had returned, accompanied by a stiff wind that blew in gusts. It was absolutely beautiful to be out there.

The snow came down so hard that I had to put my Canon under my coat to keep it dry. My iPhone was getting pretty wet too, so I slid it in and out of my coat pocket to dry it off. It was while it was in my pocket that big doe and I crossed paths. My hand was in my pocket, and my mind went from “Be still!” to “Get your camera out, you fool!” By the time I slipped my phone from my pocket, she’d sprung off to the woods to my right and disappeared.

I continued on with my phone at the ready, hoping to spot more of the deer that were thick in the woods there, but I didn’t see another.

By the time I got to the end of the fence where the graveyard ends, the gray skies were giving way to sun and fast-moving clouds.

 

My plan was to have the video edited and ready to go today, but my Mac is stuffed full of video clips and I’ve been learning about how to manage all this stuff all day long. The video will have to wait. Hopefully tomorrow.

I didn’t want to just post this lame excuse of why I have nothing creative to post today, so I found an old hard drive that has some old stories on it. I posted one that means a lot to me.

The Barista is a story I wrote back in 2006 when I was spending a lot of time hanging out at Heine Brothers, a local coffee shop. I’d go there every morning before work and write for 60-90 minutes, depending on how early I could drag myself out of bed.

The story is what it is, but it has a soft spot in my heart because of what it almost became.

One day, I ran into my friend William after church. William is a filmmaker, and we talked about his latest projects. As the conversation wound down, he asked me if I had any short stories that would be good to develop together into a movie. I’d just finished The Barista, and he asked me to send it to him.

He liked the story, and asked me to turn it into a script, which led to a frantic crash-course in script writing. A couple weeks later, I had a script for a short film.

William read through the script and after thinking it through, asked if I thought the story could be developed into a feature-length script. Not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to have something of mine filmed, I said sure.

The story wasn’t worthy of a feature, I don’t guess, but I loved the process of working through the story and reinterpreting it. I finished the script, which I may post sometime, and we started the pre-production process.

To make a long story short, the project never got finished. Life intervened, and we had to move on to more pressing matters.

Anyway. Here’s the link to The Barista. I hope you enjoy it.

Posting short stories

I’ve been going back and forth whether to post short stories on this blog, and finally decided to go for it.

The tension was completely fear-based and had to do with the risk of being vulnerable and the stories sucking and all that crap.

I’m going to start sifting through old stories and will post the ones that seem finished, or finished enough. The plan is also to write new ones. At some point.

So. If you’re interested, you can click the link at the top of the page to go to the landing page for the stories, or click here and you’ll be able to see what’s up on the site.

The first one that’s up is something that was published in Storychord and edited by my friend Leesa Cross-Smith. It was written under a pseudonym, so don’t be thrown by the byline. I hope you enjoy it.

A first-draft take on life

My buddy Matt texted me today, to say that he’d read all my 2016 blog posts. My first response was to ask him what had possessed him. As I was texting this question, a second text came, telling me that he’d noticed a few “tics” here and there, meaning typos.

I explained to Matt that there will probably always be typos in these blog posts because it’s a first-draft take on life. After I sent that text, I re-read it and liked the phrase “first-draft take on life,” which I hadn’t used before. I liked that phrase because that’s exactly what this blog is.

Because I’m attempting to write a blog post or make a video or do some other creative thing that can be represented here on this blog, there isn’t time to be precious. I sit and think, then write. After that, I read through it once to make sure it makes some sense. I might catch a typo or two at this time, but I’m often guilty of missing the typo because I’ve read what I meant, not what I actually wrote. After that, I load the text into WordPress, then make an image or two to go along with it. Once this has been accomplished, I’m done. I hit “send” and forget about it.

New Morning
“New Morning” 1/7/16

Each post you see here is merely a snapshot of my day: what I’ve done, what I’m thinking, what is haunting me, warts…and typos…and all.

Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird liberated me from first-draft perfectionism with her “Shitty First-Drafts” concept. Hopefully, I haven’t taken it too far by crapping out shitty blog posts. I’ll leave that up to you, and save the polishing for work that may, or may not end up on another page of this site at some future date. In the meantime, thanks Matt (and you) for reading…and giving me something to write about this evening.