How a Vegas Kid Helped Bring the Frozen Tundra to Your PC

Craig McKeown and the art of NFL Films

They were close friends at Walter Bracken Elementary School, a fat, dark-haired kid and a more angular redhead. Both skipped ahead to second grade, and their mothers were active together in the PTA. One boy wanted to be a sportscaster, the other an oceanographer. Craig McKeown, the redhead who liked the water, wound up with the career in sports. The dark-haired kid grew up to be me.

In 1992, Craig joined NFL Films, first as a freelancer, then filming music videos and concerts for one of its arms, NFL Entertainment. Later he managed most of its camera and equipment departments. “We still had 11 of the best cinematographers in the world shooting football,” he said. It was a chance to work with those who filmed Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” and what San Francisco 49ers fans know as “The Catch”—Montana to Clark. And it taught him a lot.

When Craig and I went to Bracken, we were in the Academically Talented program, one of many school-district efforts to encourage advanced students to do more and better by letting them study outside the normal bounds of elementary school classrooms. Naturally, the school district scaled back. We headed to different junior high schools, knew each other a bit in high school and didn’t keep in touch much until recently. Facebook has a funny way of making old friends new again.

The creativity Craig displayed in the A-T program was perfect for NFL Films. When Steve Sabol, who co-founded the company with his father, Ed, died last year, The New York Times summarized the Sabols’ contribution: “[They] melded cinematic ingenuity, martial metaphors and symphonic music to lend professional football the aura of myth and help fuel its rise in popularity.”

They also were important to Las Vegas. Sports betting is big business here—$750 million a year on the NFL alone—and the NFL wouldn’t have become so popular without NFL Films. The romance the films brought to the game helped make it a national obsession that transcended provincial fandom: the mythologizing, the blood and sweat and extreme close-ups, narrator John Facenda (“the voice of God”) speaking in tones so elevated that we imagine he said things he didn’t really say (“The frozen tundra of Lambeau Field” is ESPN’s Chris Berman pretending to be Facenda). The NFL legend grew—and fed America’s betting culture.

As the Web age dawned, Craig became an important part of the Sabol magic. “[Steve Sabol] was always a part-time coach and a part-time fan, always recognizing people for good work, always telling us to think outside the box,” McKeown says. “He had our backs and gave us the freedom to do our best. The cool thing with Steve was that he was so open to anything.”

For someone as imaginative as Craig, that freedom was intoxicating. “Part of my job was working with new toys and camera equipment,” he says. “The Internet was still young. There was still no video on there, and I wondered why we weren’t getting into that. I found a company that was able to produce full-motion, 30 frames a second, on the computer screen. Steve always made a point that you need to throw a lot of mud against the wall and see if it sticks. He didn’t know a lot about the Internet, but he saw the possibilities.”

So Sabol acted. Every year, NFL owners met with NFL Films executives. Sabol had Craig secretly record them as they arrived, then showed the footage at their meeting, via the Internet, with Sabol narrating from another room. Today, that sounds like no big deal, “but for us, at the time, it was electric. Steve was like a little kid. He knew that this could be really cool, exploiting video on the Internet. And we wound up doing three years of Internet television programming.” And my old friend from Bracken Elementary became the first coordinator for NFL Films’ Internet TV.

In 2008, Craig left NFL Films to freelance. His work for NASCAR brings him back to Las Vegas now and then—and to NFL Films. “When NASCAR was looking to expand its facilities, they came to NFL Films, talked with the people. Now you can see that NASCAR has drastically changed its production and shows to be basically NFL Films-style: slow motion, hero shots, narration and music.”

NFL Films has changed not only the way we look at football, but the way we look at all sports—part game, part epic tale, part war. The red-haired kid grew up to help make autumn Sundays look like classical history. The dark-haired kid went on to become a historian. Guess we still have a little in common after all these years.

Except Craig’s got an Emmy.

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