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Shawn Vestal: Mickey Dukich’s work for the L.A. Rams pioneered use of game film in the NFL

Milan "Mickey" Dukich was the NFL's first full time team cinematographer. He was hired by the LA Rams in 1956. (Courtesy photo)

If there was one thing Milan “Mickey” Dukich loved more than football, it was golf.

And it was golf, in a roundabout way, that brought Dukich – the Spokane-born son of a Yugoslavian immigrant – to a four-decade career as the team cinematographer for the Los Angeles Rams. In the 1950s, one of Dukich’s golfing buddies was an employee of the Los Angeles Rams, and the Rams were looking for some help in photographing the team.

“He wanted to know if Mickey wanted to make a few extra bucks, and Mickey said heck yes,” said Dukich’s sister, Marie Weber.

It was an inauspicious start to an auspicious career for the kid. Dukich eventually became the first full-time cinematographer for an NFL team, overseeing a staff of several photographers, and he worked with coach Sid Gillman to dramatically expand the use of game film to analyze and improve the team’s performance.

Dukich worked for the Rams until the team left for St. Louis in 1994, when he retired. A Los Angeles Times columnist once noted that he had missed one game and two practices in 39 years. He returned to Spokane in recent years, and died Saturday following a series of health problems. He was 92.

“They called him, I think, the Cecil B. DeMille of football videos,” said Ginger Peterson, a neighbor of Dukich’s in the Nevada/Lidgerwood neighborhood.

Dukich and his sister grew up in Spokane, living on the North Side near Gonzaga before later moving to the South Hill. Their father, Nick, had emigrated from Yugoslavia at age 14; he eventually became the owner of “beer parlors” in Spokane, Weber said.

Dukich grew up with a love of golf. He would ride his bike out to Indian Canyon to work as a caddy, and then take his earnings and spend it on a round of golf for himself.

“His dream was to be the head pro at the Spokane Country Club when he grew up,” said Weber.

As a teenager, he began photographing local high school football games. Later, as Dukich became well-known for his work with the Rams, the sports editor of the Spokane Daily Chronicle wrote: “And it doesn’t seem like so long ago that Mickey induced the local high schools to hire him to take pictures of their games at Memorial stadium. That’s when the whole thing started.”

After he graduated from Lewis and Clark High in the midst of World War II, he enlisted in the Army and served overseas in 1944 – where he had a chance encounter with another son of Spokane, Bing Crosby. Crosby was performing for the troops at an unspecified location in France, where Dukich met him. Dukich wrote his parents a letter about it – and they shared it with the Chronicle.

“I got my nerve together and went backstage and Bing was sitting on a box smoking his pipe and talking to his manager,” he wrote. “When I worked my way over to him I told him I was from Spokane and lived on the same street as he did.”

They talked about a teacher they’d had in common. “I told him how she used to say I reminded her of Bing ’cause I was always trying to prove the teacher was wrong. He got a kick out of that,” Dukich wrote.

Crosby also sent a note to Dukich’s parents, that read, in part, “We’re doing a show here in the rain – hence the blots. Mickey should be home soon.”

After the war, Dukich graduated from Washington State University and moved to California to try to get into the movie business, Weber said. He had landed a couple roles as an extra in productions, but hadn’t made much headway when he got that fortuitous offer to make a few extra bucks with the Rams in 1955.

At that time, the idea of a team cinematographer was unheard-of. But Gillman, the coach, had experience in movie production, and was interested in applying that to football, according to “America’s Game,” a history of the NFL published in 2008.

“Gillman took the use of film study to new areas, separating game films into isolated reels for offense and defense, then cutting those further to concentrate on specific plays and situations,” according to the book. “Squirreled away in his office with a film cutter and a handheld splicer, he’d cut a piece of film, stick a piece of masking tape to it, scrawl a rushed label onto the tape, then tape it onto any flat surface in his office.”

Dukich helped Gillman advance technologically – bringing an electric splicer to the job and organizing the film and photography for the team. During the seasons, his work was often intense and time-consuming. Weber said it was not uncommon for him to stay up all night preparing film.

Over the decades he worked for the Rams, he saw many of the franchise’s highlights and met its stars, as it built a loyal following in Southern California and developed a series of fearsome defensive squads from the Fearsome Foursome in the 1960s to the Jack Youngblood-led defenses of the 1970s. The team didn’t win a Super Bowl, but did lose to the Steelers in 1980 – which meant that Dukich wound up with a Super Bowl ring, Weber said.

His film work eventually was adopted and emulated by other teams, and drew media attention of its own. In 1976, the Long Beach Independent did a feature story on him with the headline, “Mick’s Flicks Give Rams Kicks.” In 1985, Los Angeles Times columnist Scott Ostler asked Dukich – whom he nicknamed Splicer – to name his all-time Rams team, concluding, “And no all-time Ram team would be complete without … Splicer.”

The Rams struggled on the field and off during the 1980s, and the owner moved the team to St. Louis in 1994 – a decision that left many embittered Rams fans in Southern California. Dukich was offered a chance to move, Weber said, but didn’t take it.

“He even told the reporters: ‘I’m a Los Angeles Ram, not a St. Louis Ram,’ ” Weber said.

Dukich stayed in Los Angeles until recent years, when he moved back to Spokane. Peterson, his neighbor, came to know him in the past several months, but she said she spent a lot of time talking to him about his career. He had purchased a three-wheel bicycle with an electric motor, and was using it to get around.

“He kind of became the character of the neighborhood,” she said. “He was such an incredible man – you could not get enough of talking to him.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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