Update: Steve Sabol passed away on September 18, 2012.
In the summer of 1968, Steve Sabol went on the road. He was driving a beat-up old car with the windows open. From Pennsylvania to Ohio to Indiana, the towns drifted by, the neon vacancy signs outside the motels, the taverns, the fields where the high-school football teams played. Steve was 26, strong as a horse, his hair too long for the Podunk provinces. He had a reel-to-reel projector in the backseat, the kind every randy best man used to drag to stag parties in the 1950s. Each night, he set up in another wood-paneled room where, after the Kiwanians or Rotarians or Boy Scouts had finished their business, he showed his movie. He was stumping like a politician, building an audience for a film he’d made guerrilla-style, with nothing but a few thousand dollars and a vision. He wanted to show football as it might have been shown by the old Hollywood directors: the game as directed by John Ford.
They Call It Pro Football was produced by NFL Films, a small company Steve’s father, Ed, had founded as Blair Productions in 1962. After Steve had first shown it in New York several months earlier, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle shook his hand and said, “That’s not a highlight film, it’s a real movie.” But none of the TV networks were interested, so Steve had to find his viewers, one screening at a time, amassing an audience that would eventually be among the most prized in the marketplace. But even in the beginning, when there was just this determined kid and a weird movie that could not find a distributor, all the elements were there: speed, color, narrative. The first line of They Call It Pro Football sets the tone: “It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.” A primer on the game itself, with passages dedicated to “the linemen,” “the quarterbacks,” and so on, the movie is a collection of dramatic images, explained, glorified, set to music. It came to define the aesthetic of modern, hyper-vivid sports coverage, taking viewers inside the huddle, letting them hear the collisions and understand the coaches’ tactics. It turned every game into Waterloo and every player into an epic hero. It taught America how to watch football.
The bloody fingers of the lineman, the clouds of breath on the cold, clear day, the chewed-up turf, Gale Sayers pulling away from the last defender like a driver who had discovered a seventh gear (Sayers in the film: “Sixteen inches of daylight, that’s all I need”), the uncertain wobble of a mid-flight football—and always the heroic voice-over: “Special men in a special game. A uniquely American game with a history as rich and as rugged as the country in which it was born.” It was all there, crystallized, perfected. If Steve showed it to kids on a Friday, they’d be in their yards early the next morning, the narrator’s voice running through their heads as the receiver ran the hook-and-ladder: “His range carries him into heavy traffic, or through the shifting dangers of a broken field … Men on the run, measuring their survival by the twist of a shoulder.”
That voice, the NFL Films voice—Steve calls it “the voice of God”—would become more than a sports narrator: for those of us who grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, it remains the voice in our heads, lending drama to even the most mundane decisions (“Cohen knew the tortilla chips were old, possibly stale, but hunger is a beast that first devours the mind of a man”). For many years, that voice belonged to John Facenda, a Philadelphia broadcaster, though others have filled the role as well. In 1969, for instance, Burt Lancaster narrated Big Game America—he took the gig in return for a football signed by Johnny Unitas—because, as I said, Steve wanted to show the game as it would’ve been shown by Hollywood.
They Call It Pro Football finally made it to television in 1969. It was shown early in the morning, late at night. Junk time. Garbage hour. Just ask Fidel Castro: all revolutions begin in the sticks.
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NFL Films is located in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia. The sprawling complex and the parking lot, with its gleaming rows of Mercedes and Saabs, speak of the success of They Call It Pro Football and the hundreds of movies and millions of miles of footage that have followed. The company has produced some 10,000 features since 1964, and supplies hundreds of hours of content a year to HBO, ESPN, ABC, Fox, CBS, and Showtime, including the highlights played during halftime and the features for the Sunday pregame shows. NFL Films generates 25 percent of all content for the NFL Network, including award-winning shows such as Hard Knocks and America’s Game. In 2004, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences gave Steve and his father, Ed, its Lifetime Achievement Emmy—one of 107 Emmys the company has won over the years. In 2011, Ed was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a signature recognition for a man who neither played nor coached.
But all of this actually understates the company’s achievement. Slow motion, color, extreme close-up, ubiquitous microphones and cameras, omniscient voice-over: the Sabols pioneered the style of modern sports coverage. There are no secrets in the Sabols’ NFL. Everything is revealed. As much as George Halas and Sid Luckman, or Tom Landry and Roger Staubach, it was Ed and Steve who created the modern game, a contest more in tune with the speed and violence of modern America than any other sport. Baseball? Please! Nine angels dancing on the head of a pin. Football is blood and guts, the ticking clock, sudden death, the sack, the blitz, the bomb—symbols of a nation locked in endless war. Almost every detail of the game has come to the attention of its fans through the sensibilities of the Sabols. Asked to describe his goals, Steve paraphrased Matisse: “The importance of an artist is bringing new signs into a language.”
The headquarters of NFL Films is 200,000 square feet of photo labs, orchestra pits, recording studios, and endless stretches of gray hallway lined with photos of great players, the gladiatorial forebears who have been gathered and incorporated into the narrative. One shows a group of men playing on a field next to a house that’s on fire. Because only the game matters. “This is the last Hollywood studio,” a young producer named Ken Rodgers told me. “We have the best subject and the best stars. It never gets old. Peyton Manning is injured? Here comes Tebow, Gronkowski. It’s a never-ending drama.”
