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.