Craig Ellenport is an experienced sports writer and editor who was previously senior editor for NFL.com and NFL publishing. His most recent book is NFL 100: The Greatest Moments of the NFL’s Century.
What was the process like for choosing the top 100 moments?
Originally, the list of greatest moments was something that could have just been a back-of-the book list. And then I realised that it was a book unto itself if you really dug into it.
So was there a plan to do something else with the body of the book and then have the hundred moments at the end?
Not a full-out plan. Just the general idea of a history-type book. But I thought that this was omething that would be a little bit different and fun to do.
How did you come up with that list of moments?
I started with a general list that had well over a hundred moments. I reached out to a number of veteran NFL writers and experienced insiders just to get a general idea of their top 10 or 15. That process corroborated my list a little bit. Where there were things in other people’s top 10s that were surprising, those were ones I knew were worth looking at.
I started writing and researching the moments before the final order was settled. As I researched and wrote, I would get a better feel for which ones were more important than I first thought and should be bumped up the list. The ranking changed several times as the book was put together.
Were you trying to ensure that you had a mix of the type of events as well?
I didn’t intentionally say, “Well, there has to be X number of off-field moments and X number of games or record-breaking performances.” It just sort of worked out. I was somewhat conscious to have moments spread out through the decades. And I didn’t want to force anything either.
There are a number of moments in the book related to television history, for example. There’s the birth of NFL Films, the debut of Monday Night Football, and rules that were set in place by the government to dictate how the single network broadcast. How sports television was presented was obviously very important.
At number one, you’ve got the greatest game ever played. With all of the research that you’ve done, do you think the perception of it has changed?
I think young fans need to know more about it but I do think it stands the test of time. As stated in the book, the importance of that game is not just that it was a great game, and there were so many Hall of Fame players on the field. And yes, it was the first sudden-death overtime game in NFL playoff history and a nationally televised championship game that was, for many people, the first pro-football game they’d seen on television. But more importantly, because of this game, several potential NFL owners decided they wanted to get involved and they couldn’t. So they formed the American Football League. Number three on my list is the AFL-NFL merger, which everyone recognises as important. You could make the argument that without the 1958 NFL championship game, the AFL doesn’t happen. So that’s another reason why the greatest game ever played is so important.
Have you got a favourite moment from the book?
There were two that jump out at me. The first is number five on the list: the Dolphins’ perfect season. As I was researching this, I felt that even though we recognise that they are the only team ever to go undefeted, the 1972 Miami Dolphins still don’t get the credit they deserve. The only highlight you ever see from Super Bowl VII, when the Dolphins capped that perfect season is Garo Yepremian’s botched field goal attempt the Redskins returned for a touchdown. And it’s a funny play and the fact that the Dolphins won the game makes it hurt less. But if you’re a member of this Miami Dolphins team and you’ve accomplished this incredible, incredible achievement, and the only highlight they ever show of your Super Bowl is this blooper, it must stick in your craw.
I don’t think it’s talked about much anymore, but when that play happened, the Dolphins were winning 14-0 with a little over two minutes left. If the field goal is kicked, they complete a 17-0 season with a 17-0 victory in the Super Bowl. And it would have been the only shutout in Super Bowl history. Think about how we would look back at that team if they finished that perfect season that way. I think people would look at it in great reverence, but they don’t.
‘Gil Brandt’s institutional knowledge and the history he has was very helpful‘
And the second one that sticks with me, ironically, is also one of the greatest bloopers in NFL history. That is the Miracle at the Meadowlands in 1978. Joe Pisarcik of the Giants fumbled and Herman Edwards scooped it up and the Eagles got a miracle win. It’s a famous blooper play but it meant so much to both teams. One, because the Eagles hadn’t been to the playoffs in over 10 years – 15 years, really – and that play helped them get there. It was Victor Neal’s first playoff appearance and three years later, they made the Super Bowl.
For the Giants, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back because they had not been to the playoffs in 15 years and the feuding brothers who owned the franchise were fairly content with a mediocre franchise. After that play, fans started burning season tickets and the owners knew they had to start over. They fired the coaching staff and the front office and eventually hired George Young, who completely rebuilt the franchise. He drafted Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor, hired Bill Parcells. Since then, the Giants have been one of the most successful franchises in the NFL. If not for that play, the Giants would have just continued to be a mediocre franchise.
What was the process of writing this like, gathering material on a hundred different topics?
