NFL Films has produced many unique films during its long history, but it arguably never has done a documentary with the magnitude of star power, location and emotion as its latest effort.
NFL Films Presents: Touchdown in Israel documents New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft taking 18 Hall of Famers on a spiritual journey to the Holy Land last summer. Hosted by Katie Nolan, the one-hour film, which airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET on NFL Network, shows the impact a visit to Israel had on these great players.
"This is one of the most rewarding films we've ever done," said producer/director Keith Cossrow. Kraft and his late wife, Myra, developed deep bonds to Israel, and he often brings people from different backgrounds to share the experience. This group would have been wonderful to follow on a trek to the corner store, let alone Israel: Jim Brown, Joe Montana, Roger Staubach, Joe Greene, Cris Carter, Andre Reed, John Stallworth, Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk, Dave Casper, Jerome Bettis, Ron Yary, Aeneas Williams, Lem Barney, Willie Lanier, Mike Singletary, Andre Tippett and Bruce Smith.
"You see them getting on the plane, one Hall of Famer after another," Cossrow said. "They knew how special it was too."
One player stood out more than the others. Despite being slowed by age, the 81-year-old Brown ploughed through tours that required much walking in the searing desert heat.
"The other players were quick to hold doors open for him, or slow down if he was walking slowly," Cossrow said. "They were honored to be in his presence."
Cossrow admitted he didn't know what to expect when Kraft invited NFL Films on the trip. Almost immediately, he knew he had something special.
On one of their first nights, several of the players served as coaches during an entertaining local football game in Tel Aviv. The Kraft Family Sports Campus attempts to develop another cultural link between the United States and Israel.
The mood then changed dramatically the following day during a trip to the Mount of Beatitudes and the Jordan River, where several players went through baptism ceremonies. Carter, who earlier in the film tells Kraft about how finding Christ helped him overcome drug problems as a player, is overcome with emotions during services at the holy sites.
At one point on the grounds, Williams asks a NFL Film cameraman, "Are you live?" He then launches into a speech about his faith.
"You see us with the equipment on," said the Arizona Cardinals Hall of Famer. "You see us with the helmets on. But at the end of the day, we're just human beings that are in need of Christ."
"That was the day when we realized we had something extraordinary," Cossrow said. "We did our best to show how powerful those emotions were to the players. They were incredibly spontaneous and emotional scenes."
Cossrow persuaded Kraft and the players to wear mics so they could capture more spontaneous moments during visits to the Dead Sea, the Western Wall and more. Perhaps the most moving was an exchange between Kraft and Barney, the Detroit Lions Hall of Famer. Barney tells Kraft, "how thankful [the players] are for you." Choking up, Kraft says to Barney, "Everywhere I go, I see my wife [Myra] here."
"It's a joy," Barney said. "You'll never forget."
Be advised to have some tissues nearby for that one.
It doesn't stop there. The closing scene is an emotional dinner in which all the Hall of Famers are asked to stand up and reflect on the trip. Cossrow said it might be "the most extraordinary event" he witnessed during his 20 years at NFL Films, with the players opening up about their personal feelings.
Faulk, with tears flowing, talked about his challenging roots growing up in a poor area of New Orleans, and how the odds were against him ever being included in a trip with NFL Hall of Famers to Israel. "So to be here, and to be friends with you all, and to hear your stories, and to have you all listening to my stories is unbelievable," Faulk said. "I came here as just a member of the Hall. Man, I'm leaving with some special relationships."
A trip to Israel has that kind of impact on people. And that's exactly what Cossrow is trying to show in the film. For all their success and star power, Cossrow says, at the end of the day, these Hall of Famers are no different than anyone else trying to learn more about their lives.
"One of the themes at NFL Films is to try to humanize the players," Cossrow said. "They're not just heroes we watch on TV. We want to show them as people who have hopes and dreams, fears and doubts, religious beliefs, and experience life just like the rest of us. [A film like this] gives us a chance to connect with them in new ways, to understand more who they are."