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HBO's 'Hard Knocks' Takes Fans Inside Houston Texans' Training Camp


Football fans - and even those who don't watch any football - hear this.


JOHN FACENDA: Professional football in America is a special game - a unique game played nowhere else on earth.

GREENE: That is vintage sound from the cinematic arm of the National Football League. NFL Films has for decades been selling football as powerful visual drama.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Goal line, goal line. Ready? Let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: (Unintelligible) moves into the right. (Unintelligible) goes to the left. (Unintelligible) off the right side - makes a spin move to right side. He's hitting right now.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Hey, man, huddle up. Huddle up, huddle up.

GREENE: NFL Films was founded by a coat salesman named Ed Sabol who learned filmmaking by shooting his son's high school football games and paid $5,000 for the right to film the 1962 NFL Championship. He and his son Steve Sabol made NFL films. It was part promotional, part documentary, always gripping. Father and son have passed away, but their legacy lives on here.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: It's day four of camp.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Nice job, nice job. Out of the way.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Far too early for an injury.


GREENE: This is from the popular HBO television series "Hard Knocks." The reality show takes fans inside one team's training camp before the season starts. The 10th season of "Hard Knocks" premieres tonight, and we caught up with the show's director, Matt Dissinger, on the practice field. He talked about the Sabol influence.

MATT DISSINGER: We have a banner that hangs in our building that says Keepers of the Flame, and that's something that we take to heart. We - starting out - promoted the image of the NFL, and we still take that responsibility very seriously. The mission of the show's really to peel back the curtain on the NFL, and fans are always excited about getting inside, seeing the blood, sweat and tears. I mean that's what we're really trying to accomplish here.

GREENE: More than three-and-a-half-million people tune in to "Hard Knocks" each week according to HBO, and this season, the show turns its lens on the Houston Texans. Cameras follow the players everywhere, but Texans offensive lineman Duane Brown, also sitting on the practice field when we spoke, says he and his teammates try not to play to the cameras.

DUANE BROWN: I think, you know, whatever you guys see on the episodes is pretty much the real personality. You know, I think anyone that's kind of animated - that's how they are. No one's really playing to the camera too much. If anything, people might be a little bit more reserved.

GREENE: But the cameras are truly on all the time. And the show doesn't always shy away from behavior by players that could make the league look bad, like in 2012 when Miami Dolphins wide receiver Chad Johnson was arrested for head-butting his wife. Here is Dolphins Coach Joe Philbin on the show informing Johnson that he has been cut.


JOE PHILBIN: It's nothing personal, and I - you know, trust me. I acknowledge people make mistakes, and nobody knows that more than me. And...

CHAD JOHNSON: Coach, I've never been in trouble before.

PHILBIN: I know that.

JOHNSON: Ever, and I buy into your program most definitely.

GREENE: Uncomfortable moments like that can be the most compelling for viewers, and they're often caught on robotic cameras are placed inside coaches' offices and operated remotely. Another moment that made the show in 2012 - Dolphins quarterback Vontae Davis getting some tough news.

PHILBIN: OK. We just traded you, OK? We traded you to the Indianapolis Colts, all right? So you OK?

VONTAE DAVIS: No, I'm going to call my grandma.

PHILBIN: You're going to call your grandmother?

DAVIS: Yeah.

PHILBIN: OK, this has...

GREENE: Now Director Matt Dissinger, sitting on the practice field with Texans player Duane Brown, said the teams do have some say over how the show's edited.

DISSINGER: Really, what we're screening for is anything that might put the Texans or any team that does "Hard Knocks" at a competitive disadvantage. That's the stuff we're screening for.

GREENE: So if it's a moment like that that doesn't really matter in terms of competitive advantage, there's nothing the team can do. I mean, you guys have the right to put it on the air?

DISSINGER: I mean, you know, we work with the team. We build up a trust. I mean, the team screens the episodes before they air. And if there's anything they're concerned about, you know, we work through those concerns.

GREENE: And that makes me wonder. I mean, there have been local reporters who have said it's not fair that NFL Films gets access that we don't. Does - I mean, should people see this not as journalism, but as sort of something that the teams get to screen and have a role to play?

DISSINGER: It's not journalism. We're not here trying to break stories. We're not, you know, looking for the most scandalous stuff. What we're doing is we're covering a training camp. Stories that may happen here - we'll have to document them, you know, salacious or not. But we're not looking to put the team in a negative light. That's just not what NFL Films has ever been about. We're not journalists. We're filmmakers.

GREENE: Duane, I - you've to pro bowls. I don't expect there to be much of a chance that you're going to be cut in this training camp. But if you were, I mean, could you imagine wanting that conversation to be caught on camera?

BROWN: It's difficult man. I could imagine, you know, in watching in seasons past, it looks like a very, very difficult moment, I think, for everyone, you know, to do that on a camera. But, you know, it's part of the business, you know, and it's unfortunate, but it's necessary. So I think if you get all the good moments that happen at training camp, you got to get the difficult moments, as well.

GREENE: That's Duane Brown. He plays offensive tackle for the Houston Texans. We also spoke with Matt Dissinger, director of NFL Films show "Hard Knocks." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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