There are some things I could have written so much more about, but space was limited. It was a matter of being disciplined to keep it short and somewhat simple. But I spoke to a number of people, contacts that I’ve made over the years who have been around for these things. I had the honour of talking to Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL Commissioner, and he was very helpful. Gil Brandt, who just got an approval for the Hall of Fame, the long-time Dallas Cowboys VP of player personnel is a very dear friend of mine and a colleague from the NFL.com days. So I spoke with him. The institutional knowledge and history that he has was very helpful. I spoke to some people from NFL Films, and some people from the league office.
The actual writing process I don’t think took more than maybe three months, honestly. I certainly had a lot of it in my head. For many of these moments I had the honour of seeing in person, because of my job with the NFL. And then the history ones, I just knew about. So probably spent a decent amount of time thinking about the list before actually sitting down to write.
‘I was just getting an idea for how a sports writer does what he does, speaking with as many people as possible and taking in as much information as possible.‘
What do you consider makes good writing?
Simply good storytelling and telling something that the reader does not already know. Many of these moments had entire books written about them, just about the one event. So I was looking for little wrinkles to add to the story that the readers may already know.
Have you got a writing hero or a mentor that has helped you in your career?
As far as a mentor, I’ll deviate from football. When I was in high school, I was an intern for Stan Fischler, one of the most prolific authors in sports, but his number one focus is the NHL and hockey. He’s retired now but he continues to write. I learned a lot from working for him and seeing his process. Just the idea of always carrying a pen with you, always writing, always taking notes and observing. So definitely tip of the hat to Stan Fischler.
From a football standpoint, I was always a big fan of the late “Dr. Z,” Paul Zimmerman, as well as his former Sports Illustrated colleague, Peter King. I had been a Peter King fan for a long time before Monday Morning Quarterback ever came around, but of course once that started, it was the first real appointment reading for football fans. It was impressive.
How did you end up as an intern in high school? It seems unusual to start so young.
It’s a source of pride for me because I was Stan’s first high school intern. It wasn’t unusual for him to have all these interns. It just happened because I was in high school in the city. Stan had book projects and TV work that he was doing. He was doing pre-game and post-game for Islanders’ and Devils’ hockey games here in New York, and he had interns doing copy-editing and proofreading for him, which was a great experience. I would contact teams to request information. I was just getting an idea for how a sports writer does what he does, speaking with as many people as possible and taking in as much information as possible.
It was important to him to have people in all the NHL cities, so when I went to college outside Chicago – and, of course, this was before the days of the internet – I would always clip Chicago Blackhawks stories out of the newspaper and mail them to him. He was very organised about gathering and keeping as much information as possible. I learned a lot from him about the information process and not only the different methods of collecting information, but just the importance of having this information at your disposal.
Can you remember what the first football book was that you read?
I’m sure that I read football books when I was younger that I don’t remember but one of the first football books I loved was No Medals for Trying by Jerry Izenberg. I grew up a Giants fan, so that’s a big book for me. Again, it just talked about things that you don’t know. The behind-scenes details in that book about Bill Parcells and about that team, were really very eye-opening.
What are your favourite football books?
Well, that is definitely high on the list. The Michael MacCambridge book, America’s Game, of course, is high on the list. It’s funny because when that book came out, I worked in the NFL and Paul Tagliabue bought copies for every employee in the New York office. He knew recognised the importance of that book, so I got my copy from Paul Tagliabue, but I’m not the only one. And not an NFL book, but Friday Night Lights.
Is there a football book you would consider an overlooked gem? It might actually be No Medals for Trying, because that’s one that most people don’t know about.
Yeah I would definitely consider that somewhat overlooked. The most successful football books are really regional books, because they’re team specific. You’ve got a fan base to go after. It’s highly doubtful that a fan of any other team is going to pick up No Medals for Trying and read a book about the Giants.
Thinking about books in general, what are the five books you would want to have with you on a desert island?
Ah, gosh. Well, I’ll go away from sports completely. I’m a big music fan and My Dirty Life and Times, the biography of Warren Zevon is one that I enjoyed a great deal. It’s really an oral history his ex-wife put together. And I think that’s high on my list. Dave Maraniss’s Lombardi book [When Pride Still Mattered] is very high on that list as well. I’d put Friday Night Lights up there for sure. And I’m only up to four, but I forgot to put my book in. And I would do that.
And is there a fiction book or something else you would have as a fifth? Something else about music, maybe?
Well, the Eric Clapton autobiography might be up there. I am particularly more ‘Team Non-Fiction’, and specifically biographies, so that might be up there as well. Oh, hold on here, the Paul Zimmerman’s book, The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football. I’d have to have that on my list.