Sports October 2012

They Taught America How to Watch Football

The coach as general. The players as gladiators. Ed Sabol and his son, Steve, have spent the past half century at NFL Films, inventing the tropes of modern football. Color, slow motion, ubiquitous cameras and microphones, the omniscient narrator invoking the language of war—the Sabols pioneered all of this and, in so doing, helped make football the national game.

The Father

I met Ed Sabol at his spread in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he lives with Audrey, his wife of 71 years. Ed is 95 years old now, and in a wheelchair, but he had a glass of whiskey in his hand. He described a scene to me: 1944, Ed in fatigues, sitting on his helmet amid a sea of soldiers east of Paris. Behind him, in a panorama, are tents and war machines, infantry preparing for the drive into Germany. He’s listening with rapt attention to a white-haired general sporting a whip and antique pistols. It’s George S. Patton, motivating the men for battle, turning them, phrase by phrase, from lawyers and farmers into killers. Courage is fear holding out a minute longer. No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. “I saw Patton give one of his famous speeches,” Ed told me. “It was in a field in the middle of nowhere, and we were terrified, but he was magnificent, a real showman. He knew how important the theatrical things are at the brutal moments. As long as he was talking, we were not afraid.”

“I saw Patton give one of his famous speeches,” Ed said. “He was a tough son of a bitch, and I admired him.” Patton would become a model for how NFL coaches are portrayed.

I seized on this image—Ed on his helmet, listening to Patton—because it’s a key to the culture of sport depicted in NFL Films. The idea of football as the game of field commanders was evident from the first Sabol production. Patton outside Paris was the prototype for Paul Brown with his fedora, for Vince Lombardi with his sayings that echoed those of the general (Winning isn’t every­thing, it’s the only thing), for Bill Parcells with his years at West Point. Each of these iconic coaches was the general in another guise, on another field of battle. Patton “told us we were going to kill those cock­suckers, go into their houses, take their broads, blow them all to hell,” Ed told me. “He was a tough son of a bitch, and I admired him.”

Ed Sabol was born in Atlantic City in 1916 and grew up outside Philadelphia, where his dad ran a clothing store on the fringes of the Jewish rag trade. From age 5, he spent every summer at Blue Mountain Camp, in the Poconos, where he became a top-notch swimmer. After high school, he went for a few college-prep years at Blair Academy, a boarding school in Blairstown, New Jersey. This is where Ed had his first great success, the one that gave him the confidence that’s carried him through life. “In 1935, when I was 18, I set a world high-school swimming record for the 100‑yard freestyle,” he told me. “I went back in 1936 and broke it again.” Precise details from the era are tough to pin down, but according to Ed and others, he took that record from Johnny Weissmuller, who, in addition to winning five Olympic gold medals, went on to play Tarzan in Holly­wood. Before turning 20, Ed Sabol had whipped the King of the Jungle.

He wound up at Ohio State, where he gradually gave up swimming for the dream of becoming a movie star. “I went out for the dramatic club, got in some plays, loved it,” he told me. In late 1937, he dropped out of school and moved to New York. “I started making the rounds, going up and down Broadway,” he said. “One day, I got lucky. There was a show opening called Where Do We Go From Here? It was about college. I go to the office, and who is there but Oscar Hammer­stein.” Ed got the part. The show opened two weeks later, and closed two weeks after that. Ed’s parents were living in Florida by then, and he reluctantly moved down to help his father run the store he owned. “That was the end of my film career,” Ed said. “I thought it was the end of my life, too.”

