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 Son

Another Sabol, another image: Steve, sitting on his football helmet in 1962, in the middle of a stadium in the Rockies, as his coach paces the sideline. Steve is a starting fullback at Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, which is not as great as it sounds—Division III, “a nothing thing,” Steve told me. But still, he is a player in the only game that matters.

I seized on this image of Steve, the son who will bring the Sabol project to fruition, in part because it shows the difference between generations: one that came of age during the Great Depression, that dreamed of Broadway but gave it all up for family obligation, that sat on helmets as Patton barked; the other that came of age in the ’60s, that sat on helmets as college coaches used the language of war. Woven together, these generations—father and son, scarcity and surplus—­created the aesthetic of modern football.

The football team at Colorado was a tough nut to crack: even Division III coaches want to win. To improve his odds of getting on the field, when asked to write a few biographical facts for the program, Steve changed his birthplace from Villanova to Coaltown Township—because Villanova means a trophy-filled room where a kid stays up late doing extra credit, but Coaltown means Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath and working harder than anyone else because it’s better than getting black lung in the mines. “Everybody knows that western Pennsylvania is where the studs come from,” Steve explained. He added a nickname to complete the picture: “Sudden Death.” When this didn’t work, he doubled down, keeping the nickname but choosing an even more colorful birthplace: Possum Trot, Mississippi. He began sending press releases to the newspapers, extolling his own virtues. In some, he referred to himself as “the Prince of Pigskin Pageantry now at the Pinnacle of his Power.” He had hats made, postcards, buttons. He wrote a column for the school paper, titled Here’s a Lot From Possum Trot. His self-­publicizing was successful enough that, remarkably, he was covered in the November 22, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated: “The Fearless Tot From Possum Trot.”

All the while, Steve was working like a dog, running, lifting, getting bigger. He was up to 210 pounds by his junior year. When the coach finally took notice, he was ready. He started in short-yardage situations, grunting, grimacing, bucking the line. Steve downplays his college career, but it defined him—not the games themselves, but the lessons he took from his own self-invention. That people are always hungry for a more interesting story. That if you put the pictures on the screen, the audience will fill them out with their own fantasies. Steve was an art major, and his mother, Audrey, an art dealer. When Steve wasn’t on the football field, he was studying images.

When Steve went to work full-time at NFL Films in 1964, he arrived with a sense of mission. Ed had sketched the outline; Steve would jam it full of color, character, incident. The game had always been seen from a distance: the backsides of the linemen in three-point stance, the pile of bodies. Steve wanted to open the game like a sandwich, peer inside, show people things they’d never been able to see. He would take them onto the field, into the locker rooms—even into the huddle, the most sacred place in pro sports.

Steve began experimenting in the mid-1960s, pioneering techniques that still define sports coverage, documentary film, even reality TV. He was the first to mic a coach, the first to use pop music in sports films, the first to diagram a play onscreen. He put cameras everywhere. He kept filming the QB after he had thrown the ball and was tackled, showing fans what it’s like when the wall of pain arrives.

Steve hired former NFL players to work the cameras, because they could better anticipate where the play was going. “I remember watching the camerawork, saying to myself, How do those guys do that?” said Hank McElwee, a cameraman and the director of photography at NFL Films. “They were getting angles you had never seen. On TV, you’d always see the shot from the main camera, which sits high above the stadium—never any handhelds. And here was this little company doing slow motion, doing sound. They were on the field. I remember saying ‘Boy, that really makes you feel like you’re part of the game.’ ”

There’s a degree of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in all this: by observing the game, the Sabols changed it. Their movies taught a generation of kids who became players how to behave onscreen. It made them self-conscious. “I remember the first player who looked into the lens and said ‘Hi, Mom.’ I thought it was the end of everything,” Steve told me. “ ‘We can’t capture it anymore. The players are thinking about us as much as we’re thinking about them.’ But I was wrong. In the end, the performance became another part of the game.” If you want to understand football, don’t look at Jim Brown or John Elway or Tom Brady, Steve explained. Look at Homer Jones, a receiver for the Giants in the 1960s. Players used to hand the ball to the referee after scoring, or toss it to the fans. Jones, wanting to distinguish himself, whipped it into the turf instead. The first spike. You can go from there to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s end-zone dance, Ickey Woods’s shuffle, Terrell Owens’s Sharpie, Rob Gronkowski’s antics. In the modern game, the camera is the 12th man, another participant in the unfolding drama.

