NFL Films founder's slow-motion trip to Canton

Posted: July 28, 2011

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. - The good part about being 95 years old is it beats the alternative, which is not being 95.

Last November, though, Ed Sabol wasn't so sure about that. Pneumonia had put the NFL Films founder in a hospital bed for nearly a month, and his will to live was running on empty.

"He turned to me around Thanksgiving and said, 'Why should I live? I'm going to be in a wheelchair,' " his daughter Blair said. "I said, 'Well, there's nothing wrong with needing a wheelchair at 95.' "

But Sabol viewed a wheelchair as the final indignity of growing old. A former champion swimmer, he moved to the Arizona desert 20 years ago to spend his retirement playing golf and flying his plane, and now he can do neither. Last year's battle with pneumonia also forced him to give up another of his great passions - cigars.

"I used to fly every day," Sabol said. "Airport's just 5 minutes from here. Had my own plane, but had to sell it because I couldn't get in it anymore. I can't fly. I can't even drive. I have a guy who drives me around.

"I'm not used to this kind of life. It gets me down. I'm up to here with it now. I don't know how this ever happened to me. To think I was a swimmer all my life."

Just when he wanted to cash in his chips last November, Sabol was given a pretty good reason to continue living by Blair and his son, Steve. They informed him that he had just been named one of 25 semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2011.

"I told him he might want to stick around in case he gets in," Steve said.

Despite the curious attempts of a pair of prominent NFL executives to torpedo his candidacy, Sabol, whose company played a major role in helping turn pro football into America's game, was voted into the Hall of Fame in February. He will be inducted, along with six others, on Aug. 6 in Canton, assuming the twinge he has been feeling in his rib cage isn't anything serious.

"It'd be a helluva note if I kick off and don't show, wouldn't it?" he said.

The funny thing about Big Ed entering the Hall of Fame is that, for the longest time, he didn't feel he belonged there, despite the fact that he and his company have had more impact on pro football than anyone who already has a bronze bust.

Sabol felt the HOF should be a players-only club. They were the ones who made the game great, he said. He just chronicled their heroics. He didn't feel owners or general managers or commissioners belonged in Canton, and he certainly didn't think a former Philadelphia overcoat salesman belonged in there, either.

"When the question would come up that there was a possibility [of being selected] I always said forget it," said Sabol, as he sat in his nifty Hoveround and sipped on a glass of ice water. "I said the Hall of Fame is for football players. Guys like [Buffalo Bills owner] Ralph Wilson or [late Giants owner] Wellington Mara [both Hall of Famers] don't belong in there. I didn't even think Pete Rozelle belonged there.

"My feeling was they should have a separate place for guys like that. The Hall of Fame should be for guys who played the game, not guys like me. That's pretty much how I felt until I found out I had made it.

"After I made it, I was excited about it, especially with all of the [health] crap I've been going through. Now I'm having a little fun with it. I've signed close to 600 autographs already. They've been bringing the mail in in bundles. The other day, I signed 250 autographs in 2 hours. I started to get sleepy. I told them I've got to take a break and take a nap. But I'm getting sort of a kick out of it."

"When he got elected," Steve said, "Dad called me and said, 'Send me a producer. I've got one more film in me.' "

Triumphant moment

The last 9 months have been a draining, emotional roller-coaster ride for the Sabol family. First, there was Ed's bout with pneumonia. Then came the news that he had been elected to the Hall of Fame.

Then, less than a month after the good news about his father, Steve, 69, collapsed at an awards dinner in Kansas City. After running tests, they discovered a tumor in his brain.

Steve, the creative visionary who worked at his father's side since NFL Films' inception, and who has been the company's president for the last 26 years, has undergone several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation over the last 4 months. His only focus since the cancer was diagnosed has been to make it to Canton next week to present his father for induction. He hasn't even asked doctors for a prognosis beyond Aug. 6.

"For a company that prides itself on telling good stories, this is one helluva story," Steve told Sports Illustrated's Peter King in March shortly after beginning his cancer treatment. "Dad makes the Hall of Fame. Son's going to be his presenter. Son gets brain tumor. Now, the story is, 'Is the son going to be there? Will the son make it?' What a great story this is going to be, however it turns out.

