Skip to main content

Through Ed Sabol's lens, the NFL and its players became mythic

By Steve Almasy, CNN
Steve and Ed Sabol, the father and son team who created the legendary NFL Films, before the 1991 Super Bowl.
Steve and Ed Sabol, the father and son team who created the legendary NFL Films, before the 1991 Super Bowl.
  • Ed Sabol loved filming his only son, Steve, playing pee-wee and high school football
  • Big Ed bid on 1962 NFL championship, intending to bring Hollywood feel to highlight film
  • From there, NFL Films was born, using new techniques to give players god-like qualities
  • On Saturday, Hall of Fame selectors will vote on Ed and 14 other candidates

(CNN) -- When Steve Sabol was a fourth-grader, he loved two things: football and the movies. Well, three things: football, movies -- and football.

Steve, the only son of Ed Sabol, hereafter called Big Ed, played on a team of 70-pounders in southern New Jersey in the 1950s. Big Ed, using a Bell and Howell film camera, skipped out of work and shot the games, sometimes from the roof of the school. When Big Ed was done selling overcoats for the day, the Sabol family often had the other kids on the team over for apple cider and Mom's cookies -- and a private screening.

Big Ed would set up the projector and the phonograph and revel in the exploits of the little lads in their leather shoulder pads. John Philip Sousa or Stan Kenton and Woody Herman would provide the soundtrack.

"My dad, he loved to make movies, and in football he found the perfect subject," Steve said.

As Steve grew older and became a decent high school player, Ed kept at it, capturing every snap, tackle and touchdown on film. Years later, the boys on the film were replaced by men named Hornung and Kramer and Lombardi and Bradshaw and Swann.

For in the Sabol house, the vision of NFL Films was born to a disgruntled salesman who thought football movies were fun to watch, but ...

"I knew I could do better," Ed said.

Ed Sabol is 94 now, retired and living in Arizona. His creative mind is as fertile as ever, says his son, who took over NFL Films in 1987. The elder Sabol is on the ballot for Saturday's Pro Football Hall of Fame as a contributor. Most of the men who have been inducted as contributors were coaches who changed the game or were past commissioners.

On Saturday, voters will select five men from the 15 finalists. Big Ed is the only non-player on the final ballot.

Sports Illustrated: See the final candidates

It's time for him to be celebrated, many NFL observers say. After all, NFL Films changed the way the league was viewed, not just by fans but by all Americans.

"Every other major sports league is envious of the National Football League because it has NFL Films to document their history and grow the game," said Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune, a Hall of Fame voter who will make the case for Big Ed on Saturday. "You'll always have your rabid fans, but NFL Films made it easier for the casual fan to grasp pro football and embrace it."

We took what every fan felt about the game and added music and sound, and we magnified and we glorified and we put it on a movie screen.
--Steve Sabol, NFL Films

In the early '60s, the NFL was far from the most popular sports league in America. Baseball and the glamorous New York Yankees were king. College football was more popular than pro football.

Ed Sabol was selling coats. He hated it. He didn't hate the coats; they were "very high quality," but he wanted to do something else. He saw in the paper that the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship were up for bid. Why not take a shot, he thought. I can do better, and if not, I'll find someone who can help me do it.

So he bid $5,000, Steve says, and during a three-martini lunch (that turned into four) won over the commissioner of the NFL, Pete Rozelle.

Big Ed, who loved the films of director John Ford and the musicals of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, set out to marry the drama of the game to stirring music that elevated the men of the NFL to mythic proportions.

But that very first game was a near disaster for Big Ed, his son and the others who helped shoot it. For starters, it was brutally cold. Cameras broke. Film cracked. Lenses froze.

"My dad was so upset, he spent the whole second half in the (bathroom)," Steve said.

Big Ed says he just wanted to get away.

"At that particular moment, I was not interested in doing another game nor concerned about the future," he said. "I just wanted to get out of the stadium, get home and warm up."

But weeks later, when the film, entitled "The NFL's Longest Day," was developed and edited, league officials loved it. And soon America would come to love the short films, too.

Big Ed calls that first film his favorite and points to the end scene as something that set his group apart. The last shot is of the empty stadium after the game. Wind blows newspapers and programs around the lonely goal posts.

"I had a saying that I always told all of our cameramen: 'Finish like a pro,' " he said, "and this cameraman got this memorable shot because he finished like a pro."

Big Ed encouraged his crew to take risks (Steve's words) though the father says: "In my eyes, they were not risks; rather (it was) doing film the way I felt it should be done."

He chose employees for their passion, creativity and love of the game. It made his company legendary.

