Closing Shot: It’s A ‘Hard Knocks’ Life

HBO’s annual look inside NFL training camps has been a big hit, but getting the series off the ground in 2001 required quite the sales job.

By John Ourand
Former Ravens coach Brian Billick, shown at training camp in 2005, had initial hesitations himself about HBO’s new series, which was envisioned by NFL Films.getty images

In the spring of 2001, NFL Films President Steve Sabol approached Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick with an idea for a new television show.


Sabol pitched Billick on getting behind-the-scenes access to the Ravens’ training camp, filming everything from mundane drills to the precise moment when Billick cut a player from the team.

“My first thought was, ‘Boy, I don’t know if this is a good idea,’” Billick recalled. “But obviously, he was very persuasive.”

Sabol’s sales pitch for what would become HBO’s long-running series “Hard Knocks” worked on Billick, who then had to convince players and ownership to take part. Billick focused on three reasons why Baltimore should be the first team featured:

n The Ravens had won Super Bowl XXXV just weeks before Sabol first met with Billick. The coach thought having Sabol’s cameras at camp would help keep the team focused — something he expected to be tougher as the defending Super Bowl champion. “To me, it was a way to energize camp, to get them to really step up,” Billick said.

n In his conversations with owner Art Modell and general manager Ozzie Newsome, Billick focused on the marketing opportunities. Modell was all-in from the start; Newsome was worried about distractions and needed a little more coaxing. “We’re a small-market team, shoved between Washington and Philadelphia; at the time, we were a fairly new brand,” Billick said of the franchise, which had moved from Cleveland for the start of the 1996 season. “From a marketing standpoint, it was a way to present the Ravens to the world, even though we had just won a Super Bowl.”

n A little more than a year earlier, star Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis had been charged with murder; he eventually pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice. Billick thought a behind-the-scenes show could rehab the reputations not just of Lewis but of the rest of the Ravens’ defensively dominant team. “The image of us was, I think, that we were a bunch of thugs,” Billick said. “I had a team of a lot of characters that had a lot of character. I thought that would come out.”

Billick and Newsome would look at the final cuts on Wednesdays before they went out.

“If there was anything in there we didn’t want, we would take it out, no questions asked,” Billick said. “I think Steve was a little worried about that at first, that we were going to strip it down. At the end of the day, there were only two things that we said no to.” Both of those instances dealt with injured players receiving treatment.

Sabol’s NFL Films sent a 23-person crew to document the training camp, which opened in Westminster, Md. The first “Hard Knocks” aired on Aug. 1, 2001, and drew headlines by showing the season-ending ACL injury to star running back Jamal Lewis. The show also helped create stars in offensive lineman Tony Siragusa and tight end Shannon Sharpe, both of whom had long TV careers after their playing days ended.

The Ravens won 10 games that season and lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round of the playoffs. The series, meanwhile, has become a staple of the football calendar. This year’s edition will feature the Dallas Cowboys, the third time “Hard Knocks” has highlighted America’s Team.


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