During a job interview with NFL Films near the end of my senior year of college, I sat across from the man who named the Dallas Cowboys “America’s Team.” Older, quieter, and more serious than the rest of the 4-person panel conducting the session, he spoke up only occasionally, and throughout, appeared generally unmoved by any thoughts I had to offer.
During one answer about something else entirely I happened to mention Sports Illustrated, a side-door he immediately threw open.
“Who’s your favorite Sports Illustrated writer?” he asked.
It was a completely subjective question from the senior guy in the room, someone whose thinking I could not possibly have prepared for, and yet who could on the merits of any one answer determine the fate of my application.
Frank Deford, I replied.
“Mmmm,” he nodded. “Deford is the greatest writer that magazine has ever had.”
Never mind that a court of law would have dismissed it as an opinion. In these chambers, the fact that mattered was my taste and the head magistrate’s were the same. It was enough to calm my racing heart in the moment; it was what came back to me first when Films called with a job offer a week later; and it was what I thought of immediately upon hearing recently that Deford had died.
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten,
either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.”
Ben Franklin wrote it. Frank Deford merely embodied it — penning himself a permanent place in the history of American letters by both writing volumes worth reading and indisputably doing something worth the writing: inspiring others. They are many, I am one. Officially, since the day in 1999 when I read “The Ring Leader” and loved it with the pure, inexplicable certainty that only the best creators spark.
Despite the example of his writing and the cosmic assist he provided in that job interview, I never did make the appropriate effort to thank Frank. Not even given the opportunity a few years into my career, when he was one of my interview subjects the first day I ever directed a documentary film crew. Be a pro, I thought. Circuitous anecdotes in which a thesis of gratitude only might be clear to the listener, well, those are a tricky species. Better to try being a competent inquisitor than come off as a stammering ink-sniff. So I stuck to the task at hand.
It was an air-ball with no do-over. So let this be my penance.
Thank you, Mr. Deford.
I’m happy to say I’m still at NFL Films, the company your inspiration helped lead me to join. The week I marked my 15th work anniversary was the same week your pen went silent forever. Since then, countless lovely words have been spilled in your honor. But unless you, Frank, got out in front of the Reaper, filing the copy for a publication to be named later, I’m certain there’ll be no written tribute to you that’s quite worthy.
For its small part, my best assessment of your influence is to offer this: that whatever accolades every G.O.A.T. of Sports’ Future may ultimately compile, all their resumes will still possess the same hole: Born too late to be profiled by as great a writer as any magazine ever had.
The remarkable GROUNDS FOR SCULPTURE is like no place I’ve ever been. Part museum, part botanical gardens, this indoor/outdoor art gallery contains the realistic and abstract, the sublime and ridiculous. As remarkable as the space looked during my visit, I left thinking that I could probably enjoy entirely different experiences of it in the spring, summer, or fall ; in the early morning or by the light of the scattered lampposts and landscape lights. So large and diverse is the installation, that every trip there seems as though it would offer something unique.
On the afternoon I spent at this world class exhibition — tucked into a quiet, central New Jersey town between Trenton and Princeton — the plants on the snow covered landscape were still shivering, but doing so with their leaves turned optimistically toward the sun. The scenes produced by the intersection of the natural and man-made artwork on that Eve of Spring inspired my latest STELLER STORY, readable by clicking on the photo below.
Click the photo above to view scenes from the Grounds for Sculpture.
For the past six months I’ve had the great good fortune of working on a documentary film about a remarkable year in the life of the city of New Orleans. Here is a Steller Story photo journal behind the scenes of the production.
The film, titled “The Timeline: Rebirth in New Orleans”, tells the story of how after Hurricane Katrina, a great city, its football team the Saints, and their iconic stadium the Superdome were forced to respond to an unprecedented natural disaster. It premieres on Wednesday, September 21 at 8pm/ET on NFL Network, and features new interviews with Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and former NFL safety and ALS advocate Steve Gleason.
