Bobby Smith went from the football field to behind the camera with NFL Films
The grainy film and vintage photos take you back in time. The eight-minute video celebrates Stillwater's 1967 Class 2A state championship, the only state football title in the Pioneers' history.
But something about the video is startling. The narrator. The voice sounds stunningly familiar, yet out of place.
Yes, it sounds like John Facenda, but how could the legendary narrator of NFL Films, with a Voice of God sound, be telling the story of 1967 Stillwater football? How could the man whose voice forever will live with “frozen tundra” and “autumn wind,” the man who died in 1984 but whose voice defined a football era, be describing the '67 Pioneers the way he would the '76 Oakland Raiders.
How could that be? It could be because of Bobby Smith.
Stillwater's 1967 quarterback became a 40-year employee of NFL Films. A videographer who shot 42 Super Bowls. His wife, Kennie, his high school sweetheart, also joined NFL Films in the 1970s and eventually became a vice president in the company.
Smith decades ago put together the Stillwater video and commissioned Facenda to do the voice-over. One of the perks of the job. Among many.
“I loved games,” Smith said this week from his home in Tabernacle, New Jersey. “Game days are the best.”
Smith was hired as an editor at NFL Films in 1973, was given a camera in 1974 and became NFL Films' first rookie videographer at the Super Bowl that season, the Steelers' 16-6 victory over the Vikings.
The game's only touchdown, a catch by Pittsburgh's Larry Brown, came right at him.
Many more great moments were to follow. Dwight Clark's touchdown catch against Dallas in the 1981 NFC Championship Game. The snowplow game of 1982, when New England coach Ron Meyer, with Smith standing right next to him, ordered the field cleaned for a field goal. Super Bowl 50, when Peyton Manning went out a winner.
“Shot all that,” Smith said. “Lot of great memories. People will be watching them for years and years. They don't know who shot it, but I do.”
Quite a career. Made possible by Smith's natural curiosity and a string of unlikely events.
He quarterbacked the '67 Pioneers to the state title, then coach Jim Harris retired. The new coach eventually replaced Smith as the Stillwater quarterback. The new quarterback — Smith's best friend, Rod Warner, went on to get an OSU football scholarship and eventually became Wes Welker's high school coach at Heritage Hall.
That was a scholarship Smith sought. “We didn't have any money,” Smith said. “If I don't have a scholarship, I don't go to college.”
Smith ended up at Northeastern A&M Junior College, which was a juco power. The Norse had 13 scholarships available at a tryout with 113 freshmen participants. Smith was given one of those scholarship.
Midway through that 1969 season, Smith was a fourth-team quarterback and volunteered to be the NEO kicker. Norse coach Chuck Bowman tried out Smith, and he became NEO's kicker all the way through the juco national championship.
“I owe Chuck everything,” Smith said. “Chuck was always there when God wanted him to be there. Great man and great mentor. Helped me an awful lot.”
Smith still is repaying the debt. Bowman, of course, became the longtime director of the state Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Now retired but still involved, Bowman will be in Estes Park, Colorado, later this year for a Heroes of FCA program. Smith will be there to film it.
From NEO, Smith went to Drake University, where he was a kicker and backup quarterback.
Smith went to Drake intent on print journalism. But walking in a basement building, he saw a door open and vibrant light shot out. He likened it to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Smith poked his head in the door, saw the studio lights and cameras run by guys wearing headsets, and he was infatuated. Went straight upstairs and changed his major.
Smith worked at WHO television in Des Moines, Iowa, produced his own football team's highlight video, realized his voice rose three octaves when he went in front of the camera and decided his future was behind the camera.
In summer 1973, at a futile training camp with the Kansas City Chiefs — Jan Stenerud was the KC kicker and on his way to the Hall of Fame — Smith struck up a conversation with an NFL Films videographer and got invited to a training-table dinner, which included Steve Sabol, whose father, Ed, had founded the burgeoning company.
Not long after, by which time Smith had been cut by both the Chiefs and the Chicago Bears, Ed Sabol called and offered a job.
NFL Films in the 1970s became a sensation, with the monopoly on NFL highlights and timeless 30-minute videos narrated by Facenda. Some credit NFL Films for igniting the mass popularity of pro football in the 1970s. The Sabols eventually sold NFL Films to the league itself.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle “loved NFL films,” Smith said. “It was a cutting-edge kind of thing. That was the pressure of shooting NFL films. Television had 8-12 cameras. Today they have 20 or 30. You wanted a better shot than the television.
“It was pressure and it was fun. You're shooting history. You're shooting things that were big that will last forever that people want to see and hear.”
Smith had his favorites. He didn't like the secretive Patriots. But he loved Bill Cowher, who coached the Steelers. “What a character,” Smith said. “He was something else. I liked Mike Shanahan. He knew how to keep us at arm's length, but he trusted us. Sam Wyche was a character. Guys that understood the history and where it was going to be seen.”
In 1998, Smith shot a Chiefs game at Arrowhead Stadium and ran into Stenerud and former KC quarterback Len Dawson, who was the holder for kicks back in the ‘70s.
“If it isn't the two guys that kicked me out of the NFL,” Smith said. “Lenny said, ‘seems to me, you're the only one standing here still getting a check from the NFL.' We all had a pretty great time.”
Smith retired from NFL Films in 2009 but went back to occasionally shoot big games. Super Bowl 50, Denver-Carolina, was his finale 2 1/2 years ago.
The Smiths live about 25 miles outside Philadelphia, play a bunch of tennis and spend time at a winter home in Fort Myers, Florida.
And last autumn, they returned to Stillwater for the 50-year reunion of a certain football team.
“What a great guy,” said Rod Warner, who beat out his best friend in 1968, the year the Pioneers lost in the state championship game. “It was a lot of fun. A special group.”
Smith put together some footage from that reunion and retooled his project from decades before, producing a 30-minute video on Stillwater's only state football championship. Facenda's voice was not available. But the video has the imprint of another staple of NFL Films.
Berry Tramel: Berry can be reached at (405) 760-8080 or at email@example.com. He can be heard Monday through Friday from 4:40-5:20 p.m. on The Sports Animal radio network, including FM-98.1. You can also view his personality page at newsok.com/berrytramel.