In 1962, an overcoat salesman named Ed Sabol walked into National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle’s office and boldly asked to bid on the film rights for that year’s NFL championship game, the forerunner to the Super Bowl. At the time, Sabol had a 16-millimeter camera, received as a wedding gift in 1941, and a desire to do something with his life that he truly enjoyed.
Thus began an artfully entertaining, if improbable, 46-year adventure known as NFL Films, the documentary arm of the NFL and chief steward of professional football’s cinematic history.
“It is a story that could never happen again,” says Steve Sabol, 65, Ed’s son, who succeeded his dad as head of New Jersey-based NFL Films in 1995. “It is so corny and it speaks to so many things about following your dream, about a relationship between a father and a son, taking chances. The fact of it is, if my father came to the league office today he wouldn’t even get into the building.”
But Ed got in the door, and then followed his well-honed sales instincts. Although he had never filmed a professional sport of any kind, he bid $3,000 of his own money, and came away with the film rights to the 1962 title game. When Ed was asked to supply his list of previous football filming experience, he simply wrote: “Filming my son’s grade school and high school football games.”
Picassos of pigskin
From the onset, the younger Sabol, a football-playing art major at Colorado College in the 1960s, was a part of his dad’s growing company, first editing and later filming on the sidelines, before evolving into the creative force behind NFL Films.
“My dad was the entrepreneurial vision and I guess you could say I was the artist,” Steve says. As a youngster, he was nurtured on the 1950s military TV drama series, Victory at Sea, and soon saw the battleground of professional football as a worthy metaphor for war, as well as art.
“I was captivated by the Richard Rodgers score, Leonard Graves’ narration,” Steve recalls. “That had a huge influence on me. When we started NFL Films, I said, ‘That Victory at Sea . . . I love the way it was narrated, with the beautiful orchestral music.’”
Another serious wartime influence was Steve’s own father. Ed, a World War II veteran, took part in both the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. Even in describing his camera staff, Steve can’t resist a military metaphor.
“Teddy Roosevelt told the Rough Riders before they stormed San Juan Hill, ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.’ That’s what I tell our cameramen,” says Steve, whose film crews shoot an average of 225,000 feet of film to cover 16 NFL games each weekend during the regular season. “They’re their own directors,” he says of his 10 full-time cameramen and up to 60 independently contracted shooters. “They’re artists. They don’t have anybody in their ear saying, ‘Shoot this, shoot that.’ Once the game starts, they go and shoot whatever they want.”
Over the years that freedom has produced innovation. Hoping to bring the games to life, the Sabols layered footage with orchestral music, provided astonishing slow-motion close-ups of spiraling footballs falling gracefully into the hands of wide receivers, and included candid comments from microphone-wearing players and coaches to take fans behind the scenes. They capped it off with the rumbling Shakespearean tones of narrator John Facenda, who described “the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field,” with such impact that he was nicknamed the “Voice of God.”
“Both Dad and I felt that we wanted to treat football the way Hollywood portrays fiction. That is, with a dramatic flair,” Steve says. “You want to make people feel even more than you want them to think.”
The nerve center of this creativity is a 200,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art studio complex in Mount Laurel, N.J., that includes film labs, post-production areas and a recording facility large enough to house a 70-piece orchestra. The complex also houses an archival film vault containing more than 100 million feet of football folklore, with bold titles such as The Immaculate Reception, The Catch and The Drive written on canisters.
Upon entry to the complex, 91 gleaming Emmy Awards line the walls alongside a magnificent array of Steve’s own sports-related artwork in addition to all manner of unusual and fascinating football memorabilia, from an Otto Graham lamp and an impressive collection of antique board football games, to framed posters of old football movies from the 1940s and ’50s. At the core of the company’s beehive-like activity, Steve’s efforts resonate with an intense passion, through which he draws intriguing parallels to some of the great masters in art.
“Picasso looked at an image—a bowl of fruit or a woman’s face—from multiple perspectives and from different moments in time,” Steve says. “We do the same thing with a football play.”
Like father, like son
The success story of NFL Films, though, isn’t just about big bodies clashing in dramatic motion on celluloid; it’s also the warm rendering of a dedicated father-son team that pursued a shared love of sports.
“I just think it can’t be anymore perfect,” says Ed, 91, a onetime champion swimmer at Ohio State now retired and living in Scottsdale, Ariz. “We have had an extraordinary relationship. Steve always says I was his best friend. He’s got such imagination. Most of the ideas, for the last 20 years, have been his. I think he has done more for NFL Films than I have. I may have started it, but he has been the engineer behind it. He comes up with these great ideas and he is a great student of the game.”
The relationship and camaraderie between the Sabols is shared throughout the NFL Films office, where more than 500 employees work. “Ed and Steve, I mean this is going to sound like a cliché, but they are family to us,” says 28-year employee Kennie Smith, 55, executive in charge of project management.
