Gene Collier: Football, love get together in NFL films

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There are Pittsburgh-specific truths we've long held as self-evident, such as the one about not standing under the Fort Duquesne Bridge in the middle of the night, the same going for sitting or sleeping under it, among other things.

Unless, of course ... anybody?

It has something to do with the Steelers, bingo.

"My friends and I used to tailgate, probably before we should have been doing that, and we'd be the guys lined up right under the bridge at 3 a.m. in 1994," Keith Cossrow of NFL Films was saying over the phone the other day. "The Steelers were just so much a part of my background and my identity as a person. Growing up around sports just gave me that love of Pittsburgh."

Growing up in Mt. Lebanon, Cossrow claims he learned to read from the sports columns of the Post-Gazette and the late Pittsburgh Press, which worked out well since some of us were learning to write through the very same vehicles.

By the time he'd found his way to Duke and discovered that a lifelong love of sports added nothing to the understanding of organic chemistry, nor to a million other challenges along the pre-med track, it was becoming evident that Cossrow would emerge from there a writer and storyteller.

He wrote about the role of sports in the life of Pittsburgh, and he wrote elegantly and compellingly enough that he intrigued the late NFL Films co-founder Steve Sabol, who hired him right out of school.

"Steve Sabol specifically looked for storytellers," Cossrow said. "He felt writing was most undervalued thing in the culture. I didn't know the first thing about film making."

The reason I'm telling you this story is because Cossrow recently finished telling some of the best football love stories ever put to video, stories he considers among the most important he's presented in a now 17-year career that's included 10 Emmys as a producer, writer, director, and editor (he's also senior producer for HBO's football essential, "Hark Knocks.")

Four million people watched the finished product, a one-hour film called "Football America: Our Stories," that ran during Fox's Super Bowl pre-game lineup. You can see it at www.togetherwemakefootball.com.

The people featured in this film walk right into your soul, and though each is surprising and life-affirming in their unique relationship to football, the game is often mere subtext to a far more poignant narrative.

"They were far more meaningful and powerful than any of us thought they would be," he said. "It began with a national ad campaign asking the question, "Why do you love football?" There were a bunch of celebrities -- Condoleeza Rice, Joe Montana, Dr. Oz that helped us get some unbelievable spots, but that wasn't where we were headed.

"We made it a contest. As the carrot, you could win a Super Bowl trip. We had no idea what the response would be. Anytime you ask people to get off the couch and do something, that's a big ask. But we got thousands of submissions. People telling us how football changed their lives."

So what Cossrow and co-producer Digger O'Brien at NFL Films did was put together 10 three-minute films on five contest winners and five honorable mentions, each more beautiful and inspiring than the next. Former president Bill Clinton was so moved by these stories, he spent time with five winners at the Super Bowl.

There's a kid in Texas playing linebacker with one arm. There's a 74-year-old in Connecticut firing completions all over the lot in flag football. There's an elementary school boy in Arkansas with a rare blood disorder quarterbacking a team of 8-year-olds. There's a 32-year old lineman who once weighed 500 pounds playing for Oakland University in Detroit. And the best might be the one about a Los Angeles artist named Heidi Gilbert, who joined this country's 185 million football fans mostly because she just wandered toward them from a bout of depression. Cut loose from her dream job as a Disney artist after a bad performance review, she became a fan of the New England Patriots just because she liked their logo. She got her optimism back after looking at the original scouting info on quarterback Tom Brady.

"Brady didn't say that the scouts were wrong in their criticism of hm," Gilbert says in the film. "He didn't refute that he lacks mobility. He just kinda said that they didn't know how much fight he had in him."

Re-inspired, Gilbert is now an animator at DreamWorks.

"I loved that story," Cossrow said. "The other stories jump out because they are about people who have overcome so much. Heidi was a case where her struggles were something we can all relate to. She was a young professional who was let go, had a crisis of confidence and was depressed, and got her direction back because of football.

"My favorite moment in the whole campaign was the one between the boy from Frisco (Tex.) and (the Cowboys) DeMarcus Ware. The way DeMarcus ran up and embraced that kid, a kid he hadn't seen since he was 4 years old, the kid that asked him if he thought someone with one arm could ever play football, that was just so special."

Ware told Tyler that if he put his mind to it, he could do anything. Tyler is almost 13 now, playing football for his middle school team. He has this one small complaint he shares with his mom, who took him to meet Ware at a grocery store all those years ago.

"Mom, I don't want to be known for being good for a kid missing an arm; I just want to be known for being good."

This is what great storytellers do. You'll find them here and there, if you're really looking. Sometimes they even pull them from beneath the bridges in Pittsburgh.


Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.

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