Icons: The Voice of God

The booming baritone of John Facenda, legendary Philadelphia newscaster and signature of NFL Films, has popped up selling everything from Campbell’s chili to video games. Now his son Jack is fighting to reclaim it.


Jack Facenda first heard the voice of his father’s ghost not long after his father died. It was more of a chat than a banshee wail. The voice spoke to him through a telephone.

Earlier that day in 1986, Jack had bumped into a friend, who congratulated him. Jack’s father, John Facenda — probably the most famous newsman in Philadelphia’s history, and the legendary voice of NFL Films — would soon be honored by the Football Hall of Fame.

Jack was stunned. “What?”

The friend said, “I read it in the newspaper.”

Jack couldn’t believe it: the Football Hall of Fame? And no one had called the family to let them know? From his home in Lansdowne, he called the Hall of Fame to confirm the story. Someone there explained that the award was being accepted by Steve Sabol, head of NFL Films. Apparently, the Hall of Fame had no idea Facenda had a son.

Jack staggered again: Why would this Steve Sabol guy try to hijack his father’s legacy?

John Facenda had died just more than a year before, and Jack’s mother had died even more recently. So at the time, the son was still struggling to sort out their estate, settle their affairs and somehow handle his own grief. A middle-aged orphan.

The Hall of Fame person asked Jack to hold. “Yeah, sure,” he said. That’s when a recording of his father came on the line.

His voice sounded deeper and broader than anything else on earth — people called it the Voice of God — and it described the glory of football, autumn warriors, the clash of gladiators on the frozen plains of Lambeau Field.

In the coming years, Jack would be summoned again and again to protect the Facenda legacy, as his father’s voice cropped up posthumously selling Chunky Chili, and then later a video game, and eventually who knew what. That voice meant a lot to various corporations — credibility, recognition, commodity — but to Jack it meant much more.

The son didn’t hear a useful piece of intellectual property, as he stood there waiting for the Hall of Fame person to come back on the line. He didn’t hear the Voice of God. He heard a message all his own, and kept the phone pressed to his ear:

Dad.

THE WHOLE ENDEAVOR STARTED, or so the story goes, with a handshake at a nightclub on the city’s edge.

In 1964, John Facenda strolled into the San Marco, a favorite nightspot on City Avenue for Philadelphia’s newsmen. People called City Avenue the “Golden Mile” then. It was a place full of swagger and splash. Much of that was due to television station WCAU’s move there in the ’50s — an extraordinary step, for a station to move its headquarters outside the city, and a boost for the area’s sense of cool.

In the San Marco, Facenda took off his hat — he always wore a hat — and took his seat at the bar. Through the cigarette smoke, he saw what was a novelty for a bar: a television. The black-and-white box meant more than easy entertainment, then. After decades of radio rule, television had taken over. Each evening the princes of the new medium broadcast the news from a few blocks away, then paraded down to the San Marco for drinks, and Facenda ruled them all. “He was the dean of broadcasters,” says Gerry Wilkinson, who now runs Broadcast Pioneers, a preservation society for Philadelphia’s television history. “He was first, and he was best.”

Down the bar, another man, Ed Sabol, watched the television as well. He worked as an aspiring filmmaker. The bar’s owner, keen to use his television to bring in business, had invited Sabol to show off some of his spectacular football highlight footage. And it was astonishing: slow-motion violence, players crashing and trampling, the high spiral of the ball dropping through snow into the waiting hands of a receiver.

Facenda marveled. He opened his mouth and his voice poured out, narrating the plays as they unfolded on the film. From down the bar, Sabol listened, then approached. “If I give you a script,” he asked Facenda, “could you repeat what you just did?”

The broadcaster said, “I’ll try.”

Facenda and Sabol shook hands, laying the foundation for an empire: NFL Films would go on to earn more than $50 million per year, change the way Americans watch football, and carry on for at least two generations, to their sons: Jack and Steve.

The handshake, however, wouldn’t hold up as well.

IN PHILADELPHIA, JOHN FACENDA’S FAME had grown until he could hardly move among the public in peace. His young son, Jack, watched him shake hands at restaurants until his food grew cold. He famously treated the public like family. He gave away his watch, once. He gave away money. He gave away his time. “I was a copy boy then,” says Bill Baldini, who went on to cover Philadelphia as a television reporter for four decades. “There was nothing lower than a copy boy. And John Facenda always treated me the same way he treated the station’s general manager.”

Facenda was the archetypal Philadelphia star, and he felt a responsibility to shine. His position did limit his home life, though; before Jack came home from school each day, Facenda left for work. He did news at 6 p.m., then again at 11, and typically got home sometime early the next morning. On most days, Jack saw and heard his father more on television than in person; a face in the corner, a voice murmuring during dinnertime. A TV father-figure for the city; a TV father for Jack.

