It’s Super Bowl Sunday which is a quasi holiday here in America. While other people and websites are busy breaking down game plans, strategies, year in reviews, and even betting on what kind of hijinks could occur at the always dreadful halftime show, I’m here reflecting on a personality that was just as instrumental in the rise of the NFL as anyone but seldom gets the credit he deserves: Sam Spence. If you have ever watched any of the NFL Films presentations then you are aware of Sam’s compositions. His memorable tunes were just as striking as the super slow motion footage of the telecasts themselves and the combination of excellent camera work and Sam’s theme’s made for a stirring and dramatic feature. Unfortunately Sam did not make it to the golden anniversary of the Super Bowl as he passed away Saturday, February 6 at the age of 88 in a nursing home in Lewisville TX; one day before Super Bowl 50.
Educated at the University of Southern California, Spence moved to Munich Germany realizing that a composer in Europe had a much greater chance of making a living than a composer in the United States. Spence and his work was discovered by NFL Films founder Ed Sabol and he was hired in 1966 to score the productions of the emerging company. Spence’s themes combined with the deep voice of John Facenda and the slow motion images of the NFL Films crew became instantly popular and helped elevate football from a sport on the fringes to America’s new favorite pastime. NFL Films and it’s presentation of the sport, more than the sport itself, is what propelled professional football to the status it enjoys today and Spence’s work was an integral part of ascension.
Spence’s work varied and could range the gambit from campy to bombastic to comical and even western depending on the needs of the producers. Although Sam’s orchestral compositions are probably his most famous and adored, a lot of his more western sounding pieces stand out to me. The NFL in the 1960’s and early 1970’s was far different than the sterilized product we see today. Back then every play wasn’t accompanied by a 10 minute review period, domed stadiums didn’t exist, the fields weren’t perfectly manicured, single bar facemasks were in use, and players were more violent. Every game was contested in the elements and without modern horticultural techniques often by the end of the game the fields had degenerated into large dust bowls or mud baths. The game was more primal and Sam’s music captured this feeling. There was something more intriguing about the image of 22 men running around in a cloud of dust at sunset violently pounding each other fighting over every inch than the players of today prancing on perfectly grown and trimmed grass in a temperature controlled climate.
Before NFL Films, sports documentaries were simple recaps of the game in chronological order, with a newscaster voice making quips and breaking down plays in real time accompanied by marching music in the background. NFL Films changed all that by splicing together footage from different angles in super slow motion and using extreme close ups in an effort to tell a story rather than recount a game. Without Sam’s dramatic scores this approach would not have worked.
So while the rest of the world preps their party platters and makes their final bets I urge you to take just a moment to reflect on Sam and his contributions. Today’s game would likely be little more than a blip on the figurative radar screen of America if NFL Films and Sam Spence hadn’t transformed the image of a game enjoyed only by roughnecks and hooligans into the international phenomenon it is today. I’ll conclude this piece with a few of my favorite Sam Spence works. Some of them are rather famous and I’m sure you will recognize them. Others are more obscure and I hope open your eyes to this man’s versatility and greatness.
Now as warriors of winter, the chase is almost done.
On these wings of victory ride emotions of a year.
Of work and sweat, guts, glory, and fear.
Two teams have gained a champion’s fame.
Two teams of men both skilled and game.
Men who have battled as brothers through combat thick and thin,
and now they confront each other for a prize only one can win.