Late last Friday night it came to my attention that I’d lost Muhammad Ali. Not that he’d died. I’d learned that along with the rest of the world hours earlier, a newsflash that sent me in search of an Ali drawing I’d done years before. It was a pencil sketch comprised of two elements: a close-up of the fighter as modeled after the photo on the cover of David Remnick’s outstanding Ali biography King of the World, combined with a speech bubble that in graphic title fashion melded the two-word poem “Me. We.”, which Ali once delivered at a Harvard graduation.
As keepsakes go, this picture lived in the same space that much stuff does: so precious there’s no way I’d have ever thrown it out, so irrelevant to my daily life I wasn’t sure where it was, so singular that there was only a few places it could possibly be. Yet it wasn’t there, there, or there: not still attached to any one of the old sketch pads on my shelf ; not in a pile of old clips and copies and print-outs-of-note dating back decades ; not even unceremoniously folded and stuffed into the binding of the Remnick book.
I had expected to locate the image without much thought or effort, but when more of the latter was needed more of the former came along. My mind went back to an evening in the spring of 2002, the only time I stood in the same room as the Greatest of All-Time. It was in the Joyce Athletic & Convocation Center at the University of Notre Dame during the school’s annual amateur boxing tournament, known as Bengal Bouts. Notre Dame is in South Bend, Indiana, just 25 miles from Berrien Springs, Michigan where Ali had a home. He’d made previous appearances at Bengal Bouts, but that didn’t take any luster from the moment: when he entered, the building buzzed like the bee whose sting Ali had so famously claimed he could replicate.
What happened next lives in my mind’s eye like a stop-action sequence of still photos. Not because the years have made the motion fade from the memory, but because that’s how it actually felt as the moment unfolded.
First, I could see his entourage far on the other side of the floor level on which I was standing. Next, the small group in which the Greatest was at the center was halfway around the arena. Then suddenly, it was in front of me. The next two instants I recall with perfect clarity: I made blink-long eye contact with Muhammad Ali ; he noticed the female spectator beside me wearing a Notre Dame Women’s Boxing sweatshirt, and he began charmingly, playfully shadow-boxing with her.
I have no idea how well he could speak back then, or even if he had the desire to in such a crowded, fluid setting where the main objective was simply to get to his seat. But clearly, the old Champ could still kid, still joke, still float like the butterfly he’d so often promised he would resemble — and became again right then: fluttering out of the space in front of us as instantly and magically as he’d appeared.
Being delusional, selfish perhaps, I’d always felt that my Ali experience was a unique one — the way I’d seen him appear to defy physics as he moved through physical space ; by simply walking, somehow performing the unforgettable in a way that even the witnesses of it would later describe as unbelievable. But I was way off thinking there was anything unique about the stirring presence Ali had had that night in northern Indiana, and it took only the first few bits of reaction and reflection that followed his death to illustrate it. So many authors used the same language as I had to describe completely different interactions with Ali, and so striking was the shared quality of the collective memory of “meeting” him, that even if you believe just a fraction of what seeped into the world simply on the day of his death, the only comparison that feels apt for the Greatest is not to another person but to a heavenly body. Because like the Sun, Ali seems to have touched everyone on Earth.
Long after midnight the day Ali died, my Artwork Search Party of One continued. Perhaps I was clumsy enough to leave it buried inside the frame of my boxing-centric collage that it wasn’t part of ; or alongside the Bear Bryant drawing I’d certainly done around the same time, and ultimately that night found in the basement. No. It must be somewhere in the inches thick, Usual Suspects-style sedimentary formation I called a bulletin board in my office at work. Certainly, after passing the weekend, I would poke around that paper-relief sculpture on Monday morning and find my sketch faster than I could say Keyser Soze.
On Monday, no dice.
Just as he was in the ring, Ali is proving elusive rendered in pencil. I refuse to believe the picture got tossed ; searching for it has turned up far too many other pieces of less important creative driftwood for it to be plausible that THAT of all pieces is gone. I imagine someday it will appear suddenly and remarkably, just like Ali did both to the world at large and to the individuals who for even an instant were in his physical presence. I am one of those lucky ones. So even if my hand-drawing of him never surfaces, the greatest image I have of Ali will never fade.
My latest project is an independent film co-produced with @WeaverNFLF
It’s a short feature coming later this week. Here’s a sneak peek. We hope you enjoy the show.