John Facenda had fallen into broadcasting by accident, when he was young. He worked for the company that owned radio station WHAT, and one day the station’s announcer fell sick, so Facenda stepped in. His talent won him a job right away, although he was soon tripped up by his stubborn principles: While climbing WHAT’s radio tower to knock off ice after a storm, he tore his $5 leather gloves. When the station manager refused to reimburse him, he quit. He didn’t allow anybody to take advantage of him, even if it cost him his job.

Despite the gloves incident, Facenda went on to become a local radio star just as the new medium of television appeared. He saw its potential early, and anchored his first newscast in 1948, years before the term “anchorman” came along, much less all its blow-dried, manicured connotations. John Facenda looked like South Philly — dark Italian hair slicked back, a prizefighter’s nose, a forehead like a cinder block — but he spoke from Mount Olympus.

Facenda pioneered the evening news as America knows it when he anchored the country’s first 11 p.m. broadcast at Channel 10. The station’s producers called the idea crazy: Who would stay up that late to hear the news? But Facenda’s face and voice became so ubiquitous that Philadelphians waited to hear his sign-off — “Have a nice night tonight and a good day tomorrow. Goodnight, all” — as a cue to turn off their televisions and go to sleep.

Facenda’s fame — and his identity through that fame — was both a blessing and a curse to young Jack. “Sometimes I resented the intrusion on our private life,” he says now. “People can be unthinking. … ” His voice tightens. “If my mother and dad and I were out for a rare dinner at a restaurant, people would keep coming over — ‘John, come over and meet my wife’ — and I would think, can’t you understand there’s a family having dinner here?”

There’s a certain ownership a boy feels for his father, a certain greedy love, a certain bottomless capacity for attention and time, and perhaps even more so if the son knows his father largely in reproduced form.

ED SABOL SOLD OVERCOATS IN PHILADELPHIA, in 1962. But he had a feeling about football.

Sabol knew two things: The head-cracking sport was poised to overtake baseball as America’s most popular pastime. And he knew he liked filming his son Steve’s high-school football games with the 16mm camera someone had given him.

So Sabol, armed with those two ideas, contacted Pete Rozelle, the NFL’s commissioner. Sabol, the overcoat salesman, offered him $3,000 for the right to film the 1962 championship game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers. Rozelle accepted.

For the next couple of years, Sabol shot games and compiled footage. Then, in 1965, after the legendary meeting at the San Marco, Sabol and Facenda made They Call It Pro Football, likely the most influential football film of all time. In it, Facenda’s voice thunders in from some great height: “It starts with a whistle, and ends with a gun. … ”

Those words forever changed the trajectory of pro football. “The rise of the NFL, and the legend, the sense of creative violence, was thanks to John Facenda,” says Larry Kane, another legendary Philadelphia newscaster, who took over the market when Facenda left. “He turned it into a poetic venture.”

The early NFL Films lifted football from Rust Belt sandlots to a higher, more heroic place. Bodies crashed; men grunted under the strain of each play, then taunted each other afterward. Timpani boomed. Cameras showed close-ups of players’ faces: the swollen eye, the newly crooked nose. The players seemed to operate in a world where time stretched and collapsed, where slow motion lent them the grace and lightness of ballet dancers, before their great planetary weight brought them crashing down, furrowing the earth.

It worked. It all seemed so incongruous, so removed from the mere game that little boys played on a million acres’ worth of front yards across America. It made football epic. And over all this, marshaling all this — this largeness — loomed the voice of John Facenda. Who else could narrate the immortal deeds of men like Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas and Mean Joe Greene?

The Voice of God, indeed.

JACK FACENDA LIVES IN A CABIN NOW, on a Pocono mountainside. The cabin’s interior is a monument to a career spent in public service, full of artifacts from tribal societies around the world; Jack worked in the Peace Corps.

“That’s a blowpipe from Borneo,” he says happily, pointing to a weapon on the wall. Leaping across the pine boards of his cabin, with his pipe clamped in his teeth and a long white beard, Jack resembles a lively old wood-elf. “The people I worked with were head-hunting tribes. They were pretty primitive.”

Jack devoted himself to “fighting hunger, disease, poverty,” as the Peace Corps says, and then spent a career in the program’s administration. Now, the 68-year-old son devotes himself to preserving his father’s legacy. “These go back to the 1930s, ’40s,” he says, displaying stacks of photos and letters and articles. They’re papers the elder Facenda had tossed into his damp basement, and that Jack rescued after his father died. They’ve since become his obsession, arranged chronologically, indexed, cross-referenced, placed under plastic and protected. Jack picks up a particular photo and holds it at arm’s length. He murmurs to himself. “Well, that tie was 1974. … ”

He bounds down wooden stairs to his basement, where he throws open the door and reveals a miniature personal museum, a shrine to his father’s memory that makes his collection upstairs look like a mere hobby. There’s his dad in a photo with Frank Sinatra. Lucille Ball. President Eisenhower. Meritorious medals. A game ball from the 1977 Super Bowl. And box after box of scripts, contracts, thank-you letters and more. But none of the papers capture John Facenda’s real gift: the voice.

