"I still have that camera," Steve Sabol said after a moving, marker-unveiling ceremony outside 230 N. 13th St., NFL Films' headquarters from 1965 to 1981. "We have the greatest collection of home movies. Someday, I'd love to be able to put them together and tell our story through home movies. Dad filmed every graduation, every birthday, every vacation, every pony ride."
He also filmed his son's football games, first with the Little Quakers and then at Haverford School. And that, as was made clear during the ceremony attended by scores of former employees as well as local football luminaries like Dick Vermeil and Tom Brookshire, is where the story of NFL Films began.
Along the way, the company, which moved to more spacious headquarters in Mount Laurel in 1981, became more wildly successful than even its gung-ho founder ever envisioned.
Combining a reverence and an irreverence for football with classically flavored original music, slow-motion film and a succession of Philadelphia-based baritones, NFL Films helped transform a gray and gritty league into the most successful sports enterprise of all time.
"The only human endeavor more thoroughly captured on 16-millimeter film than the National Football League is World War II," Sabol said.
Ex-Eagles general manager Jim Murray said owners quickly appreciated NFL Films because it could make bad teams look good, a trait especially helpful while working for owner Leonard Tose.
"We had some bad teams when I was there," Murray said, "but NFL Films could take our two highlights, get John Facenda to announce them, and make us look like Super Bowl contenders."
The elder Sabol worked for his father-in-law's Broad Street garment company, Jacob Siegel Overcoats. But by 1962, he had parlayed his interest in film into a business. The Blair Motion Picture Co., named for his daughter, who was named for the New Jersey Prep school the Atlantic City native had attended, occupied four small rooms in a rowhouse just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
When he saw the NFL sold film rights to its 1961 title game for just $1,500, Sabol decided to bid $3,000 on the '62 game. He got it.
Rozelle, who, not long after succeeding Bert Bell as commissioner in 1959, had moved league headquarters from Walnut Street offices to Manhattan, was impressed with Sabol's work. He also smelled a potential marketing bonanza.
In 1964, the commissioner asked owners to purchase the business from Sabol. They rejected that initial proposal but a year later agreed to do so, providing the filmmaker with $12,000 and orders for highlight reels for each of the 14 teams.
"That's when it became NFL Films," said Steve Sabol. "Right away we needed more space. Jerry Wolman, who owned the Eagles then, knew my father and told him he had this old telephone-company building on 13th Street. He said we could use it and pay him whatever rent we could. . . . Jerry Wolman's a real unsung hero of NFL Films."
The staff and the workload grew quickly. Ed Sabol encouraged innovation. Cameramen and sound technicians pushed the envelope when they fanned out around the country each Sunday. And, on 13th Street, so did the editors and producers.
"There was no satellite," said Stan Leshner, a retired producer who proudly states that he was NFL Films' ninth employee. "We had to put film cans on planes and get them back here quick as possible. Security was lax back then, and sometimes we'd just hand it to a pilot to get it here."
Ed Sabol, who retired in 1995, is 93 now and lives in Arizona with his wife. A bad back prevented him from attending yesterday's ceremony.
"This was a perfect place for us," said Steve Sabol, looking back at the building, now occupied by Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America. "Philadelphia was known for its passionate sports fans, and my dad and I were two. There were announcers like John Facenda here. And before us there was a [sports film production] company called TelRon here. We weren't far from New York, Washington, and Pittsburgh, and we were close to the airport."
On one visit to New York, Ed Sabol told Rozelle he assumed the league would want him to move to New York.
"Rozelle said, 'No, you guys are the romanticists, the storytellers. You don't need to be in New York, where it's about contracts and lawyers and litigation. Stay where you are. Keep your distance,' " Steve Sabol recalled.
Rozelle and subsequent commissioners have always given the Sabols artistic freedom.
"We've been incredibly autonomous," Sabol said. "A business like this has to be run by people who love the game, not lawyers and accountants. Rozelle recognized that."
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or firstname.lastname@example.org.