No longer were football movies just a series of real-time shots of players running past would-be tacklers. The Sabols slowed it down, using multiple cameras to capture the action in the trenches and the big hits people hadn't seen before. They showed us the faces behind the masks, Kaufman says.

It took a few years, though, of learning through experimentation.

"We had to figure out what the hell we were doing," Steve said. "The company was sustained by my dad's personality. We were all a bunch of young kids trying to figure out how to make movies. Thank God there was one veteran (among the five staff members), a director named Dan Endy."

Another innovation was to give voice to the game, putting microphones on the players and coaches.

One of the first coaches to wear a mic was one of the greatest of all time, Vince Lombardi. But the first time they wired up the legendary Green Bay Packers boss at a game in Minneapolis, they captured more than his gravelly tone, Steve says. The radio also picked up a nearby cab dispatcher.

"You'd hear Lombardi say, 'What the hell is going on out here?' Then you'd hear someone say, 'We have a woman out here with a kid and a shopping cart; is there someone who can pick her up?' "

YouTube: NFL Films tribute to Vince Lombardi

But winning over Lombardi -- getting him to let them follow him into meeting rooms and onto the practice field -- was a boon. Other coaches like Hank Stram followed.

By Super Bowl IV, the operation was humming, and the dialogue the Chiefs coach carried through the game and film enamored an audience that had no idea a football team could, in the words of Stram, "matriculate the ball down the field."

Hollywood also took notice of the cinematic innovations.

''NFL highlight reels had a real impact on how movies get made, particularly montages,'' two-time Academy Award winning director Ron Howard told the New York Times in 2000. ''Lots of different images. Images on images. Using the slow-motion, combined with the live action. The hard-hitting sound effects, juxtaposed against incredible music, powerful music, creating a really emotional experience for the viewer.''

Steve Sabol likes to recount how the late, great Sam Peckinpah told a Hollywood trade magazine that the epic climactic scene in "The Wild Bunch" was inspired by a football movie that used cameras ringing the action, shooting at different speeds with different perspectives.

Ron Shelton, who has directed five sports movies, said Hollywood could get away with things in those kind of films of the '40s and '50s that it can't anymore.

"Once it was available on television, filmmakers had to step up their games, and the Sabols came along and said, 'We're going to put the bar way up here,' " said Shelton, who grew up loving the Los Angeles Rams. "They have great attention to every detail -- to the lenses, to the speed (of the film), to the technical ability to follow a runner."

if you watch a football movie like "Rudy" or "Brian's Song" or even "We Are Marshall," you'll notice touches of NFL Films: the close-ups of the tight spiral of a pass, for example, or the key moments unfolding slowly.

The man who wanted to bring a Hollywood feel to football films ended up having an impact on Hollywood.

"We took what every fan felt about the game and added music and sound, and we magnified, and we glorified, and we put it on a movie screen," Steve said.

"We distilled what they love about the game: the fierce physical nature, the competition, the history and the traditions, and also the humor.

"We gave it a mythology."

Steve points to the film "They Call It Pro Football" as the movie that really elevated NFL players to divine status. It was also the debut of announcer John Facenda, whose rich, firm voice led to the nickname "The Voice of God."

YouTube: "They Call It Pro Football"

Facenda was not a sportscaster, and the NFL owners wanted a more well-known personality like Curt Gowdy or Chris Schenkel, but Big Ed insisted that it didn't matter that Facenda knew little about the game. Once again, Big Ed had to persuade the league to take a chance.

And when Facenda read one of the first lines of the film: "It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun," the father and son knew they were right.

One hundred Emmys later, NFL Films still finds ways to be innovative. Fancy new technology helps, but for Big Ed and Steve, it was always about finding the right people who were willing to take chances.

NFL Films has grown from a recently retired coat salesman and his kid showing movies at Kiwanis Clubs or bar mitzvahs to a company with more than 300 employees and revenue of tens of millions, with programs on six networks.

Proponents of Big Ed's Hall bid insist that you can't tell the history of the NFL without including Ed Sabol and NFL Films.

Yet their place in the Hall of Fame is not a sure thing, because there are a lot of great players on the ballot and on future ballots.

"I'm a little concerned that a lot of voters won't cast a vote for any contributor with the argument that there's a backlog of players who deserve to get in," Kaufman said. "I'm not buying that argument. I think Sabol's overdue.

"He's a towering figure in this league. Let's do this now."

Big Ed plays down the idea of being in the Hall. He's enjoying retirement in Scottsdale, fully satisfied with a career of bringing the drama of Sunday's gladiators to America's TV screens.

If he wants to reflect on it all, he'll have no problem. It's all there on film.