"Who knows? I could be around until the Super Bowl in New York [in 2014]. But I've had a lot of time to think. People talk about heaven now. When things like this happen, you think about things like heaven. But the amount of years I've had on earth . . . I don't know what is waiting for me up there. But I can tell you this: Nothing will happen there that can duplicate my life down here. Nothing. It's been perfect."

In a perfect world, Steve would enter the Hall of Fame alongside his father next week. They were a team, meshing their filmmaking talents to turn the NFL into something larger than life. They gave the game an image, a mystique, that captivated people and enabled the NFL to leapfrog over baseball and become the enormously popular, $9.3 billion revenue machine it is today.

"I wanted to portray the game the way I had experienced it as a player," Steve said. "That's with the passion, the sound, the snot flying, the sweat spraying. Dad wanted to portray it the way Hollywood portrayed fiction. We blended those two styles together."

With a backlog of deserving players waiting to get into Canton, there was no way both father and son were going to make it into the Hall - at least not in the same year. Even Ed's selection, despite the tremendous impact of his company on the NFL's success, was a bit of an against-the-odds surprise. His name had never before made it "into the room" as one of the 15 modern-era finalists discussed by the Hall's 44 selectors. He never had even been a semifinalist.

It didn't seem to help Sabol's chances that, in the days leading up to the Hall of Fame vote the day before the Super Bowl, two prominent league executives - Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and longtime NFL communications officer Joe Browne - tried to derail his candidacy by persuading some selectors not to vote for him.

Rooney and Browne both are staunch supporters of former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and have been frustrated that he hasn't yet been elected to the Hall of Fame. But Tagliabue wasn't even a finalist this year. Sabol was the only "contributor" among the 15 modern-era candidates.

One selector told the Daily News that Rooney told him it would be a "travesty" if Sabol got into the Hall ahead of Tagliabue, who was the league's commissioner from 1989 until his retirement in 2006. According to two other selectors, Browne tried to muddy the waters by suggesting that if a Sabol deserved to be in the Hall, it was Steve, not Ed.

Both Rooney and Browne insisted they never tried to sabotage Sabol's candidacy.

"There's a misunderstanding on this," said Rooney, who currently serves as the United States ambassador to Ireland. "I took the position that I was for Paul Tagliabue, and I think he deserves to be in. This was before Ed was a finalist. [After he became a finalist], I didn't want it to appear that I was backing away from Tagliabue. But let me say this, Ed did some phenomenal things and certainly deserves to be in [the Hall of Fame]."

Browne, who now serves as a senior adviser to commissioner Roger Goodell, pointed out that he "gladly" appeared in a documentary on Sabol that will appear on the NFL Network on Monday.

"Rumors are as rampant the day before the Hall of Fame voting as they are on the eve of the draft," he said.

If just one of the Sabols was going to get voted into Canton, Steve is glad it was his father rather than him. As far as he's concerned, Ed's induction is a triumphant moment for both of them, as well as for all the talented people who have worked at NFL Films over the years.

"Steve understands what he's contributed to the game," said former Daily News columnist Ray Didinger, who spent 9 years as a writer and producer at Films and now works for Comcast SportsNet. "But I think he also understands that the company exists because of his father, and his father deserves this and has deserved it for years.

"Steve has been the face of Films for 40 years. Big Ed was the power behind the screen. He was Oz. I think Steve feels he's gotten his due as far as being the face of NFL Films and the voice of pro football. I think he feels he's gotten his share of the applause. If one of the two of them was going to get their moment on the stage in Canton, I think Steve is perfectly fine that it's his father."

Ed and Steve have a unique father-son relationship. How many sons had their father be the best man at their wedding? How many fathers and sons built an enormously successful company, like NFL Films, and never had an argument?

"I was never that close to my father," Ed said. "It wasn't like I hated him or anything. We just weren't close. He wasn't into sports. When I was swimming [he broke the world interscholastic record for the 100-meter freestyle at Blair Academy and was part of an AAU-champion relay team at Ohio State], he didn't give a bleep about me. Came to watch me once. He worked, came home, had a shot of whiskey, had dinner, read the paper and went to bed. I guess because I didn't have much of a relationship with my father, I thought that if and when I get married, and if I have a son, it's not going to be like that.

