Film sees beneath glitz, hype, catches true spirit of football

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For millions, football is a nobler pursuit than the hype-laden Sunday NFL overkill. Each week, through a favorite high school or college team, the game becomes a Friday and Saturday celebration of Americana, where disparate voices, both on the field and in the stands, come together on crisp fall days to celebrate the sport at its purest.

That's the spirit behind a wonderful documentary, "Football America," which premieres tomorrow at 8 p.m. on TNT, with re-airs at 10 p.m. and midnight tomorrow, and further encores Monday and Oct. 25 at 10 p.m., and at midnight on Oct. 27.

The two-hour film, as wryly narrated by noted actor James Coburn, explores the emotional hold football has on the country through nine separate stories that cover the American sensibility.

Immediately, we meet the Juneau-Douglas (Alaska) Crimson Bear high school team whose members play on a field made of the residue of rock and sand from surrounding glaciers. The players, who have no locker room, serve as their own blocking sleds and training apparatus and have to raise $100,000 each year to cover their traveling expenses for games across the vast Alaskan peninsula, where they play schools with bigger student bodies and more money.

The final tale, set at Washington's Gallaudet University, the nation's only liberal arts college for the deaf, is the most poignant, showing the struggles and triumphs of players who seek only to be accepted as athletes, challenged or not.

The most powerful moment in the film is a brief one, but no less moving, as one of the Gallaudet players looks earnestly into the camera and says simply, "I have no fear. I am a football player." It's a great sequence that defies a viewer to watch without getting a lump in the throat.

In a delicious piece of irony, the gentle "Football America" is produced by NFL Films, a rather large cog in the NFL's public relations machinery. The film just proves that the purity of sport survives despite our attempt to hype it beyond recognition.

A long fall from grace

Included in the 7 p.m. pre-game show for tonight's TNT Seattle-Kansas City NFL game -- moved from Sunday to avoid a conflict with Game 2 of the World Series -- is an interview with former Washington Redskins defensive lineman Dexter Manley.

Manley, who is serving an 18-month jail sentence for drug possession, talked with former teammate Mark May from a medium-security prison in Texas, and told him that he wanted to go to jail because he knew it was the only way he could kick the habit.

"I thought I was going to die," said Manley, speaking of a conversation with a friend at his lowest point last year. "I had a bunch of coke and I was going to smoke it up and I told him I wanted to be cremated and wanted my ashes spread on RFK Stadium, because that's how dear I feel about that stadium, the Redskins, and I hung up the phone and I knew then the police were going to come."

Hero worship

There's good news, bad news and good news attached to the devilishly funny HBO sitcom "Arli$$," the weekly chronicle of an ethically challenged sports agent.

The first piece of good news is that the show has been picked up for 13 episodes next season. However, this week's program is the last of this season, though repeats will begin airing next month.

The other good news is that the show, which stars Robert Wuhl in the title role, leaves on a high note with a touching, yet uproarious take on fallen heroes.

In the episode, which re-airs Saturday at 1: 30 a.m. and next Tuesday at 2: 40 a.m., Arliss stumbles upon his boyhood idol, Rocky Fromaggio, a Hall of Fame slugger who has become more adept at bending his elbow, and played winningly by Ken Howard of "White Shadow" fame.

Arliss attempts to pull his hero up from the depths in a variety of means, one of which includes selling Fromaggio's sperm on a home shopping channel.

Sure it sounds wacky, but it's par for the course in the world of the super-agent, as told through the perspective of Wuhl, and co-executive producers Mike Tollin and Brian Robbins, who have called upon the acting talents of a number of sports stars, including Barry Bonds, Shaquille O'Neal, and the Orioles' own Pete Incaviglia, who appeared in last week's episode.

"It really was hard at first getting the agents to let the players to do the show, but since then, we've had dozens of phone calls from agents, managers and the players themselves. We will never run out of material," Tollin said.

We certainly hope not.

Commercial sign

Boy, that Nissan commercial with the G.I. Joe-like doll picking up that "Out on the Town" Barbie for a ride through the house, with "Left in the Lurch" Ken looking like a dweeb, is a stitch, but do you think they could cut the number of airings per day back to, say, 1,000, rather than the current 10,000, so we don't burn out on it?

Pub Date: 10/17/96

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