Rodgers was at his desk, watching footage from a recent game and writing the narration that would accompany the banner plays. “If there’s a hard run where a guy bounces off a couple tacklers, we won’t say ‘Marshawn Lynch ran for 42 yards on a touchdown to tie the game at 17,’ ” he told me. “That doesn’t mean anything, if you watched the game. We’ll write something like ‘The power in his legs was matched only by the fearlessness in his heart.’ ”
When I asked Rodgers to explain what he was trying to capture, he told me about his first time watching the game from the sideline, during the 2001 season. “It was a Jets game,” he said. “Curtis Martin takes a handoff and runs to the sideline. A defender comes up, and they collide right in front of me. I thought they were both dead. Two people that big, that fast, hitting each other full speed—I thought I’d witnessed a murder. Then they jump up and run back, and I saw it 30 more times in the next hour, and I realized that what you see from the stands is nothing. That’s what we want to show people: what it’s really like.”
The focal point of NFL Films, the destination of every hallway and every movie, is the vault. Ed Sabol sold his company to the league in 1964 and became the official historian of the NFL, charged with collecting old footage as well as filming every game. The fruit of that labor is here, 50,000 cans arranged sequentially in a room chilled to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. In this film, you see the Pottsville Maroons, a memory of the ancient, industrial-city NFL, play for a title in 1925. In that one, you see a 1934 battle between the Giants and the College All-Stars, the first game recorded in color. The collection even includes the oldest football game on film: Princeton versus Rutgers, 1894. Skinny, upright men in sepia tone run into each other at the sound of an unheard signal. It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun. Like the Constitution under glass, it’s a holy relic: the original football movie, father of thousands, shot by Thomas Edison himself.
I talked with Steve Sabol in his office, a room of souvenirs and windows: bobbleheads, photographs, parking lot, office buildings, sky. He raised a hand, waving goodbye to a compact, gray-haired guy who grinned and thanked Steve for all the good he’s done. This was Dick Vermeil, retired now, but for many years a dominating coach, first of the Philadelphia Eagles, then of the St. Louis Rams. Steve helped Vermeil make his name when he was young, helped transform him from a tiny figure in the distance into an icon. It happened one Sunday in 1977, when Steve’s cameras caught Vermeil helping a young quarterback, Ron Jaworski, through the kind of rough patch that, if handled wrongly, can mean trouble.
“It was one of those days where things weren’t going well in Philadelphia, and the fans were on my ass, booing,” Jaworski told me. “Dick pulls me out—we were wired—and says, ‘You never have to worry about me jerking you from a game. I don’t care what the fans say. You’re my quarterback.’ It was a personal moment on the sidelines, and NFL Films got it. They still show it when they talk about young quarterbacks. It meant everything.” It was just the sort of moment that characterized NFL Films: taking viewers not just inside the game, but inside the psyches of the men on the field.
Steve is 6 foot nothing and was wearing tennis shoes, a purple sweater, and chinos. He is a buoyant man, but his hair is thin, his hands shaky. He’s 69, but that’s the least of it. The fact is, Steve Sabol is ill. It happened like this: Steve was in Kansas City, where he was about to receive the Lamar Hunt Award, listening to the speaker before him, thinking through his own routine of anecdotes and morals. He began feeling light-headed, foggy, and a blackness appeared at the edge of his vision. Then he was through the looking glass, in another place, another stage of his life: at a hospital across town, with a guy in a lab coat shining a light in his eyes, asking Can you tell me your name? Do you know who you are? “And that was the scariest moment of all, the one time I experienced terror,” Steve told me, “because, no, I did not know my name, and no, I did not know who I was.”
Steve had suffered a seizure at his table, passed out, and been carried away unconscious. The doctors put him in a room and waited for his memory to return. Two days later, it did, but not his ability to speak. (This happened more than a year ago, and Steve still suffers from slight aphasia: his thoughts are clear, but when he tries to speak what’s on his mind, he often cannot find the words, or the words come out wrong.) He was flown home to Philadelphia, where the doctors discovered an inoperable brain tumor. He’s been undergoing weekly blasts of radiation, which have shrunk the tumor but left Steve tired and frustrated. His entire life has been about communicating the ineffable—the perfect music, the perfect picture, the exact word for the moment—and now even the smallest turn of phrase requires tremendous concentration.
Steve was reluctant to have his story told. He had turned down the reporters who contacted him when news of his illness went public, fearing they would write the kind of living obituary he hates. “The last thing I want is to be portrayed as a ghost haunting this place while I’m still alive,” he told me. But he did want to talk about NFL Films, how it had changed not just football but American movies and culture. He wanted to talk about his father, too, “a salesman pure and simple, who made us seem big even when we were small. He was the only one who could talk the old coaches into letting us on the sidelines and into the locker rooms, letting us mic them up for sound,” Steve explained. “They would say ‘Absolutely not.’ Then he would sit them down and say ‘We’re going to make you bigger than John Wayne!’ ”
Though Steve worked with his father all his life, important parts of Ed Sabol’s story remained mysterious. “I have no idea what really happened during World War II, even though it was clearly crucial,” Steve explained.
Ed Sabol had returned from Europe in possession of experiences that changed his approach to everything, and caused him to think in ways important to the development of NFL Films. “I’ve asked about it again and again,” Steve told me, “but the most he’ll say is that it was the worst time of his life, and that he was so scared, he did not take a shit for nine days.”