Judge Ryan Keefer tried coaching football once, but he couldn't get the players to stop spinning around on that metal playing field.
The men who paved the way.
So this latest video presentation by the National Football League, titled The Leaders, was released on the eve of Black History Month, and with all cynicism aside, it is what it is, a way for the NFL to make a few extra bucks by saying, "Look, we actually are somewhat forward thinking!" The team responsible for this disc's production should probably have rethought the highlight films on this disc, as two segments on the disc mention the recently imprisoned and almost universally shamed star player Michael Vick. And with the NFL, the other thing that brings me to pause on an presentation like this is that at the very end of The Leaders, there is an interview by NFL Players' Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw, who says that, within the context of the African American athlete's impact on football, "we should remember the past." It's an interesting choice of words to say the least, as in current actions, Upshaw and the League have seemingly turned their backs on former players regardless of race right now, and African American stars like Earl Campbell and John Mackie suffer from debilitating physical conditions, and men in their fifties and sixties have to be cared for like children, victims of a game they gave their bodies to. But I'm going to rein in my moaning about this touch of irony for now, and get back to the disc itself.
The approach that the NFL usually takes with these video productions is that, cumulatively, they throw a lot of footage onto the disc past its original feature, which usually runs about forty minutes and presumably aired on TV at some point, and the result is a disc that from a content perspective runs about three hours. And some of the material on the disc is filler, with no real point for inclusion, other than to seemingly say "Hey, look, black people in the NFL!" But a lot of the footage, more than I anticipated, proves to be worth examining. The Leaders piece discusses the origins of African Americans in the league, which surprisingly started two decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in sports. From the days of Fritz Pollard and the Akron Pros in 1920 (Pollard also was a coach for the team), the piece transitions to the '40s and '50s, where Bill Willis and Marion Motley played for the Cleveland Browns, and some other athletes like Dick 'Night Train' Lane. The piece looks at events in the 1960s, and eventually to the players we know and root for every Sunday from September to January. For the simple fact that the piece enlightened me on some things I didn't know about the history and origins of the league, I was impressed.
But I'd say that this wasn't the best thing on the disc, and it might not be even in the top three. A separate look at Jim Brown runs for the length of The Leaders and is possibly the most intimate look at the former Cleveland Browns running back, who many consider to be the greatest player to have played the game. Brown discusses his beginnings, even when he was attempting to get into Syracuse University to play college football, and his going on to play in the pros, and his frequent clashes with Head Coach Paul Brown. He talks about the lengths that he would go to maintain a level of soft-spoken invincibility that many opponents go on to cite in the piece, and lots of clips that show how many tacklers Brown bounces off of during games are included. The softer side of Brown is shown as well. He discusses a strained relationship with his mother, who died before the two could patch up their differences. And in another scene where Brown discusses the death of a friend several years ago, he breaks down while discussing, ironically, the pointlessness of grieving. He also talks about his Amer-I-Can Foundation, which is designed to help people regardless of age, race and socio-economic status. Beneficiaries of Brown's Foundation have discussed how he pays for things like store rental fees, burial costs for friends and family, and success stories are given some time to discuss what Brown's contribution has meant to them. It's an excellent feature, and required watching for anyone who's ever heard of Brown.
Following some smaller looks at "The New Breed," along with other recognizable African American athletes like Doug Williams, who was the first black quarterback to appear (and win) a Super Bowl, along with current Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who is one of several current African American coaches in the league today, another excellent piece is a roundtable discussion, which was filmed sometime after Super Bowl XLI, when Chicago's Lovie Smith and Indianapolis' Tony Dungy were the first African American coaches to appear in a Super Bowl. They are joined by Mike Tomlin, current coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who, like Smith, served under Dungy's coaching staff in Tampa Bay, and Jerry Reese, who is General Manager of the New York Giants, winners of Super Bowl XLII over the New England Patriots. They discuss the challenges about breaking through the glass ceiling, and they talk about those who proceeded them, on and off the field. It's a compelling look at where things are now, and hopefully coaching opportunities for minorities will continue to grow, based on the success of African Americans in management positions in the NFL over the last several years.
So yeah, while some aspects of this disc come off as a little bit lazy or somewhat hypocritical, there's quite a bit of compelling content on the disc, past just what you read. If you're a football fan, this is among the best material that I've seen from NFL Films, and well worth viewing.
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