A dream is a living thing. It doesn’t stay still or remain the same. It changes shapes, changes directions, looks different at different stages. It’s not always possible to say where a dream originates, or to predict where it’s headed next. But in the end, the best dreams are vibrant, singular, and unforgettable, much like the best music. Especially like the best jams.
More than a dozen years ago, it was Phish jams that inspired Holly Bowling’s still on-going dream – which in its earliest stage, resembled a concert she feared she’d never be able to attend. When the group returned from hiatus, Holly’s dream took on the shape of a ticket to her first show; then time off work; then the chance to follow the band.
Over and over, the classically trained pianist-turned Phish lover touched what seemed like the ceiling of her musical dream, only to have it rise and expand again, becoming something bigger and more dynamic. This was a cloud – a natural, inimitable thing. At first Holly admired it, then she chased it. Then after witnessing an iconic Phish performance in July 2013, she decided to try and catch it.
Once more her dream transformed, this time taking on the shape of sheet music that captured the more than thirty minutes of musical magic and light that had become instantly known as “The Tahoe Tweezer.” Holly put it on paper, then the cloud moved again, suddenly appearing as the vision of a crowd-funded album of her jam-scriptions, the first real recording of her life. In the summer of 2015, Holly held the CD and vinyl prints of that very album, which she appropriately titled “Distillation of a Dream.”
“Distillation” might have been a destination for some aspiring artists. But for Holly it was merely another milestone, along with the night that recording artist Marco Benevento unexpectedly invited her on stage to perform with him, or the afternoon Holly played a Steinway in Golden Gate Park – her sound filling the same famous hills on which her jamming fore-fathers, the Grateful Dead, first played a half century earlier. Holly fittingly joined their history in the same month that the Dead said, “Fare, thee well,” and it was a great moment. Then, the dream expanded again.
Its next shape was an opportunity three thousand miles from Holly’s San Francisco home: a Philadelphia venue that she dreamed her piano playing could fill with patrons. Just like Phish in their early years, Holly took on the risk of renting a room and the burden of selling tickets, all in the hopes that her self-propelled dream would continue to grow. Whether it moved directly or via detour, how the song might end, or what famous faces would appear in her Philly show crowd, Holly wouldn’t know until long after the lights went down at that first ever East Coast gig. The next turn in her journey, like that in a jam, was not something anyone could fully forecast back then, and it remains that way today. She’s still writing the roadmap, transcribing the sound, distilling the dream as it spontaneously woos, wheezes, and breathes.
New to me are these regional spins on the iconic I HEART NY logo. I saw them for the first time just recently, alongside even more takes in which the red image between the I and NY represented other aspects of the Empire State.
Though they obviously don’t use the words BUFFALO
to my mind these two renditions can’t help but explicitly represent those cities, and as such, they had me dreaming of an “explicitly” Albany version that would feature the profile of the Capital City’s most iconic building, The Egg.
In all that I-Hearting I came across this fabulous story of the original logo, the remarkable designer who created it, and the interesting life that both man and art have led. Definitely worth a read and/or listen, via the podcast 99% Invisible.
Due to the boundaries of conventional photography, it’s necessary to see the Grand Canyon in person if you want to have any real sense of it. Even then, the limitations of the human eyeball and depth perception make it challenging to compute what exactly it is that’s before you. The scale. The structure. The origin story. They combine to form something like nothing else, and so by definition, laying eyes on it is a moment for which you cannot be prepared. Even as you’re looking at the Canyon, it’s hard to know where to direct your eyes first, next, or last. The result can be a sort of dizzying rush of astonishment and adrenaline.
As man made things go, the $1 Million Staircase — located in the New York State Capitol Building in Albany, NY — sent my head into similar spaces. Capturing a photograph that could successfully illustrate both the massiveness and nuance of the Stairs seemed impossible. In an effort to instead take a series of mental snapshots, every neck contortion and eye swivel I could muster felt insufficient. There was simply too much to the space, also referred to in Capitol parlance as The Great Western Staircase, to feel like I’d seen or digested it all. To try and add it up as I walked it was to be transported into a real-life composite of MC Escher artwork, someplace at once concrete and impossible.