As Steve’s ambition grew, Ed slowly stepped away, turning the operation over to his son little by little and year by year, until, before anyone quite registered the fact, it was Steve in the huddle and Ed in the skybox, where the shrimp plates drift by in schools. Steve began to experiment with techniques pioneered by New Wave French auteurs: quick cut, montage. He wanted to make real films. In a 1965 sequence, he showed the Chicago Bears QB Rudy Bukich throwing a ball in Wrigley Field, then cut to the L.A. Coliseum, where Mike Ditka made a beautiful catch. George Halas, the iconic Bears coach, called NFL Films in a rage. He wanted to know how it was possible to catch a ball in L.A. that was thrown in Chicago. What does Bukich have, a fucking intercontinental arm? In such situations, Ed would get on the phone and work his magic, speak of legacy, mythology, film techniques. “This is going to record and preserve your life’s work,” he explained. “It’s something your grandkids will appreciate.” When that failed, he’d go to his fallback line: “You’ll be bigger than John Wayne!” It took a dozen years, but Halas finally caught up with NFL Films, praising the Sabols as “keepers of the flame.”

Steve and his colleagues had a handful of models, Hollywood films they believed they could emulate: The Magnificent Seven for the music, the Gregory Peck movie Duel in the Sun for close-ups of fingers and hands during the climactic battle in the mountains. The French director Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman convinced Steve that even the most familiar events could be worked into drama. He began commissioning original scores for his films; many were written by the composer Sam Spence, then recorded by full orchestras in Europe. With the right music, he explained, “you can make a coin toss seem like Armageddon.”

In 1967, Steve brought in John Facenda, the Philadelphia newscaster who became “the voice of God.” Facenda knew nothing about the game, but he could deliver a line. The scripts were the key, of course, and Steve wrote many of them himself. He was particular about the language, wanting everything jacked up, squeezed for drama. When I asked him to name his literary influences, he said, “Kipling and Poe.” (Kipling again, whose poem had given a title to a war movie that gave its title to his dad’s first championship film.) Where sports narrative had tended toward the descriptive, Steve strove for the literary. His words did not describe the action—they accompanied it, amplified it. “Rage was part of [Mike] Curtis’s anatomy. Like a muscle, he flexed it and built it up”; “There’s glory in the legends of this hard-muscle life, and there’s poetry in each season made of sweat and strife”; “As for the Patriots, Gertrude Stein would have said, ‘Instead of going the way they were going, they went back the way they had come.’ ”

When I told Ken Rodgers I thought it’d be funny if the writers drafted scripts in a literary voice other than Kip­ling’s, he said, “We’ve done that.” He then sent me a copy of a show called “Highlights for Highbrows,” which narrates the most notorious game in Giants history—in which the quarterback, Joe Pisarcik, fumbled with seconds left, resulting in an Eagles touchdown that ended the Giants’ 1978 playoff run—in the style of J. D. Sal­inger. “If you really want to know about it,” the film opens, “the first thing you probably want to know is why I didn’t just fall on the ball and run out the clock and all that John Madden crap.”

“I remember the first player who looked into the lens and said ‘Hi, Mom,’ ” Steve said. “I thought it was the end of everything. But I was wrong.”

But it all went back to They Call It Pro Football, the movie in which Steve created the template: for the highlight reel, the sports film, the backyard fantasy. Everything flowed from that film, a headwater that marks the place where the modern sports flick was born. Others might go back still further, to certain scenes in Michael Curtiz’s epic Jim Thorpe: All American, or the CBS special “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” but I start with Steve driving his reel-to-reel from Kiwanis Club to rec center to auditorium. If this were a movie about Steve, you would cut straight from him stumping in the hinterlands to him, a little older now, taking over from his father, building the company into a behemoth as he shoots and cuts, screens and sells the string of films that helped turn football into the national game: Championship Chase (1974), The Road to the Super Bowl (1978), Joe and the Magic Bean (1977), Hard Knocks (2001).

We live in a bourgeois society, where works of art—those that attract a large audience, anyway—teach you how to consume, or else make the process of consumption more pleasurable. Ed and Steve Sabol taught the average fan how to consume football: where to look, what to notice, when to exult. They revealed the game inside the game, the story beneath the story. In doing so, they helped football achieve its paramount position in American culture. Football is among the last entertainments that still draw a mass audience. Every­one is watching, or in the vicinity of someone who is.

No one can say what the future will be for NFL Films. The company is healthy and booming, but Ed is ailing and Steve has cancer, the prognosis of which depends on whom you ask. He may have decades, or his reign may be nearing its end. But the Sabols’ legacy is already known: it’s the 100 million–plus people who tune in to the Super Bowl. Why did football surpass baseball? Because football is perfect for the TV screen, which is actually shaped like a football field; because football is at once the most intellectual and the most brutal game in the world, in which the coaches think while the players bleed; because we love to see people knocked silly. But also, perhaps even primarily, because football mints the kind of uniquely vivid images that the Sabols could spin, over and over, into a Kip­ling poem about war.

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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