"There were certain things I missed in my own life that I didn't want to happen [to me] as a father. I wanted to be friendly with my son. I wanted to have fun with him. Not in a ha-ha way. But if he excelled in something, I wanted him to enjoy it. I didn't want to criticize him. I don't think I ever criticized him when he was playing sports growing up. I never said you're not holding the bat right or you're not doing this or you're that. I said, 'You did great. You'll get 'em next time.'

"We danced through life that way. We had a good time."

"It's not a classic Norman Rockwell father-and-son relationship," said former NFL Films vice president Phil Tuckett, who spent nearly 40 years working with the Sabols. "I don't know if they ever went on a fishing trip together. As far as traditional signs of [father-son] affection, you never saw them. They were more like buddies. Guys who had known each other their whole lives and shared all these ideas and experiences and common goals.

"But boy, did they have synergy going when they put their minds to it. They were two pieces of a puzzle that only had two pieces. In a non-traditional way, I would say they're as close as any father and son I've ever seen."

Career change

Ed Sabol has had a remarkable life. He was a champion swimmer. He served under George Patton at the Battle of the Bulge and Hertgen Forest and was on Utah Beach on D-Day.

He was a born performer, appearing in vaudeville as the opening act for a Marx Brothers knockoff troupe called the Ritz Brothers. He appeared in the Oscar & Hammerstein musical, "Where Do We Go From Here?"

But he had a family to support and eventually went to work for his father-in-law selling overcoats. It paid OK, but he detested the job. Used to tell his wife Audrey, to whom he has been married for 70 years, that going to work every day was like a trip to the dentist.

One day, he finally told his father-in-law to take his job and shove it. Decided he was going to do something he liked a lot more than selling overcoats. Decided he was going to become a filmmaker.

"I had a hobby," Ed said. "Photography. When Audrey and I got married, we got a movie camera as a wedding gift. Came from a store in Chicago. This I remember. I can't remember what I did yesterday, but I remember the name of the . . . store the camera came from. Marshall Field's."

Ed started a film company with that camera, a 16mm Bell & Howell windup that sits on a shelf outside Steve Sabol's office at NFL Films. Named the company Blair Motion Pictures, after his daughter, who is 5 years younger than Steve.

He had some money saved and heard that the NFL was accepting bids for the film rights to the 1962 league championship game.

"There was another company from Philadelphia - TelRon - they were about the only ones doing that kind of thing back then," Ed said. "I went in and tried to buy the company. I didn't like everything they were doing, but they were on to something. But the dumb bastards wouldn't sell it to me. So I said, 'Well, I'm just going to take a shot myself.' "

He went to the NFL offices in New York on the day of the bidding, and handed commissioner Pete Rozelle an envelope with $2,500 in it, twice as much as TelRon had bid.

Rozelle had some reservations about Sabol's lack of experience. On his resume, under "experience filming football," Ed had typed: "filming my 14-year-old son."

But Ed was a magnificent salesman. Rozelle quickly took a liking to the man in the loud sports coat and red socks and gave him the film rights to the '62 game.

It was the beginning of a relationship that would change the fortunes of the NFL. Rozelle loved the Sabols' style of filmmaking, which featured orchestra music and dramatic narration and super-slow motion shots.

The NFL was running a distant third in popularity to baseball and college football in the mid-60s. But Rozelle recognized the potential impact Sabol's company and his style of storytelling could have on the game's popularity. It gave pro football a mythology. NFL Films transformed games into epic battles and players into warriors.

The NFL bought Sabol's company in 1965, making it the only sports league with its own production company. But the owners rarely interfered. They left Big Ed and his son alone and they made magic.

"It was the secret to our success," Ed said of his company's autonomy. "They left us completely alone. I took it for granted. It wasn't like I went in and said, 'Look, don't you guys bother me.' I didn't have much to do with the owners because Pete and I got so friendly.

