NEW YORK (AP) — An actor and an athlete, Ed Sabol was the perfect man to transform football into film.
He’ll now be enshrined among the NFL greats he cast as triumphant and tragic characters. The founder of NFL Films will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Sabol describes himself as a longtime “amateur moviemaker” before he won the rights to chronicle the 1962 NFL championship game. Not a sports broadcaster, but a moviemaker.
Until then, the recaps of the up-and-coming league’s title matchups were simply called “The Championship Game.” It was a highlight reel feel.
“We began making the game personal for the fans, like a Hollywood movie,” he wrote in an email. The 94-year-old Sabol, who lives in Arizona, prefers not to do phone interviews because of his hearing.
“Violent tackles, the long slow spiral of the ball, following alongside the players as they sidestepped and sprinted down the field,” he added. “The movie camera was the perfect medium at the time to present the game the way the fans wanted to see it.”
A star swimmer at Ohio State who had a brief stage career, Sabol was in the overcoat business with his father-in-law in Philadelphia before he formed Blair Productions, a film company named after his daughter. When he outbid his competitors for the NFL title game rights, it changed the course of his film career and — very possibly — the NFL’s fortunes.
“We see the game as art as much as sport,” said Steve Sabol, his son and successor as president of NFL Films. “That helped us nurture not only the game’s traditions but to develop its mythology: America’s Team, The Catch, The Frozen Tundra.”
It was because of Steve that Ed had some prior experience shooting football: He used to film his high school games. Son will present father at the induction ceremony.
“Dad had three things you want in a filmmaker: an eye for detail, a knack for storytelling, and a sense of humor,” said Steve, who also answered questions through email as he undergoes cancer treatment. “Plus, my father understood athletes, because he was one himself.”
Joe Browne, now a senior adviser to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, was a young staffer standing up against the wall at a meeting of league executives when the commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle, said Sabol wanted to put together a blooper reel.
“Why would we want to show the players’ mistakes?” somebody asked.
Rozelle replied they should trust Sabol’s intuition.
“As it turned out, Ed was right, again,” Browne says now.
“He allowed fans to connect to the sport long before there were fantasy football and the Internet,” Browne said.
The long list of innovations brought by NFL Films is taken for granted by sports fans today. Wiring coaches and players for sound during games. Reverse angle replays. Setting highlights to pop music.
“Today of course those techniques are so common it’s hard to imagine just how radical they once were,” Steve said. “Believe me, it wasn’t always easy getting people to accept them, but I think it was worth the effort.”
With robust TV ratings that seem almost immune to the fracturing of audiences, the NFL of today is the equivalent of a can’t-miss Hollywood blockbuster. Fans view the players as leading men and the teams as heroes and villains just the way Ed Sabol drew it up.
“I consider myself lucky to have had the privilege to work alongside men like Vince Lombardi, George Halas and Hank Stram,” he said. “It is because of the fans’ love of the game, and their desire to be a part of it, that NFL Films is being honored along with these men who have made football what it is today.”