“They’re just so warm and caring. Steve is a perfectionist. You love working for him and appreciate what he cares about. He just keeps setting the bar higher and higher and higher.” Director of Cinematography Hank McElwee, 58, at NFL Films for 38 years, agrees with Smith. “I don’t have a boss,” he says of Steve, “I have a friend who happens to be my boss. He knows and loves the sport more than anybody I have ever met in my life.”
The story of NFL Films, through its persistent dedication to presenting a game of football like a fervent storyteller, always seems to return to the committed passion of a kid with an inventive flair who never forgot the stirring influences of his youth.
“As a kid, football to me was putting on my pads, the leather, how it smelled, the cleats. It wasn’t an autumn romance; it was something that’s lasted my whole life,” Steve says. “It was a love affair with the game of football, and it was expressed as love often is: through art. My art was the art of film, and it was the perfect way for me to express my respect for the players and the coaches and my love of the game.”
Steve Sabol's Favorite NFL Moments
An NFL Films First: The 1962 NFL Championship Game
The maiden voyage for NFL Films was almost a disaster, thanks to swirling 30 mph winds and numbing 17-degree weather inside Arctic-like Yankee Stadium, on Dec. 30, 1962. The severe conditions froze much of the film shot by Ed Sabol’s crew.
“When I went out on that field with my little crew, I didn’t believe we were going to make it through the game,” recalls Ed of the titanic 16-7 affair claimed by Vince Lombardi’s young Green Bay Packers over the New York Giants, in what one game account called “a savage throwback to the more primitive days of football.”
“The crew started telling me that some of the film was freezing and breaking. I said, ‘My God, there goes the film I promised Pete Rozelle.’ Fortunately, we shot so much film that we were able to scrape together a 27-minute film.”
The film merited raves from Rozelle, and a year later, Sabol’s little company, Blair Motion Pictures (named after his daughter, Blair), was purchased by the NFL and became NFL Films.
Sabol’s Super Bowl Moments
Steve Sabol, reportedly one of only nine people who can claim they’ve been present at all 41 Super Bowls, recalls his favorite Super Bowl moments: “The greatest shots would be the shot we got at Super Bowl X (Pittsburgh 21, Dallas 17; Jan. 18, 1976) of Pittsburgh’s Lynn Swann’s levitating leap, the ballet . . . and the shot that Phil Tuckett got of John Riggins’ 43-yard touchdown run against the Miami Dolphins; that was the first time in a Super Bowl where we had a great play by a great player in the fourth quarter deciding the game (Super Bowl XVII: Washington 27, Miami 17; Jan. 30, 1983). Phil had that shot coming right into the camera, and you could see Riggins’ face. To me, there’s nothing more dramatic than the human face. That’s a great challenge for us as filmmakers, to show the player’s face. That one, you not only saw the run, but you saw the intensity and the strain on Riggins’ face as he was running for the game-winning touchdown.”
The knot in Vince Lombardi’s tie
“I go back to the first Super Bowl. People all thought that Vince Lombardi and the Packers were gonna clobber the Kansas City Chiefs, that it was gonna be an easy game. But Lombardi realized that everything that he’d worked for and everything that his organization stood for would be destroyed if he lost this game. He was so tight before the game that he knotted his necktie. He had like a Windsor knot. The thing was the size of a marble. After the game (the Packers won, 35-10; Jan. 15, 1967), I went in to do the interview—I was a cameraman. I remember sitting there, talking to him, and Lombardi couldn’t get his tie undone. Finally, he had to have someone come over and cut the tie off.
“A month later we went to show the highlight film to Lombardi. He always premiered it in his basement. It was just him and the coaches—Red Cochran, Phil Bengtson, Bill Austin. At the end of it we showed a shot of Lombardi, and he didn’t have the tie on. Apparently that became a big issue between him and Marie, his wife, because she had given him that tie as a Christmas present. It was a hand-painted silk tie from Nordstrom, and he had had it cut off. So instead of talking about the highlight film, Marie and Vince start having an argument: ‘I can’t believe you did that! That tie cost $25 and you had it cut off?!’ We ended the reel and they were still arguing. Oh, yeah Marie is tough. She reminded me of my grandmother.”
The Frozen Tundra
Following the 1967 season, Steve Sabol penned the immortal line “on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field,” while preparing the Green Bay Packers season highlight reel. The line has worked its way into pop culture, though the Packers’ coach was vehemently against it.
“Vince Lombardi (legendary Packers Hall of Fame coach) called up and said, ‘Listen, take that “frozen tundra” out,’” Steve recalls. “He said, ‘I just spent $200,000 for a (sub-ground) heating system and the thing doesn’t work. You think I’m gonna have my stockholders watch this film and have them hear that the field is frozen and my heating system doesn’t work? Get it out!’ So the phrase ‘frozen tundra’ never appeared in any Packers film as long as Lombardi was with Green Bay. Interesting sequel to the story: The phrase did appear in the Dallas Cowboys’ highlight film of that year. Dallas owner Tex Schramm felt the reason the Cowboys lost the game was because the field was frozen.”