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April 18, 2012

The Soundtrack of Football

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Written by: Jordan Jackson
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Logo courtesy of the National Football League

Imagine Ray Lewis shuffling out of the tunnel before games to total silence. Or Ric Flair entering the ring to John Cage’s silent 4’33” instead of his famous entrance to Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” What would college sports be without marching bands? The iconic and unending relationship between sport and music is undeniable.

For as long as the two have existed, music and sports have gone hand-in-hand. Together, they have provided the backbone of human entertainment since the time of the first Olympic Games in Ancient Greece. Gladiatorial contests in Ancient Rome were accompanied by musical festivities. Similarly, anthropological evidence suggests that primitive Mesoamerican and African cultures practiced athletic rituals that incorporated music.

The fusion of human society’s two greatest entertainment spectacles has continued to this very day: the six concluding notes of ESPN’s Sportscenter theme are some of the most recognizable in America; despite a legendary five-decade career in country music, Hank Williams, Jr. will forever be most well-known as “the Monday Night Football guy”; and how can one discuss sports and music without mentioning John Williams’ epic “Olympic Fanfare and Theme,” which, even three decades after its composition, so effectively captures and conveys the ubiquitous spirit of peaceful athletic competition among all nations?

Then there is perhaps the greatest, most prolific sports composer of them all, Sam Spence.

Who is Sam Spence, you ask? You’ve never heard of him? You have never heard “March to the Trenches” or “A Golden Boy Again”?

If you are a football fan, you undoubtedly have.

Although his name and the titles of his pieces are not household names among most music or sports fans, Sam Spence is one of the most important figures in the conjoining of the two. For 34 years, Spence was instrumental in developing and maintaining the unique aesthetic perspective with which NFL Films has come to be identified. Even most young football fans have, at some point, encountered one of the early NFL films featuring the familiar and entrancing baritone narration of John Facenda and the prodigious scoring of Spence.

Up until 1966, most sports films were using soundtracks comparable to the music of the marching bands you would hear live at sporting events. To be sure, this type of music lent itself well to certain areas of the subject, but on the whole, NFL Films founder Ed Sabol felt these typical, generic soundtracks were inadequate at conveying the intensity, violence and passion of the sport.

Enter Sam Spence.

Well… eventually. The job of composing music for NFL Films was initially offered to one of Spence’s colleagues, Mahlon Merrick, who recruited Spence to help him with recording the pieces. The story goes that after assisting Merrick with one particular session, Spence began adding and interpolating pieces of his own arrangements into those Merrick had already composed; upon hearing the newly altered renditions, Ed Sabol offered a contract to Spence to compose and produce the music for NFL Films. The way sports were filmed, and the way those films were presented would change forever.

Before the arrival of Spence’s dramatic scores, most NFL films were much like primitive versions of what we see now on ESPN recaps—the brief commentary of a sports anchor over an unobtrusive soundtrack, comparatively lacking in artistic style. Spence’s modernistic approach, often infusing elements of contemporary television and film scores into his own works, transformed simple highlight reels into cinematic epics.

Take for example NFL Films’ highlight video of Super Bowl XI between John Madden’s notorious Oakland Raiders and the Minnesota Vikings. The game was a yawner—a 33-14 beatdown of the Vikings at the hands of Madden’s controversial defensive backfield which included George Atkinson, Willie Brown and, most infamously, “The Assassin” Jack Tatum. But in the video, Spence’s music combines so well with the witty writing and narration that the result is a documentation of the below-average Super Bowl that is at least three times better than the actual game. You can listen to the music from the video and know what’s going on without looking—Jack Tatum’s separating of Sammie White from his helmet, chinstrap and ear pads, Willie Brown’s game-sealing pick-six, an elated John Madden grinning like a fool as he is hoisted upon the shoulders of his players—Sam Spence tells it all with minors and majors; sharps and flats.

For almost half a century now, football fans have grown up with the immortal images of NFL Films–the sea of steam coming from the Lambeau stands at the Ice Bowl, “The Catch,” Marcus Allen “running with the night”—but they are not the same on mute, without Spence’s “Batman Theme”-meets-Handel rhapsodies.

Not to discredit the remarkable John Facenda, but would his iconic reading of Steve Sabol’s “Autumn Wind” be as enduring within Raider Nation without Spence’s “Raider Theme” playing underneath it? It is difficult to imagining so. It is difficult to imagine football without NFL Films, and hard to imagine NFL Films without Sam Spence’s unquestionable brilliance.

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Jordan Jackson



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