Jack puts on a tape. There’s a blast of trumpets, followed by the rumble of Facenda’s throat: “It is a rare game. The men who play it make it so.”

That’s the ghost of Jack’s father, the one that speaks to him now and again, urging him to protect the legacy. The first time it spoke, during the phone call to the Hall of Fame, everything turned out fine: The Hall invited Jack and his children to accept the honor on his father’s behalf.

The next spectral call came through his television, a couple of years ago. Jack suddenly heard his father exhorting him to — to what? To buy a can of Campbell’s Chunky Chili. Great for tailgate parties.

Jack stared at the television. How could this be? His father had been dead nearly two decades, and yet here he was, selling soup. It turned out the Campbell’s commercial had called for narration by a John Facenda sound-alike. Jack sued, and Campbell’s settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Jack dislikes legal wrangling with companies that try to usurp his dad’s voice, but “Money is the only thing they understand,” he says, whacking his pipe on a table with increasing emphasis. “That’s not the way my father would have done it, and I’d prefer a handshake and a man-to-man understanding.”

Then, several months after the Campbell’s settlement, Jack heard it again: his father on television, this time in a program about the making of Madden ’06, a video game produced by EA Sports, which partners with the NFL.

Jack felt angry at the league, on his father’s behalf. “His contract said they could use [his voice] however they wanted, but it couldn’t be used to endorse a commercial product,” Jack says. To do so, he felt, was to undermine his father’s integrity, and to take advantage: to use the enormous credibility of John Facenda’s voice to give the video game credibility, authenticity, realism. The NFL, in effect, had asked his father to climb the icy radio tower without reimbursing him for his torn gloves.

It turned out to be a very expensive pair. Reports say EA Sports paid the NFL more than $300 million for exclusive video-game rights for five years. “Now you’re talking big bucks,” Jack says, waving his pipe. “You don’t need to put my dad’s voice in there just for the hell of it.”

The Sabols’ NFL Films headquarters, a new 200,000-square-foot structure, stands about 25 minutes east of Philadelphia, in Mount Laurel. But the Sabols declined to speak on the subject of Facenda, deferring to the NFL’s spokesman in New York, who said, “We regret there is a difference of opinion.”

Almost half a century ago, John Facenda and Ed Sabol shook hands at the San Marco on swinging City Avenue. But now the “Golden Mile” is a traffic nightmare, men don’t wear hats, and the San Marco has become the world’s classiest KFC. And the two sons — Jack and Steve — don’t have the bond their fathers forged. Thinking about it, Jack whacks his pipe again on the table.

“Young Steve is a whole different guy,” he says. “He thinks the whole success of NFL Films is because they wrote all the scripts for my father. It wouldn’t be anything if they didn’t write the scripts. … Yeah, my father was there, but it was really their scripts.”

In July of last year, Jack Facenda’s attorney filed suit against the NFL and NFL Films in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia. “I’m going to go fight it,” Jack says. “I guess a hundred years ago you’d go down and slap Steve across the face and challenge him to a duel. … Now, what options do I have?”

Steve Sabol’s success — the success of NFL Films — stands on the work of both his father and Jack’s. He has acknowledged as much: “There will never be another voice like his,” Sabol said of Facenda back in 1984. “Somebody once said he could make the coin toss sound like Armageddon.”

But now, Jack says, Sabol has downplayed Facenda’s role. In the NFL’s court filings in response to Jack’s suit, the league refers to Facenda simply as “one of the narrators.”

Larry Kane, Facenda’s broadcast successor, speaks bluntly. “To say the name John Facenda is irrelevant to the NFL is to say Jim Brown and Vince Lombardi had no impact either. And that’s bullshit,” he says, pausing to reload. “And John Madden himself should be ashamed to be associated with this. Ashamed.”

In May, a judge ruled that Jack Facenda can seek damages for the NFL’s use of his father’s voice; the league plans to appeal. Jack promises to press on as well, with the NFL and with anyone else he feels threatens his father’s legacy. He’ll keep filing the old audio tapes, and organizing the photos.

“Time is ticking. My kids aren’t going to know as much about who this person was in these photos,” he says. He smokes his pipe a bit, then adds, “My father did good work. I will defend that.”

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  • Lynn Swanson

    He will always be THE VOICE of NFL Films.