The Staircase is a singular sight with a remarkable story ; for someone interested in art, architecture, or history, it’s an absolute must-see. And believe it or not, the tour is free ; not a bad deal for a look at something priceless that may just leave you speechless.
For a sneak peek and more on how the $1 Million Staircase came to be, read my Steller Story on it by clicking the photo below.
“It so happens that I understand David Bowie very well.
Far better than most people.”
For Jon Chalance’s #Steller take on a David Bowie classic, click the image above.
A simple good wish and an even simpler pencil drawing of a globe-spanning dinner table (what?!?), were the ingredients in my first ever Christmas Card, created in 2002.
PROLOGUE – Following is a behind-the-scenes account of my recent short film on a fellow Son of Albany, Charles Leigh. He made history as the first player known to sign an NFL contract directly out of high school, before becoming part of the Miami Dolphins Dynasty of the 1970s. This summer I had the privilege of telling his story for NFL Films Presents.
LOGUE – Below is the second part of the written story originally published on the NFL Films blog, “They Call it Pro Football.” To see the piece there, where it includes a slideshow of production photos and a link to a Charles Leigh highlight video consisting of footage discovered during the making of the film, click here.
EPILOGUE – During our July, 2015 shoot in my hometown, I brought my Dad to work. Actually, I needed him to drive me to locations, so it’s probably more accurate to say that he brought me to work. Either way, it all felt somewhat prophetic come fall when I learned the Leigh feature, previewed in the Albany Times-Union, would premiere as part of an episode titled “Fathers and Sons”.
Dear Dave –
I’m writing because there’s been a mix-up, which I know now, because of Al Pacino’s “Danny Collins.”
One night, 14ish years ago in Fremantle, Western Australia, I penned a letter to the editors of my college newspaper, advocating you be the keynote speaker at our commencement ceremony, slated to take place roughly one year later. This was no reckless Hail Mary, Dave, the dorkiness of the language notwithstanding (and it is dorky, see below). I gave them more than ample time to run background checks on you, to build a riser for the horn section, to accommodate whatever eclectic Canadian nutritional needs Paul might have. Yet, inexplicably, I never heard back.
Puzzling, I know.
Instead of you, the school played it safe and booked the president of Mexico, then when he fell through, got lucky by nabbing the late great Tim Russert, who brought the house down. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a great white whale of a chance had been allowed to escape without so much as a chase.
By way of serendipity a few months back, I came across a copy of my letter to the editors, in the very same week that I read a story on “Collins”, Pacino’s new film. It was about an aging rock star thrust into a cyclone of regretful introspection when it’s brought to his attention that as a young artist in the 1970s, he was the intended recipient of a fan letter from John Lennon. The letter, advising Pacino’s character to stay true to himself and his art, had never arrived. Finding out about it years later, the musician wonders how his life and work might have been different – less kitschy-pop, perhaps — had he gotten the message from Lennon. Well, imagine. It all hit me.
I’m no Beatle, but what if the editors had somehow lost my letter? Or, what if they’d gotten it, but it then got lost in translation to the commencement poo-bahs? What other rational explanation could there possibly be, Dave? The president of Mexico!
There’s no way to measure how many lives may have been impacted had fate not interfered with you speaking at graduation. But now, so many Mays later, an alignment of the stars between you and the class of 2002 is no longer out of reach. For starters, there’s the forthcoming flexibility in your day planner. Then, the abundance of tailgate parties, round-ups, and reunion events our class convenes on an annual basis. And finally, the fortuitous development that, as you pointed out in the monologue just two weeks ago, you’re dropping your speaking rate. That means you and our alumni board can probably work something out. What great news! It’s like we accidentally made a sound investment that has appreciated into a great treasure. Or at the very least, found an unopened sleeve of Thin Mints buried in the back of the freezer.
Briefly before I continue, since it’s looking unlikely I’ll get to say it from the sofa seat on your show, allow me to join the chorus of your recent guests in thanking you for all the yuks over all these years. Many performers are best described as entertainers ; but the rare few, simply as entertaining – so seemingly effortless is their ability to captivate an audience that it never comes off as an act. That’s the good stuff, Dave, and you’ve got it — same as that naturally funny guy or girl who we all knew down the hall in the dorm.
