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Sabol's innovations popularized the NFL

POSTED: September 26, 2012 12:30 a.m.
 

"Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever."

That’s the philosophy of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, as passed on to his son, Steve. It became the guiding light that led us to remember not the scores of Super Bowls, but the slow motion shots of Lynn Swann’s catch, Willie Brown’s interception return, John Riggins’ run, and Joe Namath’s post-game jog with an upraised finger indicating "We’re number one!"

For the past 50 years, Steve Sabol was the creative force driving NFL Films and, in direct consequence, the NFL, to unprecedented popularity.

Steve lost his 18 month battle with brain cancer last Tuesday. But thanks to him, we will always be able to view professional football in a unique way, a special way. Steve Sabol made it so.

The NFL Films story began with Ed negotiating the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship game with Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The stories vary on whether the lunch lasted three or five martinis, and whether Sabol paid $3,000 or $5,000 for the rights.

Ed immediately called Steve, a running back and art history major at Colorado College. Ed felt that since all Steve had done at college was play football and watch movies, he was uniquely qualified to be one of his cameramen.

That game between the Packers and Giants was played on a frigid day at Yankee Stadium. How cold was it? By the end of the game, only one camera was still operating.

But the Sabols had their film, which they showed to Rotary Clubs and scout troops. And they kept at it, achieving such success filming NFL games that within three years the league purchased the Sabol’s company. One key condition was that Ed and Steve continue to run the company. Rozelle told them, "You’re going to make the NFL the biggest spectator sport in America."

As usual, Rozelle proved prophetic. In 1960, the NFL was the nation’s fourth most popular spectator sport. By 1970, it had passed baseball, college football, and boxing to become number one. Thanks in no small part to Steve Sabol.

"I may have started it," Ed said in a 2008 interview, "but he has been the engineer behind it. He comes up with these great ideas, and is a great student of the game."

Include among Steve’s myriad innovations the use of super-slow motion, often zooming in to film a pass in flight, showing just the football. He increased the number of cameramen filming games, in order to get unique shots, such as reverse-angle. And Sabol always used film, which offers greater clarity than videotape.

Sabol was the first to wire coaches and players for sound, providing us with some of our most vivid NFL memories. The first to be miked was Hank Stram, the Chiefs’ coach in Super Bowl IV.

"We offered Hank $500 to be fitted with the mike," Steve told Peter Finney of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "He told us, ‘That wouldn’t pay my dry cleaning bill!’ I remember him telling us, ‘Boys, there’s going to have to be some coin of the realm, some Ben Franklins, changing hands here!’ I remember Hank saying he wore the mike for the good of the game. Yeah, for the good of the game and a thousand dollars!"

But that payoff took us onto the Chiefs sideline, where we heard Stram urge his team to "matriculate the ball down the field, boys" and exult over their first touchdown "65-toss power trap! What’d I tell ya, boys? 65-toss power trap. Ha haaa!"

This innovation eventually led to us hear Lou Saban exclaim, "They’re killin’ me, Whitey! They’re killin’ me out there!" and Mike Singletary declare, "We’re gonna be here all day, baby! I like this kind of party!"

We also got to hear the grunts, groans, collisions and shouts — the sounds of the game. When combined with the close-up camera work, we were suddenly in the game.

But Steve didn’t stop there. He saw football not as a game, but as art. A drama played out over three hours every Sunday, an opera unfolding against a background of … music.

And what music! Unforgettable songs played by an orchestra accompanied the films, intensified the drama, and enhanced the NFL experience. Before Steve Sabol, no one thought to set sports highlights to music.

"Today, of course, those techniques are so common it’s hard to imagine just how radical they once were," Steve told the associated press last year. "Believe me, it wasn’t always easy getting people to accept them. But I think it was worth the effort."

So does Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "The films he created and the highlights he captured were amazing," Kraft said in a statement last week. "I still get goose bumps every time I watch one of the Patriots’ "America’s Game" series. He spent his life preserving the legacy of the NFL and its many legends. In doing so, he became a legend in his own right."

 

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