If you remember the film "The Fortune Cookie," then you can understand the dangers faced by a cameraman standing on the sidelines at a pro football game. Phil Tuckett recalls the movie, in which cameraman Jack Lemmon is run over by a burly running back, then sues for millions.
Tuckett also has lived the Lemmon part.
"It was in 1970 at War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo," recalls Tuckett, now the vice president of operations for NFL Films. "It was my first game and I had no background in photography, still or movies. I was a football player (he backed up Lance Alworth at wide receiver for the Chargers in 1968) and somebody had the idea I could pick it up.
"I was having a terrible struggle figuring out how to make the camera work properly. It's a tremendous disadvantage operating with a hunk of metal in your face and I couldn't really come to terms with it. I had shot in preseason with someone instructing me on what to do. This time, I was alone, I was struggling . . .
"The Bills quarterback, Dennis Shaw, threw a pass right toward me. I remember thinking finally I would get a good shot with the play coming right at me. I opened up wide and Kermit Alexander of the Rams and Haven Moses were coming right in."
Tuckett's first great shot almost turned into his last shot as a cameraman.
"I was like a deer on the highway," he says. "I just froze. It all seemed to happen in slow motion to me. The players got bigger and bigger and they filled the frame. They knocked the auto shift on and I have a complete shot of when they hit me as I went head over heels. You can see the sky and the stands, and I remember the crowd cheered."
Tuckett didn't sue, though he suffered a cut nose. Nor did he quit working the sidelines. Today, he is one of NFL Films' most accomplished and versatile employees. Aside from shooting games, he edits, writes scripts and directs.
NFL Films, which is under the auspices of the National Football League Properties, has 110 fulltime employees. It has developed from a five-person operation when founded by Ed Sabol in 1964, into an organization that produces about as much footage as anyone in the business.
Each Sunday, NFL films dispatches at least two camera crews to each game. There are 15 fulltime shooting cameramen and Tuckett oversees a group of 45 freelancers from whom he chooses the rest of the shooters each weekend.
"I look at it as a coach of a football team, and we put specialists in different spots for a game," he says. "Some of these people are not cameramen but they have learned to shoot football."
Tuckett cites 67-year-old Mississippian R.P. Lewis, who works for the Mississippi State Bureau of Agriculture.
"He knows nothing about cameras but has an instinct for shooting football," says Tuckett. "We have to send him our best camera because if it breaks, he has no idea how to fix it."
Once the games end, the footage is shipped to Mt. Laurel, N.J., a suburb of Philadelphia. By Wednesday, 2 1/2 hours of network shows are ready. Those shows include the syndicated Week in Review; This Week in the NFL on HBO; Game of the Week and Monday Night Matchup on ESPN, and the NFL Presents, also a syndicated show that basically is a televised pro football magazine.
At the end of the season, NFL Films handles all 28 of the team highlight movies. Those can be its most challenging assignments.
"We can even make the Tampa Bay Bucs look like they could go to the Super Bowl," he says, "but you can't insult the intelligence of fans. But you do show the positive spots as much as possible.
"It usually takes us into May with those shows. But we always have projects going."
Those projects have included a film on the first moon landing "which the producer wanted to look like a team headed for the Super Bowl," a history of Notre Dame football for CBS that won Emmy Awards for Tuckett and Steve Sabol, and, lately, taping rock concerts and making rock videos. Tuckett has worked with Journey and Cyndi Lauper and directed Journey's video for the hit song "Faithfully," which shows the group on tour and led to a 1 1/2-hour documentary videotape.
"We've had to turn down rock 'n roll business during the football season," says Tuckett. "Football is our business."