I was only a teenager when Johnny signed off, and though I’d never really watched him, I knew his departure was a big deal. So I decided I’d stay up and seize the final opportunity there would ever be to catch Carson. And boy, do I remember that night: how I fell asleep long before Doc struck up the band and woke up the next morning consoling myself that at least I’d always have Dana Carvey’s impersonations to fall back on. All good.
This week it’ll be different. If I were to nod off, I’ll still wake up with my Late Show t-shirt and memories to spare: of watching, of attending a taping, of once seeing Biff in line at The Vatican (my wife doubts the authenticity of this ; a multi-layered blasphemy on her part, in my opinion). And even having all that, next Thursday morning there’ll be little consolation knowing the curtain has dropped for the final time at the Ed Sullivan Theater, onto the same stage where John Lennon once played. His fictional letter in Pacino’s movie was inspired by a real one the Walrus wrote to a real musician who really never received it. It happens, the mail gets lost. Dreams get deferred. Raisins in the sun stand up and dance to Marvin Gaye music. Crazy, zany, bonkers stuff can go down, Dave. You know it. You believe it. You proved it. So see you at the next reunion. Hoo-wah.
Thanks again for all the laughs.
Paul A. Camarata
Univ. of Notre Dame, Class of 2002
The highlight of my life as a sports spectator came 24 years ago tonight, right about this time. It was January 27, 1991, and my favorite team had just won the Super Bowl. Yes, other favorite teams of mine had won championships during my lifetime – among them the ’88 Fighting Irish and the iconic ’86 Mets. But from their seasons I had retained only hazy memories, the first light of fandom having just barely drawn open my eyes. The timing of this team though, the 1990 New York Giants, was different.
With no other knowledge of Derek Jeter at your disposal than the soundtrack of his farewell tour, you could easily discern that this man the whole world seems to be feting has done something right. “The Right Way,” in fact, may be the most frequently used phrase to describe Jeter, the Yankee captain who yesterday in Boston played the final game of his Major League career. It was a moment to which he arrived after a summer of having standards like My Way, Respect, and the theme from The Natural all played with complete sincerity in his honor, often in stadiums where he habitually led the dashing of hometown hopes and dreams.
Sounds as singular as Aretha Franklin, as classic as Frank Sinatra, and as stirring as the crack of Roy Hobbs’ ‘Wonder Boy’ make it easy to recognize “The Right Way” when you hear it. But what does it look like? Could you tell it if walked up and shook your hand?
In the summer of 2010 I interviewed Derek Jeter for NFL Films. By that point in my career I had directed crews on interviews and film shoots with Super Bowl winning players and coaches, famous writers, musicians, photographers, even a swimsuit cover model. During the course of the commute, arrival, and set-up in an auxiliary locker room at Yankee Stadium, it struck me that our crew on this day seemed to grow quieter than usual. We were all accustomed to working around football players ; many of our camera operators are on a first name basis with the NFL’s biggest stars. But none of us had spent much time in the baseball world, let alone met The Yankee Captain.
When he entered the locker room, each member of our four person crew shot up, and from our spots on the set began to wave hello. Before we could finish, Jeter had made his way around the room, shook each person’s hand, and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Derek.” Such a start told me this would be a painless experience ; what made it memorable, though, was how the whole thing ended.
We’d come to talk to Jeter about his views on what made Tom Brady one of the NFL’s all-time greatest players. When the conversation was over, with the commitment he’d made to us fulfilled, Jeter did something I’ve never seen another superstar do: he stood up, walked around the room to where each of our crew members was standing, shook all our hands a second time, and thanked us for coming.
In my professional life perhaps no smaller an act has made a bigger impression on me than Number 2’s distribution of two hand shakes-plus two greetings-times four people that afternoon. If we’re the only crew he ever did that for (which I doubt) then I applaud his approaching an atypical audience – the football people – with a fresh perspective ; if we’re one in the long line of crews he greeted that way, than I marvel at his diligence – especially in such an advanced stage of his iconic career — in treating newcomers to his house with courtesy and respect. Or rather, in treating us the right way.