"I don't like anybody bleeping around with what I'm doing. I told that to Pete many times. He'd say, 'Take it easy. Nobody's going to bother you.' He was a great help to me. But I never used him. I never said, 'Pete, you've to do this to help me.'

"I didn't want the owners to think I was paying him off or something. We used to meet for lunch at the 21 Club up in New York. We wouldn't even walk out together. All the Super Bowls, he never used to go out with the owners. We'd have dinner up in his room. It was a good time. He was a good friend."

With the birth of the NFL Network in 2003, the autonomy that the Sabols and NFL Films enjoyed for so many years vanished. Steve Sabol still is the company's president, but most of the decisions are being made these days by NFL Network chief Steve Bornstein and former ESPN and ABC Sports executive Howard Katz, who Bornstein brought in to be Films' chief operating officer.

Bornstein has little use for the type of storytelling that has made Films famous. Much of Films' long-form signature programming has been eliminated. Its budget was slashed, and there were two rounds of layoffs in 2007 and 2008. Many at Films suspect the company eventually will be folded into the NFL Network, and the workforce further reduced. Katz denied that.

Ed Sabol can only shake his head at what the NFL has done to the company he founded. He admits he wouldn't be able to deal with what has happened. He knows it has been tough on Steve as well, even before he got sick.

"But Steve's wired a little differently than me," he said. "He doesn't get upset, doesn't get mad. He's able to shrug a lot of things off that I can't."

Steve will turn 70 in a few weeks. His father said he wouldn't be surprised if his son soon joins him in retirement.

"With what's going on there, you figure, bleep it," he said. "Time to get out. I told him, 'Why don't you retire now so I can be one of the few fathers that has a retired son?' That would be great. If somebody asked me what my son does, I could say, 'Oh, he's retired.' "

And if somebody asks Steve about his father, he can say, "Oh, he's in the Pro Football Hall of Fame."


ABOUT ED SABOL

1916: Born in Atlantic City

1935: World interscholastic record holder, 100-yard freestyle swimming

1937: Big Ten championship, 400-yard freestyle relay swimming

1937: National AAU championship, 400-yard freestyle relay swimming

1962: After doubling the bid, Sabol’s Blair Productions received the film rights to 1962 NFL Championship Game.

1965: Continued to shoot games and the company became NFL Films

1965: First to place a microphone on a player and coach during an NFL regular-season game

1966: First to use graphics to explain football strategy

1967: First season of “NFL Films Presents”

1968: First to produce a sports blooper film

1971: First to use reverse-angle replay

1978: NFL Films won its first Emmy for “Road to the Super Bowl.”

1980: Introduced the first sports home video

1985: Handed role of president of NFL Films to son Steve and became the company’s chairman

1987: Order of the Leather Helmet (presented by the NF LAlumni Association)

1987: Bert Bell Memorial Award (presented by the NFL)

1991: Pete Rozelle Award (presented by the Pro Football Hall of Fame)

1995: First live-action sports movie shot in Cinemascope, the critically acclaimed “100-Yard Universe,” shown exclusively at the Pro Football Hall of Fame

1995: Retired from NFL Films (during his tenure, NFL Films won 52 Emmy Awards; currently at 105)

1996: International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame

2003: Lifetime Achievement Emmy

2004: John Grierson International Gold Medal

2011: Pro Football Hall of Fame


ABOUT THIS SERIES

Filmmaking pioneer Ed Sabol founded what would become NFL Films in the early 1960s in Philadelphia. In a career that spanned 4 decades, Sabol was at the forefront of myriad innovations in how sports were filmed, produced and watched as NFL Films won 52 Emmy Awards before his retirement in 1995.

Now 95, Sabol will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 6 in Canton, Ohio, along with Richard Dent, Marshall Faulk, Chris Hanburger, Les Richter, Deion Sanders and Shannon Sharpe.

Daily News sports writer Paul Domowitch, a member of the selection panel for the Hall, examines Sabol’s life and legacy in this series.

TODAY: Ed Sabol’s career and journey to the Hall of Fame.

TOMORROW: Sabol’s legacy and the future of NFL Films.

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