NFL Films founder deserves place in the Hall of Fame

NFL Films founder Ed Sabol and his son, Steve, look at film from an NFL game in 1972.
NFL Films founder Ed Sabol and his son, Steve, look at film from an NFL game in 1972.
Posted: February 01, 2011

ASK FRANNIE Donnellon who Ed Sabol is, and she does not know. Ask her about growing up with two big brothers, and this is the story she starts with:

She was Jerry Kramer in the mud and the snow, one of us jumping over her to score while the other mimicked a Dallas Cowboys defender. She was Jerry Kramer when the folks went out for the night and the living room transformed into Lambeau Field. Sometimes she got to be Leroy Kelly, or Gale Sayers, but only when Ed's art called for two defenders to collapse upon the running back, making him fumble, or disappear.

She fumbled a lot.

"Backyard moments," Steve Sabol, 67-year-old son of Ed and his successor as president of NFL Films, calls them. The Donnellon family is no different from millions of other families that embraced and mythologized professional football in the 1960s and '70s through Steve's father's packaged presentations, through his father's art. That's always been the axis in the argument for Ed Sabol's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an argument made for years that might finally have enough legs to cross the goal line when the committee convenes for a vote Saturday in Dallas.

Sabol is 94, retired and living in Arizona. His legacy remains that he is as much a concept as he is flesh and blood. He is you as a child, running through the mud as if in slow motion, humming orchestra music, mimicking John Facenda's somber commentary. He is that first snowfall in late November, when the mud room contained footballs and sneakers, not snow boots. He is you playing the part of Bart Starr, or Leroy Kelly, or, in my poor little sister's case, Jerry Kramer.

Today, Ed Sabol is channeled through the young intern sticking a microphone into a basketball huddle, or the thirty-something cameraman honing in on Ben Roethlisberger's icy beard, or the NHL referee calling out a penalty into a wireless microphone. All do so with little, if any, awareness of who came up with such ideas in the first place.

"One of the selectors told me that they are asked, 'Can you write the history of the NFL without writing this person's name?' " Steve Sabol says. "I know one thing for sure: You can't see the history of the NFL without Ed Sabol."

"So much of what happens inside the Hall of Fame is centered around film," says Ray Didinger, a former Hall of Fame voter. "Well, where do you think those films came from?

"That whole keeper-of-the-flame thing? That's very real to him."

A producer at NFL Films in Mount Laurel, N.J., until his departure in February 2009, Didinger began his advocacy for Sabol when he was a Daily News writer and voter, a movement that has been forwarded by current Daily News football writer Paul Domowitch.

The sticking point has always been that Sabol never played, coached or worked for an NFL team, and thus could not be categorized as a "contributor." He just helped promote each of them with his art, and was a component in the astronomical rise of franchise values through the '80s and '90s.

"He's the definition of contributor," Didinger argues.

Sabol's story has been well told, but for those who know him only as the concept, here goes: He was a successful Philadelphia coat salesman who spent most of his leisure time fiddling with a 16mm camera, filming everything from his son's first haircut to the family getting in and out of the car.

"My father didn't have a head when I was growing up," Steve says. "There was just a big camera up there."

Sabol left the coat business in his early 40s and retired for a while, learning to fly a plane, his camera accompanying those escapades, as well. Through his son's football games, he got the idea of filming bigger things, and soon Blair Motion Pictures - named after his daughter - was born.

Sabol paid commissioner Pete Rozelle $4,000 for the rights to shoot the 1962 NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium between the Packers and the Giants. The music and closeups were there even then, and Rozelle, a public relations man trying to increase interest in his league, was intrigued.

Rozelle persuaded each of the 14 team owners to ante up $20,000 to seed the upstart enterprise.

NFL Films was born.

"People forget," Steve Sabol says. "In the '60s and '70s, when the games were in black and white, the only way you can see the games other than that was with us."

In the years that followed, Sabol's use of orchestra music, dramatic narrative, slow motion and tightly cropped shots became as familiar to the public as a laugh track, and far more interesting. Slow-motion spirals, bloody hands and faces, microphones catching coaches' comments and the combatants' grunts and groans, defined the NFL for the prosperous decades to come, made legends of the men who played and coached the game.

These days, that's a tad trickier. NFL Films shows such as "Hard Knocks" and "America's Game" have continued to earn critical praise, even as the company deals with inhibiting layoffs and cutbacks, and philosophical differences with the NFL Network, which now oversees it.

But if you're looking for doom and gloom from either father or son, well, you're better off trying to ask Andy Reid about his backyard moment. Asked via e-mail where he sees his company in 20 years, Ed wrote back, "Amazing technical changes." Asked whether the presence of the Packers in this year's Super Bowl would add something to his induction, he wrote, "Delightful coincidence if my induction coincides with the Packers in the Super Bowl."

And the son? Well, as Didinger points out, the father eventually retired. Steve has no plans to.

"It amazes me the passion he still has for football," Didinger says. "You walk in Monday morning, turn the light on to your office, and within 30 seconds, he'd be in there. 'How 'bout that game last night? Do you believe he called for a pass on that play?' Every Monday, he can't wait. And he's been doing this for 40 years!"

And for 40 years, it's made football seem like more than just a game.

"I think what's going to hit these guys when they get in that room Saturday," says Didinger, "is, why haven't we done this long ago?" *

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