ESPN’s Todd Blackledge, 1983 NFL Draft first-round QB, reflects on being part of 30 for 30 film, Elway To Marino

Todd Blackledge led Penn State to the national championship in 1982 and won the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s most outstanding QB. (Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)
Todd Blackledge led Penn State to the National Championship in 1982 and won the Davey O’Brien Award as the nation’s most outstanding quarterback. (Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images)

ESPN Films’ latest 30 for 30 production Elway to Marino, narrated by Tom Selleck, premieres Tuesday (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET).

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Q&A: Director Ken Rodgers

Ken Rodgers
Ken Rodgers

“Elway to Marino” is directed by Ken Rodgers of NFL Films, who serves as the supervising producer for HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” Here, he discusses the film.

How was creating a documentary on the ’83 Draft different than working on “Hard Knocks?”
On “Hard Knocks” we start with hundreds of hours of raw footage and find the stories. On “Elway to Marino,” we already had great stories, but no footage. The subject of the film is a series of backroom deals, secret conversations and off-the-record negotiations – none of which had been recorded visually. When I first heard the pitch, I thought “That’s a great book, but what’s the movie?”

Tell us about how your team recreated an exact replica of the hotel conference room where the ’83 Draft took place.
It was incredibly tough. We knew we would be cutting back and forth between the original draft footage and our recreated room, so the details had to be exact. Our art directors found a way to spray paint a pattern onto a plain carpet so it matched the carpet from 1983 and we were lucky to find a woman on Long Island who had collected all of the 1983 helmet phones used by the teams. From start to finish it was a four-day shoot — in the middle of a snow storm in NYC.

You interviewed many players for this film, including both John Elway and Dan Marino and their then-agent Marvin Demoff. What surprised you during this process?
Everything! The biggest shock was contained in Demoff’s diary from 1983 — in it he says “Call with [49ers Head Coach] Bill Walsh — would be interested in John Elway if he can trade [Joe] Montana.” That was the moment I knew we were going to break new ground with this film.

Do you think the NFL Draft has evolved a lot since 1983 in the way the draft is presented to viewers and the way that players prepare for it?
Absolutely, but then again, the entire sports television industry has evolved with it. One of the charming subtexts of this film is seeing the ESPN/NFL partnership as it existed in 1983. . . the draft has always had great built-in drama.
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The film explores the 1983 NFL Draft in which six quarterbacks were selected in the first round — still the most for that position in the draft’s opening round.

Stanford quarterback John Elway was the first player selected overall. Penn State star and current ESPN college football analyst Todd Blackledge was the second quarterback selected, chosen with the seventh overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Front Row recently spoke with Blackledge, who has not seen the film yet, to discuss his memories of the ’83 draft and being part of Elway to Marino.

ESPN's Todd Blackledge (Joe Faroni / ESPN Images)
ESPN’s Todd Blackledge (Joe Faroni / ESPN Images)

What are your memories of the ’83 NFL Draft?
Back then, the draft wasn’t as big a deal from a TV standpoint as it is now. When the day came, I was in my apartment watching TV. No one used to go to New York at that time. My roommate was [Penn State] running back Curt Warner and he also expected to be a first-round pick. He had gone to LA to watch with his agent. I thought I’d go in the middle or late first round. I knew [Pitt QB] Dan Marino and [the University of Miami’s] Jim Kelly since we played those guys, and I knew of [Stanford QB] John Elway. But I didn’t know much about the other quarterbacks [Illinois’ Tony Eason and UC-Davis’ Ken O’Brien were also 1983 first-round selections]. These days everyone knows everything about all the players. It was an incredible feeling when I heard my name on the TV broadcast and I was thrilled that the Kansas City Chiefs picked me. It was a dream come true.

Compare and contrast the NFL Draft coverage today to what the scrutiny was like in 1983.
There was always a lot of scrutiny by the NFL teams — especially for those expected to be high draft picks. But the biggest difference is the media involvement now. So much media programming happens that breaks down every player in such a public way. I imagine the teams still do what they’ve always done though.

The 1983 draft class has long been considered the NFL’s top group of QBs all-time, but some now contend the 2012 class might be even better. What are your thoughts?
I think time will be the true test. Three of the six guys taken in ’83 are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Time will tell how the 2012 class really compares. The 2012 class definitely made a bigger initial splash. College QBs are growing up in more sophisticated pass offenses now. The passing game is much different. They’re prepared better, they see more coverages. The college passing game is now more like the pro passing game.

What’s your reaction to this fact from ESPN Stats and Info’s Twitter feed?:

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My reaction is that someone had to dig pretty deep to find that obscure fact. It is surprising but all I can really say to that is that I wish I would have won a lot more games as the starting QB for the Chiefs.

What does it feel like to be in a 30 for 30 film?
It was pretty exciting. My wife and I have four boys and we’re all huge fans of the series. We’ve seen every one of them, I think. I went up a few notches in my boys’ eyes for being picked to be in a 30 for 30.

What is your favorite 30 for 30 film?
Four Days in October about the 2004 ALCS between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. The story of the Red Sox’ comeback was incredible and dramatic. And I loved the way they weaved in the broadcast footage and sound through the show. It really added to the intensity and the drama of the whole story.

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