Ed Sabol could become part of NFL history

Steve Sabol said that he and his father merged two viewpoints - romantic and realistic.
Steve Sabol said that he and his father merged two viewpoints - romantic and realistic.
Posted: February 02, 2011

Ed Sabol's dream venture started out as a near disaster.

A former overcoat salesman from the Main Line, he had turned his longtime love of football, theater and video into a new family business: making NFL championship games into movies.

Sabol, then 48, had brought his son, Steve, home from college in Colorado and headed to Yankee Stadium for the 1962 NFL championship game, between the Giants and Packers. They had eight cameras and a handful of men in their 20s to help film.

But, as Steve Sabol recalls, it was the second coldest day of his life, after the famed Ice Bowl a few years later. Winds whipped through the stadium, cameras froze up and film cracked. Ed Sabol was so nervous he spent the entire second half in the bathroom, Steve recalled.

There are many signs of how far the family company started in Philadelphia has come since then: Steve who will work his 49th championship game Sunday at the Super Bowl, now employs 270 people at an airy 200,000 square-foot office in Mount Laurel; now NFL Films, Sabol's work appears on HBO, ESPN and in the Smithsonian, among other outlets.

And then there's this: Ed Sabol, who spent the second half of that title game sick to his stomach, could be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. Sabol, 94, is a Hall finalist as a "contributor."

The company he founded as Blair Motion Pictures, named for his daughter, changed the way football was viewed on screen - using slow-motion replays, highlight montages, dramatic narratives, music scored just for their games, and the legendary voice of John Facenda - and helped it become the nation's most-watched sport.

The Sabols were uniquely equipped to maximize the NFL's dramatic possibilities. Ed Sabol had dreamed of working in show business before falling into his father-in-law's overcoat business. When he got a Bell and Howell camera for a wedding gift, he became an amateur filmmaker.

"Everything I did, he captured on that camera," Steve Sabol said. "I don't remember my dad ever having a head. It was just this camera."

Steve Sabol, meanwhile, adored football - he still talks reverently about the feel of his first leather pads - and had artistic ambitions, courtesy of his mother, who curated a Rittenhouse Square museum.

"His whole theory was to show football the way Hollywood portrayed fiction," Steve Sabol said of his father. "My feeling was to show the game the way I had experienced it as a player, with the snot flying and the sweat spraying and the eyes bulging. We merged those two sort of viewpoints, and that's how the style of NFL Films emerged."

With tight closeups and attention to detail, the family mythologized the game, instilling it with epic themes.

Instead of following precedent and calling their first film The 1962 NFL Championship, the Sabols dubbed their movie Football's Longest Day, a reference to a World War II film, and followed with similarly dramatic titles: Deadline to Glory, Elements of Victory and One Big Play.

Steve Sabol, now 68, clearly relishes telling big stories. A note on his desk reads "Don't sacrifice the legend for a duller truth."

"We took the elements of the game that every fan loved: the fierce physical nature of it, the idea of how much guts you need to play, the intelligence, being part of something larger than yourself and being proud of it, overcoming the odds, and we took those elements and we magnified them, glorified them," Sabol said.

At first the Sabols showed their films in small venues: Kiwanis clubs and Mason lodges. But as Ed Sabol saw the price of championship game rights rise, he convinced Pete Rozelle, then the NFL commissioner, and the league to buy Blair Motion Pictures, turning them into NFL Films. Jerry Wolman, then the Eagles owner, gave them space to work in a building at 13th and Vine Streets, surrounded by a pizzeria, sex shop, and laundromat.

An historical marker stands there now.

Today, the NFL is a television ratings juggernaut, and NFL Films helps fill the voracious appetite for the league.

Sabol has some 100 workers at the Super Bowl this week, including four camera people just assigned to making sure they get a designated winning player telling them, "I'm going to Disneyland."

For 49 years, the family has captured NFL history. This Saturday, Ed Sabol has a chance to become a part of that history.

Steve Sabol said his father, now retired to Arizona, would see Hall of Fame enshrinement as a "capstone" of his career. But he also worries about his nomination preventing a star player from getting into the Hall.

Said Steve: "He's such a fan."

Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214 or jtamari@phillynews.com.

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