Canton Calls Ed Sabol

Ed Sabol helped make the NFL America’s Game. His company, NFL Films, gave the game its aura while entertaining and informing generations of fans. This weekend he will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Fifty years ago Sabol started his own film company, Blair Motion Pictures. He was a middle-age overcoat seller from Atlantic City,New Jersey, with a passion for sports and photography. At the time, major league baseball was the national pastime. College football was more popular than pro football. The NFL faced competition from the upstart American Football League. The first Super Bowl was five years away.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle awarded the 1962 NFL title game broadcasting rights to Sabol’s company for $5,000. Previously, Sabol’s football filming experience consisted of shooting his son Steve’s prep games and practices. Sabol was a professional novice when Rozelle sold him the championship game rights.

Until then football was shot in grainy black and white. Hitherto Alan Ameche’s dive into the end zone to win the 1958 NFL Championship was the game’s most famous play.

Sabol had a vision that would modernize sports film making. He planned on shooting pro football the way Hollywood made movies. He used color and music to amplify the on-field drama, beginning on that frigid December afternoon in Yankee Stadium.

Rozelle liked Sabol’s product and gave Blair Motion Pictures the rights to the 1963 and 1964 championship games. Unfortunately the cost of filming these contests was exorbitant. Sabol paid $5,000 for the 1962 game, $10,000 in 1963, and $20,000 in 1964. The entrepreneur worked out a deal with the league that enabled him to save money and continue making his movies: the NFL purchased Blair Motion Pictures in 1965 and renamed it NFL Films. Ed Sabol ran the operation.

NFL Films changed the way fans viewed the game and Sabol’s ideas revolutionized highlight making. He once told cameraman Donald Marx to focus the lens on the football in mid-air. “Concentrate on the ball and keep it in the frame,” Sabol remarked. Anytime you see a tight spiral slowly moving through the air, that’s an Ed Sabol shot.

Sabol insisted the games be shot in slow-motion, even though it cost a fortune to produce. His film-making accentuated the tight spirals, big hits, and graceful runs. His cameras focused on the faces of individual player, showing them as modern day warriors. Mike Singletary’s eyes and Jack Lambert’s teeth are particularly memorable due to this technique.

Sabol also decided to mic coaches. He first got Hank Stram to wear a microphone for Super Bowl IV. Fans will never forget Stram encouraging his offense to “matriculate the ball down the field.” Packers coach Vince Lombardi was skeptical of letting NFL Films onto his practice field. Sabol flattered Lombardi, telling the coach he’d make him “the John Wayne of professional football.”  Both men became football icons when their words were captured by Sabol’s microphones.

NFL Films put viewers in the middle of the action. Cameras were put in the locker room, on the sidelines, and in the huddle. Fans ate it up.

Football is entertainment and Sabol provided the music and narration that enhanced the human drama playing out on the field. He saw John Facenda one night watching the late news in Philadelphia. Facenda’s voice blew Sabol away: Facenda “could read a laundry list and make it sound like the Constitution,” Sabol later recalled. Shortly thereafter, Sabol hired Sam Spence to compose musical scores for his documentaries.

Spence’s music and Facenda’s voice created NFL Films’ aura. Sabol had his blue print: the pictures, words, and music made his product unforgettable.

 In 1967 NFL Films launched a series called “They Call It Pro Football.” A year later it began “NFL Bloopers.” A decade after that, it started “Road to the Super Bowl,” which became the longest running sports television special in television history. These shows played an indelible role in enhancing the football viewing product.

NFL Films won its first Sports Emmy in 1979 for the “Road to the Super Bowl.” In the three decades since, NFL Films has collected another 104 Sports Emmys for their work.

At this year’s Super Bowl, The Pro Football Hall Of Fame made a long overdue announcement: Ed Sabol would join the 2011 Hall of Fame Class. As soon as he is inducted, Ed Sabol will join the elite wing of that body.

Ed Sabol’s company has told the story of pro football for half a century. This Saturday, Sabol will slip on a golden jacket and join the other greats who made pro football America’s Game.

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