While owners, coaches and players have come and gone since 1981, one person has been a constant on “America’s team.”
When young Robert Blackwell ’76 arrived at SFA, he didn’t have a specific career goal in mind. He had taken a journalism class as an elective at the junior college he previously attended, and photography caught his attention.
At SFA, he was approached by a faculty member who asked him to be a part of the newly formed communication department.
“I knew I was meant to be here. If it weren’t for some of those first faculty members, especially Dr. Michael Roach and Dr. James Kroll (both now retired), I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Blackwell also recalls an enriching educational experience he had spending a summer traveling with Bill Arscott, SFA filmmaking professor, across the country to film archaeological sites associated with Native American reservations in the Western United States.
“The truck had a camper shell, and we had tents, and that was about it,” he said. “We had permits and were allowed to pack into areas that most people are never privileged to see. It was an incredible experience.”
Blackwell interrupted his studies at SFA to do a one-year project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“A U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist made a presentation on campus about its recovery program for the red wolf, and one of the primary concerns was convincing landowners to grant property access to its biologists,” Blackwell stated. “Dr. Kroll told them they needed a film describing the work and showing its importance, and that I was the one they should hire to create the film. I was pretty much hired on the spot.”
Blackwell returned to the Dallas area armed with his SFA degree and a wealth of hands-on experience and joined a colleague who had opened a photography studio.
“I contacted my high school about filming its football games. Through that work, I had the opportunity to help shoot football and basketball for Southern Methodist University from 1979 until 1982 — those were the days of the Pony Express with SMU running backs Craig James and Eric Dickerson.”
Through this experience, Blackwell was introduced to the coaching film director for the Dallas Cowboys, and in 1981, he received word that there was an opening for him on the Cowboys’ staff.
Blackwell began his tenure with the Cowboys as an assistant in the coaching film department and, just seven years later, was responsible for one of the most important jobs for the franchise — as the club’s representative at the NFL draft, Blackwell is responsible for ensuring the correct player’s name is presented to NFL officials when the Cowboys are on the clock. He has continued in that role for the past 29 years. In 1989, he was promoted to director of coaching video and has never missed a game.
While his work sounds glamorous, it is equally grueling. Staff members enjoy only two days off (the Friday and Saturday of the bye week) from the day training camp starts until the last game of the season. And the work doesn’t end when the season does.
“We are an arm of the coaching staff — to support their video technology needs,” Blackwell explained.
According to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, one of Blackwell’s greatest strengths has been his ability to adapt to technology and the ever-changing world of video study for the coaches and players.
“He has overseen the transition from 16-millimeter film to videotape and now to digital media, and he has always provided everything that we have needed with the highest level of efficiency,” Jones said. “He is trustworthy, hardworking and loyal to this organization and to the players and coaches he has served for more than three decades.”
On game day, Blackwell is responsible for the NFL’s instant replay and leads a staff of 17, including three camera operators and two still-shot operators. Technology has changed the work process — what used to take five hours is now almost instantaneous.
“When we were shooting film, I didn’t go home after the games,” Blackwell recalled. “I had a cot at the office, and I went there and processed film and slept for a few hours, if I could, before the coaches arrived at work the next morning.
“Now we upload to the cloud, and the coaches and players can download it at home on an iPad. When we play away games, the coaches and players are watching the game on their iPads many times before the plane even leaves to come home,” he added.
Blackwell said the spirit of investigation and exploration he witnessed at SFA has served him well throughout his career.
“The Cowboys were the first team to try a thermal-imaging printer instead of Polaroid photos to study plays during a game. When we started, the league told us we couldn’t have the printers on the field, so we used it in the locker room. My staff would physically run the pictures from the locker room to the sideline. After a year or two, every team was using it, and then the league allowed the printers on the field, as well.”
Printed photos have been replaced by digital technology throughout the league, but nowhere is the love for technology more evident than at The Star facility, the new home of the Dallas Cowboys World Headquarters in Frisco. Next door to Blackwell’s office in the video suite is a room where players can utilize virtual reality for training purposes. In addition to practice facilities, therapy rooms and corporate offices, The Star includes a 12,000-seat indoor football stadium where local high school football games will be hosted, and the facility is designed to include an entertainment district lined with restaurants, shops, a hotel and a medical center.
Standing in the dazzling new facilities near a display of the five Cowboys Super Bowl rings, five Lombardi Trophies and an overhead display of 19,200 LED lights designed by El Paso artist Leo Villareal, Blackwell said one of the most thrilling memories in his career stems from one of the most disappointing — a singular moment of athleticism during a notorious loss to San Francisco in the National Football Conference Championship game, played on Jan. 10, 1982, that has been memorialized in the hearts and minds of football fans everywhere as “The Catch.”
“Joe Montana threw a pass for a touchdown, and they beat us by one point, and then went on to win the Super Bowl,” Blackwell recalled. “That’s a moment you don’t forget. But the work that occurred during the next years to overcome that loss, and then coming back to beat San Francisco in the 1992 championship game and winning the Super Bowl just made that win more meaningful. Without a doubt, the harder you have to work for something, the more you appreciate it.”
The ring from Super Bowl XXVII was the first of three Blackwell has earned through his affiliation with the Cowboys. He said the long hours don’t feel like work to him because the organization is very much like a family. Similarly, there is a sense of camaraderie among all the video directors for teams throughout the NFL rather than the competition one might expect.
“When I go into their stadium and need something, I know that I’ll have it,” he said. “A few weeks ago, a team was missing video from an entire year, so the video director was calling every other team to ask for the tapes from their team’s games that year. And they will get those videos, because we all take care of each other. It wouldn’t be possible to do this work under any other circumstances. That’s what makes it enjoyable. And if you enjoy what you are doing, it doesn’t really feel like work at all.”