Over and over and over again that Monday night in 1985, Joe Theismann's leg snapped grotesquely under the violent charge of New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. In instant replay, in super slow-mo, from the reverse angle, millions watched the Washington Redskins quarterback's leg do something no human being's leg was ever designed to do.
"I can't tell you how many people still come up to me and say they are sick and tired of watching that play over and over," said Theismann, who now serves as the analyst on ESPN's NFL broadcasts. "But, case in point, television has changed football. It's certainly brought the more gruesome nature of the game to light. It's brought those hits and injuries right into your living room. People look at the game differently now. They have come to expect blood."
If pro football didn't exist, TV probably would have invented its 10 seconds of violence followed by 45 seconds of standing around to talk about plans, the deployment of troops and the taking of territory.
"It's the perfect blend for television," said Charlie Jones, NBC's No. 2 play-by-play man, who, with today's opening of another NFL season, begins his 31st year as a football announcer.
Pro football is the only sport that-with the use of instant replay to overturn calls-has made TV an actual participant.
Some people, mostly baseball purists, scoff at football. Columnist George Will has said that football combines the two worst aspects of modern society: violence punctuated by frequent committee meetings. But such a taunt belies the nation's insane hunger for football and the proliferation of pregame and post-game shows filled with gossip, highlights and analysis to satiate that hunger. They also belie the vast sums of money paid for the rights to share in the hysteria not only by traditional football TV powers CBS, NBC and ABC, but by young cable networks ESPN and now TNT as well.
And, sorry George: In an effort solely designed to offset the TV's skyrocketing costs of procuring the games, there will be even more football this season. The NFL has to extended the regular season one week and added two extra playoff games.
"The marriage of the two was such a potent mix, you could almost say that there is no distinguishing football as we know it today from television," said Terry O'Neil, the executive producer of NBC Sports. "It's a game that is probably more properly called foot-vision or tele-ball."
Television made football the national game. It created the Super Bowl, probably the most colossal single event in the world today. It brought the terms Ickey shuffle, instant replay and Howard Cosell into common household usage. It made celebrities out of football heroes such as Montana, Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson, and even out of some spectacular football flops like Brian Bossorth. And it transformed the game from an exclusive Sunday ritual for men into prime-time entertainment for families, for lovers, for everyone.
Many experts trace the marriage of football and TV to the Baltimore Colts overtime victory against the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game-the first truly compelling game that was seen on TV on NBC by a wide audience. TV coverage of that contest consisted of three black and white cameras on the 50-yard line.
Then, on Sept. 10, 1960, the American Football League, which merged with the more established and big-city-laden NFL six years later, was born. And from the very first broadcast on ABC-a game between the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) and the Los Angeles (now San Diego) Chargers-television innovations began to change the way people saw football. ABC employed three black and white cameras that day, but the producer of that first game, Roone Arledge, now president of ABC News, placed only one on the 50-yard line and the others on each of the 20-yard lines.
That was unheard of at the time, said Jones, who began his TV football career that day, because who wanted to sit way down there?
But the simple repositioning of the cameras paved the way for future innovations: instant replay, slow motion, sideline cameras, isolated replays, half-time highlights, updates from other cities and the "telestraters" that allow John Madden and others to scribble plays and pictures all over TV screens.
"All these things have helped hype the imagination and made even the casual fan much more interested in football," said CBS analyst Hank Stram, who was coach of the Dallas Texans that day in 1960. "Now, no matter who you are, you're right in there playing and coaching just like the rest of us."