Last assignment: NFL Films cameramen retiring after Sunday's game

NFL Films cameraman Bob Angelo.

MINNEAPOLIS — Ask Bob Angelo when he was hired by NFL Films, and he’ll give you not only the date but also the exact time of day.

“June 6, 1975, 1:35 p.m.,’’ he said proudly.

You don’t remember the time of day you were hired 42 years after the fact unless you really love your job. And Angelo, like most of the people who have worked for the company founded by the father-son team of Ed and Steve Sabol, really, really does.

He started writing please-hire-me letters to Steve when he was an undergrad at Penn State and continued to pester him as a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism.

“By the time I finished grad school, Steve had not just a cover letter and a resume from me, but had transcripts of radio shows I had done at both Penn State and Northwestern about pro football,’’ Angelo said.

“He had articles I had written for pro football magazines. He had letters to the editor I had written, and stuff that I had done for the Coraopolis [Pa.] Record. I was into it.’’

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Sabol was impressed by Angelo’s work and even more impressed by his persistence. He brought him to Philly for a visit and hired him on the spot.

“I started at $13,000,’’ Angelo said. “I thought I’d died and gone to Valhalla. I mean, I never thought I’d walk out of graduate school and be making that kind of money. Thirteen-thousand dollars in 1975, that was pretty good coin.

“My father was steelworker in Pittsburgh. He never made $10,000 in a year.’’

Losing three of the best

Angelo has spent the last 42 years as an award-winning cameraman and producer for NFL Films. On Sunday, he and two other longtime NFL Films cameramen – Hank McElwee and Donnie Marx – will shoot their final Super Bowl and ride off into the sunset.

The three, who have 122 combined years of experience at NFL Films, have taken buyouts that the league has offered to many of its longtime employees.

“I was going to do it [retire] in February of 2019 anyway,’’ said Angelo, the only one of the three who agreed to be interviewed for this story. “Then the league came through with the buyout offer and they wanted me to do it in February of this year.

“When I heard the terms of the deal [two weeks’ pay for every year on the job, plus two years of continued medical coverage], I said, ‘My mother didn’t raise me to be stupid. I will take this.’ ’’

Camera icon NFL FILMS
NFL Films cameraman Bob Angelo.

Losing three cameramen with the experience of Angelo, McElwee and Marx is a big blow to NFL Films.

“Those three guys, they’re part of the foundation of the place, they really are,’’ said Ray Didinger, a former Daily News columnist and Emmy-winning producer at NFL Films, who worked alongside all three. “I don’t know how you replace guys like that. To lose the three of them at the same time, that’s rough.

“Guys that know the game the way they know the game. Guys that love it the way they love it. It’s not just a matter of pointing the camera and pushing the trigger. You have to think it. That’s the whole key. Being in the right spot to get that shot.

“These guys were intuitive about football the way Peyton Manning was. They were as much a master of their craft as any player.’’

Capturing memorable moments

Each had his specialty. Angelo’s was getting sound and picture in the bench area. He was the one who captured Michael Strahan exhorting the Giants’ offense to “believe it and you will achieve it,’’ just before it went back out on the field for that game-winning 12-play, 83-yard drive against the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3, 2008.

Marx’s calling card was the slow-motion tight spiral, which became one of NFL Films’ staples.

“He was the master of following the ball in the air and following it all the way to the target,’’ Didinger said.

“People saw them so often, I don’t know if they appreciated the artistry of that shot. I remember back when I was still working there, the producers would go through the stuff from the games on Mondays and you’d see something Donnie did and you’d say, ‘This might be the best ever.’ But every week it seemed like he was able to top himself.’’

McElwee, much like another NFL Films legend, Phil Tuckett, gave us a lot of great presnap shots. The slow-motion shots of teams breaking the huddle. The tight close-ups of the quarterback’s eyes. Steam coming off the sweat-soaked heads of players on frigid days. The center putting his hand on the ball before the snap.

Finding the good sound

Camera icon NFL FILMS
NFL Films cameraman Bob Angelo.

Angelo had great instincts for knowing where the good sound was going to be.

“He knew the game inside out,’’ Didinger said. “He just had a sense for, OK, on the bench right now, here’s the guy to follow.

“Bob didn’t just wander around gathering random sound. Everything he did had a purpose. He just knew the game so well that he went where the story was.

“He was like a good reporter. He just knew where the story was and went there and always got it.’’

“That’s what I do,’’ Angelo said. “I use a wide-angle lens, which means I have to get right in players’ faces. I make them say things. Because most players, on game day, they’re bursting. They’re looking for a release. They have things they want to say.’’

Angelo said the Strahan moment from Super Bowl XLII actually was “dumb luck.’’

“Randy Moss had just caught a touchdown pass from Brady to put the Patriots up with about 2½ minutes left,’’ he said. “Everyone assumed the game was over.

“I said to my sound guy, ‘Well, the [Giants’] offensive line is grouping down here. Let’s go down and hang out there.’ I did. And who walks into the shot but Strahan? I stepped out so I could frame him properly. Michael delivered that little sermon and walked away.

“I turned to my sound man and said, ‘Yeah, fat chance. There’s no way they’re going to go out there and score and beat the Patriots.’ Well, guess what? They did. It made that sound bite golden.’’

Commanding respect

Angelo, McElwee and Marx commanded respect around the league from coaches and players. When Steve Sabol decided to do the “Hard Knocks’’ training-camp series, he had Angelo spearhead it because he knew he could get players and coaches to cooperate.

Didinger recalled a time he and McElwee went up to the New York Jets’ training camp to shoot some footage when Bill Parcells was the team’s coach.

“Parcells was not an easy guy to work with,’’ Didinger said. “That’s not a great revelation. He could be very prickly about things.

“Parcells knew we were coming. Our van pulled up and he still wasn’t real happy about it. I had to go over and kind of talk to him and tell him what we wanted to do and where we wanted to go and what we wanted to shoot.

“He was grouchy and grumpy. He said, ‘I don’t know if I want you guys doing that. You always get in the way.’

“Then he looked over my shoulder and saw Hank unloading the equipment and said, ‘Oh, you got Hank today. All right, go do whatever you want.’ ’’

Angelo has brought his wife Barb to Minnesota with him for his final Super Bowl. He said his primary objective is to get a table for them and four friends at Randle’s Restaurant, which is owned by Vikings Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle, on Saturday night.

Angelo produced the episode NFL Films did on Randle for its excellent “A Football Life’’ series several years ago.

“I’ve known John for 26 years,’’ he said. “He’s supposed to meet us there. It’s going to be nice.’’

A beginning, not an end

Angelo, who hopes to teach a television course at Rowan, said he hasn’t dwelled much on the fact that Sunday’s will be his last assignment for NFL Films.

“I haven’t allowed that in yet,’’ he said. “I’m sure I’m going to have some postpartum. But – and this sounds like a cliché – I’m not looking at it as the end of something. This is a beginning. I’ve been thinking of teaching for a long time. I’m looking forward to it.’’

He believes he is leaving NFL Films’ future in good hands.

“You’d be surprised how many fine young cinematographers there are behind us,’’ he said. “We have a very good, very talented staff. We’re not better than them. We’ve just been doing it longer.’’

It’s been a wonderful run.

“I’ll never forget what Steve said to me when he first hired me,’’ Angelo said. “He said, ‘Ang,’ working here is like waking up in the toy department of life.’

“He was right.’’