NFL Films founder finally getting ultimate honor from sport he helped make America's most popular

Posted: August 05, 2011

Ed Sabol's inexplicably long journey to Canton, Ohio, moved - appropriately enough for the man who introduced the technique to the visual lexicon of sports - in slow motion.

For decades, as hundreds of those he helped transform into sporting icons were fast-tracked into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the Philadelphian who founded and fostered NFL Films was ignored.

But on Saturday, in what figures to be the most well-documented induction ceremony ever at the football-shaped shrine, Sabol, 94, will finally receive the ultimate honor from the game he, as much as any single figure, turned into an American phenomenon.

And if, after the one-time overcoat salesman slips into his yellow Hall blazer, Sabol's acceptance speech mirrors his groundbreaking career, it will be brash, imaginative, passionate, cornball, and unique.

The man everyone calls "Big Ed" poured those qualities and more into the enterprise he began in 1962. Quickly, in his enormous hands, the previously mundane task of filming sporting events became an art form as he layered on music, literate narration, and a romantic point of view.

"He decided," his son, Steve, said, "that we'd make a film and not an instant replay."

Sabol was in his mid-40s when he, unfulfilled but indefatigable, persuaded NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to let him film the 1962 championship game.

Now - 49 years later, retired in Arizona since 1995, his son in charge of the company that kicked off a sports media revolution - Sabol, a frustrated comedian, can finally take a moment, and only a moment, for serious reflection.

"It was just a big, fun thing," Sabol said of his life's work, "and it happened to turn out pretty good."

A born ham

Born in Atlantic City on Sept. 11, 1916, Sabol moved to Philadelphia soon afterward with his parents.

His father owned a tire store on South Broad Street, but except for the fact that it provided him with a great vantage point for Mummers Parades, the son had little interest in the business.

A world-class swimmer who was an alternate on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, Sabol dreamed of show business. A born ham, he worked briefly with the comic Ritz Brothers - cut-rate Marx Brothers clones - and had a role in an Oscar Hammerstein-produced Broadway play.

"I went to Broadway to try to get on stage," Sabol recalled. "I never attended any dramatic school, but I always enjoyed appearing in front of groups of people and trying to be funny. I was lucky enough to get a part. . . . It lasted all of three weeks and closed. That was the extent of my theatrical career."

The play was titled Where Do We Go From Here?, and for Sabol the answer would be marriage, a career, and the Army in World War II - the last a stage of life he still seldom discusses.

His wife's father, Jacob Siegel, owned a Philadelphia overcoat company, and for 15 years Sabol was a successful if uninspired business aide. "We made men's topcoats and overcoats," he said, "of the finest woolen fabrics available."

Overcoats couldn't captivate him, so he made sure his hobbies did. Sabol bought horses, learned how to fly, took up tennis.

"He has such an overwhelming joy of life," Steve Sabol said. "He would have one hobby after another and would pursue them all with fervor. . . . It all goes back to living your dreams and following bliss. Don't hold back."

That Sabol eventually caught up with bliss was due to a gift he received from his mother-in-law, Fritzy Siegel, at his 1941 wedding - a 16-millimeter, windup Bell & Howell camera.

Sabol was fascinated. He took the device everywhere, filmed everything - walks from the car to the front door; vacations; parties; graduations; Sunday dinners; his two children's activities; and, especially, his own cornball comic shtick.

"My father's hobby," his daughter, Blair, notes in a soon-to-be-released NFL Films documentary on his career, Ed Sabol: The King of Football Films, "was himself on film."

"I didn't know my father had a head," Steve said. "It seemed like all we ever saw was that camera sitting on his shoulders."

The film work consumed more and more of Sabol's free time. When Steve played football at Haverford School - whose field was renamed in Ed's honor in 2009 - he filmed the games.

When the overcoat business was sold, Sabol initially went on a buying spree - a Mercedes, two horses, a new house with a pool. But he took part of the proceeds and followed his bliss, founding a film company, Blair Films. It was named for his daughter, who had been named for the New Jersey private school he'd attended, Blair Academy.

The business got by on some industrial work until, in 1962, having heard that another Philadelphia-area company, Tel Ra Productions, had purchased the rights to the NFL's 1961 championship game for $2,500, he bid $5,000 for that year's title game.

He got it. But the cost kept doubling annually until Sabol, unable to keep pace, convinced Rozelle that the growing league needed a film company of its own.

"I told him I even had a name," he said, "NFL Films."

'A real movie'

Sabol's children insist their father was a frustrated film mogul whose success was due as much to his vision as his perseverance.

Sabol constantly spiced up the game films with his showman's flair - adding stirring scores, dramatic voice-overs by Philadelphia newsman John Facenda ("We were lucky to get Facenda"), and a storyteller's sensibilities.

"My father wanted to portray football the way Hollywood portrayed fiction," Steve Sabol said.

But, developing the distinctive NFL Films style took time for someone who, despite his addiction, was still a relative film novice.

"The only camera work I saw was on the newsreels in the theaters," Sabol said. "Those pictures were shown at 24 frames per second, which is normal camera speed. I always felt that it appeared much too fast on the screen and had to be slowed down, which I did right away. I started out shooting at 64 frames per second, which dramatically improved the appearance of the film. The thing that I was most concerned with in those days was that the pictures be properly exposed and in focus."

The turning point came in 1967, with the release of This Is Pro Football. When Rozelle viewed it, the impressed commissioner told Sabol he'd done more than chronicle a football season, he'd created "a real movie."

By then, Sabol had begun to employ what would become NFL Films' signature device - lots of slow-motion footage. Sports producers had always spurned the technique because at slow speeds the expensive film stock ran through the camera, according to Sabol, "like water through a spigot."

But the increasingly elegant camera work - especially those of footballs spiraling slowly and precisely through the autumn air - proved to be a sensation.

"All people talked about [was the slow motion]," Sabol recalled, "so I thought if that's what people talk about and that's what they want, then, hell, I'm going to give them the whole game that way."

In 1968 came the first Football Follies, a blooper reel that would be seen by more people than Gone With the Wind, according to Sabol. Weekly TV shows and packaged videos followed, and NFL Films provided the content for the growing number of pregame shows.

As pro football grew into America's most popular sport, Sabol kept adding to his business and his filmmaking repertoire. NFL Films, which outgrew its headquarters on North 13th Street and moved to Mount Laurel, was making the most recognizable, successful, and imitated products in sports.

"[Ed Sabol] made the NFL a better league," said commissioner Roger Goodell, "and that's quite a legacy."

As Steve took control of the company, his father moved to Arizona, though he has continued to maintain a connection.

Sabol, who said he'd begun to believe he'd never make it, was flattered by his Hall of Fame election earlier this year - an announcement that, to no one's surprise, came as an NFL Films crew captured his reaction.

"I'm lucky. I really am," Sabol said. "I did something."

In a wheelchair now, he remains all the things he always has been: smart, funny, and with a huge appetite for life. But he insisted he harbored no illusions about his legacy.

"NFL Films will silently fade away into the Western sun, narrated by John Facenda, with music by Sam Spence," Sabol predicted. "We may be remembered for a few days, but then I'm sure someone will pick up the reins and continue to idolize the game of football."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, "Giving 'Em Fitz," at www.philly.com/fitz

 

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