It was in Miami that Ed courted Audrey Siegel, whom he’d known years before when she’d spent summers at the girls’ camp across the lake from Blue Mountain. Married in 1941, they moved to Philly, where Ed took a job with Audrey’s father, a coat manufacturer. Their son, Steve, was born in October 1942, 10 months after the United States entered World War II. Ed was drafted and landed on Utah Beach, in France, as one of the grunts in the gunwales of the big attack craft that went boom, boom as the clouds closed the sky. “Not D‑Day,” he told me: “D‑Day plus 10, thank God.” Toward the end of the war, he found himself in Paris, which he helped liberate: “Eighteen abreast down the Champs-Élysées, flowers, broads, everything. I thought I was in heaven, but then we went east. I got as far as the Hürtgen Forest. I got shell-shocked, I guess. They sent me to rest in the back lines. General Patton didn’t like [guys like me]. He said, ‘You stay up and shoot until you get killed.’ ” Ed took a slug of whiskey, then told me, “Jesus, I hated the Army.”

When Ed came home, in 1945, he went meekly back to the workplace of his father-in-law. This was the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, who embraced the mundane not because he was boring, but because he had killed a man with his bare hands. Ed worked in the coat business for a dozen years, until his father-in-law decided to retire and sell his factory, splitting the proceeds between his children. For Ed, it was the first freedom he had tasted since he’d given up on stardom.

He was 40 years old, handsome, optimistic, rich. He had three things he wanted to do: learn to fly a plane (he mastered a Cessna), travel the world (he hopscotched Asia), and make movies. Ed had always been interested in film. He’d been given a camera for his wedding, a 16‑millimeter Bell + Howell, and he documented everything: his daughter, Blair, taking her first bubble bath, Steve’s first bike ride, snowball fights, trips to town—all captured and set to music. It had been a great hobby, but now he wanted to make it something more. He started a company, Blair Productions, named after his daughter, who was named after the school where he had whipped Tarzan as a swimmer. He went to the Bahamas, where he combined his two great passions, piloting a Cessna above the islands while, with his free hand, shooting the beaches and hotels, roads, dunes, and pools. Ed cut the footage into a visual hymn to the Caribbean, then sold it to the Bahamian Tourist Bureau: his first credit.

When Ed got home, he noticed a Howard Johnson’s hotel going up near his house. He set up his camera in front of the construction site, which was nothing but girders and holes in the ground, shot a few frames, then came back each morning for the same shot until the building was complete. When the frames were run together, he had a beautiful time-lapse film of a building rising from nothing. Ed sold it to Howard Johnson’s: his second credit.

Ed had become increasingly interested in football as a subject, particularly Steve’s games at the Haverford School, outside Philadelphia—the color, the violence, the story lines that seemed to emerge naturally from the game. Ed started on the sideline but, always in search of the God’s-eye view, eventually built a rickety wooden tower beside the field. The school tolerated him for the same reason NFL owners would years later: the film was invaluable, allowing the coach to study team strengths and weaknesses that could be recognized only from above. Ed began editing the footage into high-school epics, with slow motion and music. Some of these sepia beauties survive. In one, you see young Steve carrying the ball behind his blockers, finding a hole, then wandering through as if in a dream, as if rolling downhill, as if following a kind of logic.

“Our game lends itself to the majestic,” the Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Theismann told me. “Ed Sabol figured all that out early.”

The footage, the movies, the reaction of Steve and his teammates—all of it gave Ed ideas. Simply put, he looked at the films then being made about pro football and thought, I can do better. Each year, the film rights to the NFL Championship Game were sold at auction to the sort of companies that made black-and-white indus­trial shorts with titles like Zinc: It Makes the Body Strong. Many of the football films were made by TelRa Productions, which compiled highlight reels, the field seen through a single, static camera high in the stands. The music was marching bands, the B-roll was pennant-­waving crowds, the narration was Eisenhower-­era corn, such as: “Milt Plum pegged a peach of a pass to become the apple of coach George Wilson’s eye.”

Ed wanted to shoot in color, roll many cameras, record everything in slow motion, set the action to dramatic music. TelRa wrote news; Ed wanted to create myths. “Our game lends itself to the majestic,” Joe Theismann, the All‑Pro quarter­back, told me. “The way you can slow it down, isolate the spin on the ball, the different emotions you can show—Ed Sabol figured all that out early.”

