Fifty years ago, one of the most important companies in the history of sports was born. NFL Films is a multibillion-dollar operation that has played a key role in making pro football the most dominant sport in America. Not only that, its signature cinematic style – slow-motion camerawork, dramatic narration, and sweeping orchestral scores – has influenced nearly everything we see in televised sports today, from HBO’s 24/7 to SportsCenter. It has been called “the gold standard in sports photography.”
No one could have predicted the company would have such wide-ranging influence when it began, in 1962. During the regular season, the burgeoning National Football League announced that it was entertaining bids for companies to record its championship game. Ed Sabol, an overcoat salesman from Philadelphia bored with his job, won with the breathtaking sum of $3,000 – twice what the nearest competitor had put up.
On December 30, as the Green Bay Packers prepared to face the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium, Sabol arrived with his 20-year-old son, Steve; four crewmen; and three 16mm cameras. The afternoon’s brutal winter weather challenged filmmakers and players alike. “The field was like concrete,” says Ed, now 96. “Every time Jim Taylor or Sam Huff would slam into the turf, you’d wince.”
“They couldn’t punt,” adds Steve, 69. “When the ball went up, it hit a brick wall of wind.”
Ed called the resulting film Pro Football’s Longest Day. Commissioner Pete Rozelle was impressed by the way the Sabols took in the entire experience of the game, from the brutal line play to the anxious intensity of the hooded players on the sidelines. The fledgling company was awarded a contract to film the next two championships and, in 1965, every NFL game. Each of the league’s 14 owners invested $20,000, and Blair Motion Pictures (originally named for Sabol’s daughter) became NFL Films, an official arm of the league. Over the next five years, the Sabols honed their now-legendary style. That work culminated in their first promotional film, 1967’s They Call It Pro Football, which Steve would later call “the Citizen Kane of football movies.” It solidified the grammar for which NFL productions would become known: the use of montage, highlights run in superslow motion, miked-up coaches and players, and a soundtrack heavy on classical instruments like cellos, timpani, and – Steve’s personal favorite – French horns.
It was on this film, too, that the Sabols brought in John Facenda, a Philadelphia news anchor whose booming timbre could make a grocery list sound important, to narrate. Football fans would come to call Facenda “the Voice of God,” though amazingly, according to Steve, “he had no interest at all in football and never looked at the footage before reading the script.” (Facenda would keep his most famous gig until his death, in 1984.)
The Sabols premiered They Call It Pro Football for team owners at a New York nightspot. The members of the league’s old guard were notoriously averse to new methods of promotion, but their resistance crumbled when they heard Facenda’s words, written by Steve: “It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.” Steelers owner Art Rooney would later describe how he got goose bumps when he heard Facenda bellow, “This is pro football, the sport of our time.” The mythology of the NFL had begun. Today, NFL Films’ 200,000-square-foot corporate headquarters in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, is a state-of-the-art film and television production facility, complete with a recording studio that can accommodate an 80-piece orchestra. It’s also a museum of the game’s legacy that rivals the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In addition to the 107 Emmy awards the company has won, jerseys, photos, and other memorabilia dating back to 1890 line the halls. Climate-controlled vaults contain film of every pro football game played over the past five decades. In total, they house more than 100 million feet of film – enough to stretch three-quarters of the way around the world. “We never used video,” says Steve. “We thought of ourselves as filmmakers – romantics and storytellers. Video says ‘right now.’ Film has texture and context.” He notes proudly that his company shoots more film each year than all the Hollywood studios combined.The creative heart of the company, the younger Sabol showed an early knack for promotion (as a running back at Colorado College, he dubbed himself “Sudden Death Sabol” and regaled local sportswriters with made-up stories of his on-field feats) and a genuine interest in art (his photo collages are on display throughout the NFL Films campus). The prose in his game scripts nods to Kipling, Hemingway, and legendary sportswriter Grantland Rice. He wrote of Vince Lombardi: “A certain magic still lingers in the very name. It speaks of duels in the snow, in the cold November mud.” Of Roger Staubach: “His passion was football. His obsession was winning. A championship was his destiny.” (Steve is also responsible for naming key plays and games, like “The Ice Bowl.”) Melodramatic? Maybe. But it’s an old-fashioned storytelling style that NFL fans embrace with affection, even today.
Though he is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, Steve continues to work, with the help of the well-oiled machine he and his father built – up to 340 employees strong during football season, 240 during the down months. They produce 600-plus hours of original programming each year, including HBO’s NFL reality series Hard Knocks, in addition to providing footage to more than 150 media outlets every week during the season. Several years ago, they branched into non-football entertainment, making commercials, feature-length films for the History Channel, even music videos.
Their rise to this level of success has not been without controversy, however. Despite – or perhaps because of – the Sabols’ dedication to artistry, the company has recently come under some scrutiny, cited in a lawsuit filed last June by more than 2,500 former NFL players accusing the league of promoting violence that endangers players’ health. The suit alleges, in part, that NFL Films “has created numerous highlight features that focus solely on the hardest hits that take place on the football field,” and that such films “urge players at every level of the game to disregard the results of violent head impacts.” (It’s not an entirely new claim. As far back as 1999, Sports Illustrated called NFL Films “perhaps the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America.”) As the issue of concussions continues to plague the league, it’s a charge that could gain momentum.
Both Sabols reject the idea that their films glorify brutality. “Football is a violent game, and anyone who says otherwise is falsifying what they like about it,” says Ed, who retired to Phoenix in 1995 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
“We’ve always believed in portraying football like Hollywood portrays fiction, with a dramatic flair,” adds Steve. “To dramatize something doesn’t mean that you’re glorifying it.”
Perhaps not, but NFL Films’ particular style of dramatization has certainly led many of the league’s legion fans to view their favorite sport with rose-colored glasses. ESPN anchor Chris Berman, who hosts the network’s Sunday NFL Countdown, pinpoints the romantic appeal of NFL Films to its ability to make fans feel as though they’re on the field. “Before NFL Films, TV was all shot from far away, essentially sitting in the upper deck of the stadium,” Berman says. “Nobody had brought the sights and sounds, let alone the drama, of pro football right into living rooms like that. NFL Films brought the players and the action to life.”
And while the game’s ravages may harm players in the present day, the truth is that NFL Films preserves them in their glory – a fate some don’t find so terrible. As John Madden once put it, “If you’re in NFL Films, you’re immortal.”
[Editors’ note: On Tuesday, September 18, 2012, Steve Sabol passed away in Morristown, New Jersey.]