Over time, doing the right thing the right way yields far more than it costs. For proof of that, look no further than the record of the last summer Derek Jeter played baseball. Some people did the job as well as he did, a few people even did it better. But the right way is the reason that perhaps no one in history exited the game as Jeter did. Through a promenade of praise piled higher than the famous facade at Yankee Stadium, to which he responded as he had after all the big hits and post-season heroics: by humbly tipping a cap to all those whose hearts he’d filled with song.
In honor of consecutive stellar performances by Notre Dame to open the 2014 season, we’re dipping back into the archives to share the drawing below. It was done back when I was merely a Tweedlet in Mrs. Davis’s 6th grade art class, and only years later, autographed by the subject, Jerome Bettis. Long before he was nicknamed “The Bus” during his NFL career, Bettis was a bulldozing fullback in South Bend — though even his physical style might have met its match in the Irish defense on display the last two weeks. Sure, the now departed Bob Diaco may have resembled Don Draper, but so far his defenses were mere impostors compared with Brian Van Gorder’s Van Goghs. The first year Irish Defensive Coordinator has a name like a Dutch Master but through two games his group is pure Cohiba.
About once every hour since yesterday afternoon, the following has hijacked my inner monologue:
“Goooooooooood morning Vietnaaaam! Hey, this is not a test, this is rock and roll! Time to rock it from the Delta to the DMZ. Is it me or does that sound like an Elvis Presley movie? Viva Danang…Ohhh, vee-vahhh Danang…Danang me, Danang me, you’re gonna have to get a rope and haaang me! Hey it’s a little too early for bein’ that loud. Hey, too late. It’s oh-six-hundred hours. What’s the oh stand for? Oh-my-god it’s early. Speaking of early …”
That’s as much as I can recite on my own, some twenty-six years after I first heard them: Airman Adrian Cronauer’s introductory remarks on Radio Saigon. If the transcript above is not a verbatim match to the original, I’m sure it’s damn close. My certainty is not a comment on the prowess of my memory but on the power of the performer who indelibly marked it. If the ability to give others something that makes them smile is what it means to have greatness, then Airman Cronauer — like his cousins Euphegenia Doubtfire, Red Sox fanatic Sean Maguire, and the part time Denver Broncos cheerleader pictured below — had it from here to Hanoi to Moscow on the Hudson.
Fireworks and chocolate ice cream don’t look alike, don’t sound alike. My best guess is they don’t taste the same. But for the way they both possess the ability to delight even on those rare occasions that they’re underwhelming, these smile-inspiring fraternal twins of summer simply must be made of some of the same stuff.
Among all the stunning pyrotechnic displays made in the American skies each 4th of July, there is none better than the show over the waters of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Give it a look some time, especially if you can do so from a boat anchored in the Chesapeake. For the full effect, pack your own Stars and Stripes to help set a mood like the one pictured below.
America’s Birthday, 2014 is now in the rear view, but here’s the best flag-centric reading this weekend had to offer: a story from The Atlantic on The O.S.S.B, aka, The Original Star Spangled Banner, and via FastCompanyDesign, an illustrated biography of the American flag.
Twelve years ago today, almost exactly to the moment this post goes up, my eyes gazed on this artwork for the first time. Varying in size, color, and composition — from small and flat under mattes and polished glass, to movie-theater-lobby-esque large format, to three-dimensional shadow boxes in frames custom made of reconstituted desk drawers — it comprised the then little known passion project of America’s “King of the Football Movies.” And like the montages he and his filmmaking brain trust popularized, the work resonated with my eyes and ears in such a way that I couldn’t help but imitate it — in part, in the poster below from 2003.
If you’re feeling generous call it flattery, and if you must, call it theft – but then only in consideration of that advice the King himself was known to impart, “If you’re going to steal, steal from Tiffany’s.” I don’t recall what I had for breakfast twelve years ago today ; I can barely remember what I had today. But June 3, 2002 — and how it changed the way I see the world — is a morning I won’t forget.