Ed Sabol: The King of Football Movies
It began, of course, with a camera.
A 16mm Bell and Howell wind-up camera, to be exact. A Philadelphia overcoat salesman by the name of Edwin Milton Sabol had received it as a gift some years earlier, and the proud father used the camera to film the milestone moments in the life of his son Steve: his first birthday, his first haircut and his first football game.
"It's the kind of story you would read in the old Saturday Evening Post," said NFL Films president Steve Sabol, during a recent interview on The Broad Street Line podcast. "NFL Films began with a wedding present."
That wedding present awakened something inside of the elder Sabol, who was less than enamored with his day job working for his father-in-law. So, in 1962, he did what any man with a few extra dollars and a passion for film-making would have done in his situation.
He bought the rights to film the NFL Championship Game.
And ever since that moment, the National Football League has never been the same.
On August 6, Ed Sabol—co-founder of NFL Films—will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Fittingly enough, he is the only person elected to the Hall who isn't a former player, coach, commissioner or owner.
It's an extraordinary accomplishment, to say the least. But it's been a long road to Canton for a man who is now known as the "King of Football Movies."
If Ed Sabol had resigned himself to a career of selling coats in the early '60s, he would have had no reason to be ashamed. In his earlier years, he served in World War II, spent time as a vaudeville performer and was a champion swimmer who declined an invitation to the 1936 Berlin Olympics because he refused to swim in a pool that was built by Adolf Hitler.
So it's easy to see why a man who once served under General George Patton could easily decide that the day-to-day grind of being a salesman wasn't how he intended to spend the rest of his years.
At the age of 45, fed up with his current station in life, Sabol took a trip to the NFL offices in New York City and submitted a bid of $5,000 for the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game. After a three-martini lunch at the infamous Jockey Club, the man known as "Big Ed" convinced then-commissioner Pete Rozelle to accept his offer.
For someone who didn't enjoy being a salesman, Sabol did an outstanding job selling himself as a viable candidate to Rozelle. After all, on his resume, Sabol listed "filming my 14-year-old son" as his only previous experience filming football.
His years of filming his son Steve's practices at the Haverford School paid off as Ed Sabol received a great deal of acclaim for his movie about the 1962 NFL Championship entitled "Pro Football's Longest Day." Buoyed by that success, he was able to acquire the rights to both the 1963 and 1964 title games.
Less than three years after his initial meeting with Rozelle, Sabol convinced the league's 14 owners to each invest $20,000 into his fledgling film company.
And thus, NFL Films was born.
Long before the YouTube era, years before the instant gratification provided to us by the ESPN family of networks, the chance to watch highlights of a football game was a special occasion. A filmmaker in the truest sense of the word, Ed Sabol let the camera tell the story: purposefully shooting each play in slow motion, and not resorting to gimmicks and tricks to create his films.
"We took what every fan felt, and added music and sound, and glorified it, and amplified it and put it on the screen," said Steve Sabol.
Every football fan over the age of 25 is familiar with the booming baritone of John Facenda, or the unique cadence of the late Harry Kalas. Even so, it's not often that we step back and think about those behind the scenes—those responsible for providing us with the moving words and pictures that stir feelings inside of us long after the games have been played.
NFL Films' dedication and commitment to their work has provided us with countless images that have been indelibly burned into our minds: Mike Singletary's menacing glare just prior to the snap; Dwight Clark reaching to the heavens to haul in a Joe Montana pass; Joe Namath raising his right index finger in exultation as he left the field following Super Bowl III.
There is no comparison in any other sport to the work that NFL Films has done over the years. Simply put, Ed Sabol is the reason why most of us fell in love with football.
"My father's great talent was not only the ideas, but he created an environment here that promoted that kind of creativity," said Steve. "He put quality before any other consideration."
Forty-nine years and 105 Emmy Awards later, Ed Sabol's creative spirit lives on.
It's fair to question why it has taken so long for Sabol to have been selected for induction. Although he never played a single down of professional football, one could argue that he has contributed more to the game than anyone who has been elected to this point.
Until earlier this year, Ed never worried about being inducted into Canton. All he ever wanted to do was to make films, and he got a chance to do that with his son Steve, an accomplished artist in his own right. Ed handed the reins of the company to the younger Sabol some 26 years ago, and NFL Films hasn't missed a beat since.
What began as a small outfit known as Blair Motion Pictures now occupies a $45 million complex in Mount Laurel, N.J. The corridors of the various buildings are lined with Emmys—tangible testaments to the work that has been done each and every year since an overcoat salesman to at trip to New York with a $5,000 check and a dream.
The ultimate recognition will come on August 6, however. Just as in the beginning, Ed—clad in his customary red socks—and Steve Sabol will be together again. This weekend, things will be a bit different. This time, all of the cameras will be turned on them.
Then again, some things will be as they always are. On Saturday night, you can be sure that they'll find a way to tell a story or two. In case you haven't noticed, it's something that the Sabols are pretty good at doing. After all, they've been doing it for the better part of the past 50 years.
"Tell me a fact, and I'll learn," said Steve Sabol back in January. "Tell me the truth, and I'll believe. But if you tell me a story, it'll live in my heart forever."
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