In 1962, Blair Productions entered a bid for the rights to film the NFL Championship Game. Having learned that the previous year’s rights had gone for $2,500, Ed offered $3,000. When he finally heard from Pete Rozelle, the commissioner told him that he’d made the top offer, but that didn’t mean he’d get the rights. Rozelle had never heard of Blair Productions, and when he looked through its scant credits, he saw titles such as The Sabols at the Seashore, All About Ice Cream, and Bahamas Bound. The company’s only sports films featured Steve Sabol’s prep-school team. Rozelle asked Ed to explain why he was more than a hobbyist with money to burn. Ed went in and pitched, which was his thing, his gift. He came away with not just the rights but an ally who would prove crucial in the coming years.

Ed went to work, hiring cameramen and soundmen. The game, Packers versus Giants, was played at Yankee Stadium on December 30, 1962. (Ed filmed an establishing shot of New York City from his Cessna.) It was 15 degrees at kickoff. The cameras jammed, the film cracked. Ed built a fire in the dugout to thaw his equipment. He told his men to get as much as they could, to film everything, then he threw the reels in a sack, figuring he would save what he could in the edit room. The movie was shown a few weeks later to football people and press at the midtown restaurant Toots Shor’s, a legendary haunt of Hemingway and Mantle and Gleason and Sinatra.

The room was dark and quiet, save for the clink of glasses and the pop of champagne corks. And there it was: the tundra of Yankee Stadium, the players on the field, Bart Starr and Y. A. Tittle, the kickoff, the ball high in the bitter air, the move and countermove. Whereas previous football films had depicted the game in the way of college contests—bobby soxers and pennant-wavers—Ed Sabol had made a war movie. “The Packers’ iconic Lombardi, pacing the sidelines in his camel-hair coat, took on the aspect of a general leading his troops into war,” Michael MacCambridge writes in his 2004 book, America’s Game. “And the action that had unfolded too quickly to be fully absorbed live revealed itself to be a carefully orchestrated series of troop movements, captured in close-up and slow motion by Sabol’s cameras.”

The crowd at Toots Shor’s, restless at first, turned quiet, respectful. Even Sabol’s title—Pro Football’s Longest Day—suggested war, echoing the name of the Hollywood D‑Day blockbuster The Longest Day, a title that itself drew from Kipling’s great war poem “Gunga Din”: “ ’E would dot an’ carry one / till the longest day was done.” Ed had borrowed the title of a movie that told the story of his own landing at Normandy. Starting with this first film, he seemed to run his worst experiences through the prism of football, turning Patton into Lombardi, torment into entertainment, slowing everything down until it made sense.

Seen today, that first movie seems primitive, with one foot still in the world of TelRa Productions. But the elements that would gradually come to characterize NFL Films were there. When the lights came up at Toots Shor’s, Rozelle clapped Ed on the back and said, “That’s the best damn football movie I’ve ever seen.”

Sabol secured rights to the next two Championship Games, but the price kept climbing: $10,000, $17,000. He was a victim of his own success. In the previous era, the title-game film had been a vanity project, made for the archives and for team owners. By reinventing the film for a general audience, Ed showed there was money to be made, raising the price for the rights in a way that threatened to drive him out of a market he had invented.

After the 1964 game, Ed went to Rozelle with a proposition. To hell with all this bidding: the league should buy Blair Productions and rename it NFL Films. It was time for the league to have its own media wing, to control its own image and sell its own product. Despite the misgivings of some of the old owners, Rozelle agreed, and the league bought Ed’s company for less than $1 million. Ed, who continued to run the company, was put on the league payroll at $30,000 a year. In addition to the Championship Game, he would now film every game on the schedule. In 1965, he sold the syndication rights for the first weekly football show, NFL Game of the Week. The following year, a Packers highlight movie opened with a full minute of film shot in the trenches during World War I.

Presented by

Rich Cohen is the author, most recently, of The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King.

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