Monday, December 15, 2008

ESPN Did Something Good For Once

I'm usually no fan of ESPN. I feel that they've generally bastardized the sports landscape by serving as this monolithic empire which has acquired enough broadcast contracts that it literally can alter the future of sports as they see fit, as evidenced by the recent freezing out (I'm punny) of hockey, and the inane promotion of utter shit like the X Games, Arena Football, and televised poker. Moreover, they're owned by the Walt Disney Corporation, which is named after an Anti-semitic carny who built company towns and was batshit crazy enough to have his head frozen. So yes, in general, ESPN is the Wal-Mart of Sports, and I mean that in the meanest way possible.

However, like a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters, ESPN does produce the occasional gem, and Saturday night's broadcast of "The Greatest Game Ever Played" was in fact quite laudable. The premise was to make a documentary on the 1958 NFL Championship between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. The execution of this daunting task turned out to be unfathomably great.

Being ESPN, the network had an endless Rolodex of connections and notable sports personalities, and (surprisingly) brought out some extremely relevant ones for this documentary. Aside from Giants linebacker Sam Huff, every relevant living member of that 1958 game was present and and talked openly about the game during the documentary, including such greats as Lenny Moore, Frank Gifford, Raymond Berry, Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti. These players may just seem like names from your football history book, but the documentary helped show why each of these Hall of Famers were great in their own way and how the game truly pitted two legendary teams against each other. Berry was especially impressive, as I knew him only as "some old football player who used to coach the Pats," but saw in game footage that he was actually Wes Welker with even bigger balls. In fact, there were a total of 17 Hall of Famers that participated in the 1958 NFL Championship in one way or another. In a related story, Seneca Wallace, Tarvaris Jackson, Shaun Hill, Dan Orlovsky and Ken Dorsey all started NFL games this weekend at quarterback.

However, ESPN's most genius move was pairing their Hall of Fame guests with Super Bowl winners of the last two years, meaning that Berry watched the game with Tony Dungy, Art Donovan held court with Michael Strahan, and Lenny Moore traded running back tips with Brandon Jacobs. I can't even explain how brilliant a move this was, as each room represented players or coaches from a different era, yet shared an appreciation for each other's accomplishments and abilities on the football field. I never thought I'd see the day that Michael Strahan was humbled, but in the presence of Art Donovan (color commentator for the 1994 King of the Ring by the way) telling him how players fought through broken legs and collapsed lungs, Strahan became a gap-toothed six-year old, listening to Grampa tell old war stories.

These exchanges were perfectly timed with a chronology of the game itself, and old black-and-white footage of the game had actually been colorized and made clearer by ESPN's staff, with the players and coaches explaining what was going on with each play and drive. Usually I'm not a fan of "modernizing" old films and footage, but in this case, the colorization of the game film truly made the viewing experience all the more real. Another example of modern technology helping aid the viewing of the game came when ESPN hired out a scientific collision expert to analyze a much-disputed possible first down run by Frank Gifford. The collisions expert used game film and pictures to determine that Gifford was actually nine inches short of the first down, proving the referee call right. Ironically, nine inches is also the length of the jizz rope that Gifford left on a stewardess' ass that very night.

If I was married to her, I'd want some strange too.

ESPN also did a fantastic job of highlighting the sheer importance of the 1958 game. After watching the game and being impressed by it, Lamar Hunt decided that the country might stand to use another football league, and started the AFL. It was repeatedly noted that Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry were assistant coaches in the game, and we all know the legacy they went on to create. Furthermore, the legend of Johnny Unitas came into clear view, as we literally got to see how a man regarded as one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, led his team on a game-tying and then game-winning drive, despite limited physical skills and having suffered a collapsed lung earlier in the season. If Johnny U was a player coming out of college today, NFL teams wouldn't give him a second look, but luckily, he was able to fight his way onto the Colts roster in the '50s and revolutionized the game.

I have very few criticisms of the documentary. I'd have maybe liked to have heard from Huff, the Ray Lewis of his day, who had many potshots taken at him by his teammates and opponents. The filmmakers also could have delved more into the X's and O's of the playcalling, especially given the connection to Lombardi and Landry. And while it was nice to see a few modern players like Dwight Freeney, Brandon Jacobs and Michael Strahan, it may have been even more enhanced if some bigger-name Giants or Colts like the Manning brothers or Marvin Harrison would have appeared in the documentary. Maybe Plaxico would have been set straight if he spent two hours watching an old football game with Raymond Berry, listening to him talk about how tough players were in the old days.

Still, these relatively minor criticisms pale in comparison to the general greatness of the documentary, which I would recommend to any and every football fan who is even remotely interested in the game's history. ESPN is often evil, soulless and wrong, but in this case, they did something right for once, giving everyone a history lesson in the process.


Hazel Maes Landing Strip said...

Were you really watching ESPN on a Saturday night?....No, really?

GHABB,Y~! said...

DVR my good man, DVR. I, of course, was spending my Saturday night at a high school rendition of "A Christmas Carol."

Rocco said...

So we stop at the bar after hockey Saturday, and they have this shit on, with no sound. WTF? What good is that? Thank god for HNIC.