How NFL Films transformed football
MIAMI -- If you look very closely -- I mean very closely -- you can see the NFL Films camera quiver ever so slightly as it follows Kansas City Chiefs coach
The point is if you watch closely, you can see the camera shaking just a tiny bit. That is
"My Dad was so mad when he saw the film," Steve Sabol says of his father
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Here are five of my favorite NFL Films coach quotes:
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Steve Sabol is an interesting case. Here is a guy doing something he has wanted to do all his life. And that is special. Only in Sabol's case, it's jaw-dropping because the job he has wanted all his life did not actually EXIST when he was young. There was no NFL Films and no particular reason to have such a thing. It would be like someone today dreaming of, I don't know, getting paid to sit in baseball dugouts and come up with snarky comments or making the NBA by just shooting half-court shots at the end of halves and games. Make pro football films? Who is going to pay you to do that?
Then, Steve Sabol came from a family of dreamers. His mother,
Steve Sabol, perhaps, felt that even more than the rest. "I'm more talented than
Steve prepared to be an artist because, as mentioned, he did not have even the slightest suspicion he would be able to make a career out of filming football games. Then Ed hired him to be a part of NFL Films. And together they created a whole new vision of the NFL. The editing, the cinematography, the sound, the music, the rhythms -- a lot of people are responsible for the NFL Films style. But the vision comes from Steve. When it came to football, he heard
To make the point: Before the Sabols and NFL Films, mud on the football field was just mud on the football field. NFL Films turned that mud into something holy, something that reflected guts and manhood and courage. Mud proved a Herculean test for the players' souls. NFL Films showed cleats sloshing in mud, mud dripping off taped hands, mud caked on arms, the way mud turned linebackers into heroic and dangerous figures. We take that for granted now because NFL Films has created this image of pro football, but there's nothing intrinsically romantic about mud. This is best demonstrated by
But this was the lens Steve Sabol saw football through long before he carried around a camera.
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Here are five of my favorite characters on NFL Films (in no particular order):
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Sabol talked a little bit about some of those things that have made NFL Films legendary.
The shot was taken by an old Navy guy with ridiculously steady hands named
"That's what we call the Jesus Christ shot," Sabol says. "Because it makes you go, 'Jesus Christ, who shot that?' It's a signature shot for our films, and it's something that's very, very hard to do."
Ernst incidentally -- or perhaps not incidentally -- is also the only cameraman who followed the ball all the way into
"The owners said to us, 'Why don't you use
Ed Sabol was a natural salesman. And even though the NFL owners were a famously conservative bunch, he convinced them to let NFL Films use Facenda.
Steve: "I remember when we were making 'They Call It Pro Football,' which was our
"But it is true that he didn't know much about football. My Dad told the owners: 'He doesn't HAVE to know about football because Steve is writing it.' But people never quite got that. I used to kid John: 'I'm working so hard writing these lines and everybody thinks your just ad-libbing them.'"
"I remember when we had our first premiere," Sabol says. This was 1962, before the operation was called NFL Films. It was 'Blair Motion Pictures' -- named after Blair Sabol -- and Steve had come back from college to help out. They had filmed the championship game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants -- and they had absolutely no idea how to promote this thing. That game was lousy, and it was on a cold miserable day -- Ed Sabol would say it was the second most miserable day of his life behind only the day he stormed the beach on D-Day. They called the film: "The Longest Day."
"It wasn't a great film," Steve says. "We were still learning then."
They decided to show the film at Toots Shor's, the famous bar in New York where sportswriters were likely to be hanging out anyway.
"All of a sudden, halfway through, the image disappears. And there's this sickening crash. I look up; someone had tripped on the cord and there was the projector and film laying in crab meat and shrimp sauce. You could not have thought of a worse disaster. Dad's cursing, I'm trying to clean it up with a wet towel, we're screwed.
"But as a wedding present he got an old windup movie camera. And so everything I did as his only son, he would film. Pony rides. Haircuts. He filmed everything. He especially loved filming my football games. I was pretty good, and so he would film every game. He would film from the end zone. He would shoot slow motion. Nobody was doing that stuff in those days.
"And I remember we used to invite all the kids on the team over to watch the games. We would put out ginger cookies. And everybody would watch themselves play. My Dad would put in a
"In fact, when my father bid $5,000 for the 1962 Championship Game, that was a huge amount. It was double the bid the year before. Pete Rozelle was flabbergasted. Who was this guy who was willing to spend so much money on what seemed like relatively worthless rights to the NFL Championship Game? And, Rozelle got a little concerned. He asked my father what experience he had shooting football. And my Dad said -- this is absolutely true -- that his experience was filming his 14-year-old son."
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Five of my favorite Steve Sabol/John Facenda lines:
1. "Lombardi. A certain magic still lingers in the very name."
2. Sabol's poem, "The Autumn Wind is a Raider"
3. "Do you feel the force of the wind? The slash of the rain? Go face them and fight them. Be savage again!"
4. On defensive linemen: "It's one ton of muscle with a one-track mind."
5. "The third quarter was dying. And so were the Colts."
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After all this time, it turns out
You know: I love the Ice Bowl film. That's the film that featured the NFL Championship Game between Green Bay and Dallas when the field was frozen solid* and the temperature was minus-15. I love it because NFL Films turned such a disastrously cold day -- a day, you could argue, clearly NOT meant for football -- into legend. You could feel the cold rushing through the television set. You could feel the despair of the players trying to get any footing. You could feel the hopelessness everyone felt and yet they went on because winning and losing still mattered.
To me two of the most arresting shots from the Ice Bowl film -- beyond the great shots of
One of my editors at
And ever since then, I have thought about how often I see something on television or in movies or just in daily life that was inspired, at least a little bit, by NFL Films and Steve Sabol. I think it happens all the time.
"I think we looked at the game like a Cubist painter," Sabol says. "We wanted every angle. We wanted different perspectives. I think we were studying the game the way Picasso studied a bowl of fruit."
And Sabol stopped -- he wondered if he was sounding immodest. Cubist painters? Picasso? Well, it's how he felt. And Sabol knew that it would have sounded even better if John Facenda had said it.