Publish date:

How NFL Films transformed football

*Though Red Right 88 -- the pass play that led to Brian Sipe's tragic interception and a Cleveland Browns playoff loss to Oakland, and a giant hole in my childhood -- is right up there.

The point is if you watch closely, you can see the camera shaking just a tiny bit. That is Steve Sabol laughing. There are a million beautiful things about NFL Films -- its history, its writing, its voices, its music, the way Films changed the landscape of storytelling in and out of sports. But if I could sum up the thing that made NFL Films different and such a special part of my life as a sports fan, it would be, simply, the humanity of it. When Stram was riffing on the sideline, Sabol -- now president of NFL Films -- was filming. He heard it all through his headset and could not keep himself from laughing. And that, too, is part of the record of Super Bowl IV.

"My Dad was so mad when he saw the film," Steve Sabol says of his father Ed, who unwittingly started NFL Films when he bought the 1962 NFL Championship Game rights for $5,000. "But I told him: 'Dad, wait until you hear what the guy's saying. You won't be able to stop laughing.'"

* * *

Here are five of my favorite NFL Films coach quotes:

1. Vince Lombardi at the chalkboard: "What we want is to get a seal here and seal here, and run the ball in the alley."

2. Bill Cowher: "Yeah, I'd like to have 75 degrees and sunny all the time too, but that's not football."

3. Marty Schottenheimer: "This is a game of the heart. Focus and finish."

4. Lou Saban: "You can get it done. You can get it done. What's more, you GOTTA get it done."

5. Jerry Glanville to official: "This isn't college. You're not at a homecoming. ... This is the NFL, which stands for 'Not For Long' when you make them horse-bleep calls."

* * *

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, Audrey, ran an art gallery in Philadelphia and had a remarkable feel for the direction in which art was heading -- she championed (and was friends with) pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Wayne Thiebaud, Ed Ruscha and, frankly, a bunch of other people I never heard of until Steve mentioned them. Steve's father, Ed, sold overcoats, but he had been a spectacular athlete in college and performed on Broadway in his younger days. Steve's sister, Blair, would write for The Village Voice and be a radical force on the fashion scene. She still writes.* The Sabols were people who felt certain their bodies were too small to contain what they wanted to do while living on this earth.

*Steve Sabol: "My sister is the kind of person who, if she calls you, well, if you are in a certain business you don't want her to call you. You better be careful. She's a tough critic."

Steve Sabol, perhaps, felt that even more than the rest. "I'm more talented than Jimmy Brown," Sabol told Sports Illustrated in one of the more fascinating stories ever to appear in the magazine. The story is fascinating not so much because of what's in it -- it's an interesting story -- but because it was ever written at all. The story appeared in 1965 -- before Sabol had even started working full time for NFL Films. He was just a moderately talented running back for a decidedly non-football power, Colorado College. As you might suspect, moderately talented running backs at small losing schools do not generally get 3,000-word features in SI. Sabol literally talked himself into national stardom. He took out advertisements in the program and local paper celebrating his own greatness. He invented an exciting past for himself.* He created this character -- Sudden Death Sabol. He made himself into a piece of pop art.

*The story is called "The Fearless Tot From Possum Trot," -- Sabol had claimed to be from a place called Possum Trot, Miss. Of course, the place doesn't exist. Possum Trot was not Sabol's first choice as imaginary hometown -- originally he claimed to be from Coaltown Township, Pa., another place that doesn't exist. Sabol had grown up in Villanova, Pa., which does exist but was not romantic enough for Sabol's football sensibilities.

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 John Facenda's voice of God narrating in his head long before he knew John Facenda. In his mind, even as a kid playing sixth grade football, the games were epic struggles. The players were gladiators. The uniforms transformed mortals into gods. The autumn wind was a Raider. No, Steve Sabol never thought small.

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 Eric Dickerson's semi-famous and unfortunate "This is a cleat" sideline report during a Monday Night Football game.

But this was the lens Steve Sabol saw football through long before he carried around a camera. Mud! Snow! Heroes! Warriors! Villains! Sabol will tell you that he spent his childhood mainly doing two things -- playing football and going to movies. And he was never entirely sure where one began and the other ended. Truth is, he never thought one or the other ended. It was all the same thing. The plays did not matter. The scores did not matter. The only thing that mattered was the story.

* * *

Here are five of my favorite characters on NFL Films (in no particular order):

1. Lou Saban. NFL Films turned Lou Saban -- a nomad who coached at 10 places in his life and who had a losing record in the NFL -- into an every-man legend. He's the guy shouting, "They're killing me, Whitey!" And, as mentioned, who can forget the gritty yet desperate look on his face when he told his men: "You can get it done...."

2. Earl Campbell. One of the greatest players in NFL history anyway, but NFL Films took him into a whole other stratosphere. My vision of Campbell is of the NFL Films where he runs over Los Angeles Rams linebacker Isaiah Robertson. The thing that turns the amazing run into art is the voiceover that NFL Films uses of Campbell. He essentially says, "I saw this guy standing straight up and I thought, 'You don't really think you're going to tackle me standing straight up." In later years, Campbell -- one of the classier men you will meet -- has refused to talk about that run because he was told it really messed with Robertson's head and he never quite recovered from it.

3. Marty Schottenheimer. One of the great sound-bite coaches of all time -- he's the man behind the already mentioned, "Focus and finish." There's "One play at a time for as long as it takes." And, another of my personal favorites, "There's a gleam, men. There's a gleam.... Go get the gleam." Whatever the hell that means.

4. Art Donovan. I was having a discussion with someone -- who are the funniest athletes in the history of sports? That's probably a whole other story. I think Bob Uecker would have a real shot at being No. 1. Bill Lee: Hilarious. Casey Stengel. Charles Barkley. But it's possible that Artie Donovan is the funniest of them all. Then again, part of it is the delivery. Donovan can read a Denny's menu and I'd be on the floor laughing. Especially when he said, "Moon over my hammy."

5. Ken Stabler. It always shocked me that the Snake is not in the Hall of Fame. Then I look at his numbers -- 194 touchdowns, 222 interceptions, only played in four Pro Bowls and made All-Pro once -- and I think: "Meh." The thing is, NFL Films made Stabler seem larger than life. The Holy Roller.* The sea of hands. The Ghost to the Post. Stabler was a throwback, a wild-off-the field quarterback who on the field was a rock of steadiness in the final two minutes. Read that last sentence in the voice of Facenda, by the way. I think Stabler belongs in the Hall of Fame... but I get that from NFL Films.

*Bill King's famous call: "Stabler back... here comes the rush... he sidesteps. The ball is flipped forward. It's loose. A wild scramble. Two seconds on the clock. Casper grabbing the ball. It is ruled a fumble. Casper has recovered in the end zone! The Oakland Raiders have scored... on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play. Madden is on the field. He wants to know if it's real. They said yes, get your big butt out of here. He does! There's nothing real in the world anymore."

My favorite part of that call -- the "He does!"

* * *

Sabol talked a little bit about some of those things that have made NFL Films legendary.

• The slow motion shot of the spiral. The most iconic shot at NFL Films is probably the one of the spiral pass hanging in the air for what seems like weeks. Sabol says that shot -- like so many of the things that worked at NFL Films -- came out of luck and happenstance. The Sabols were watching an AFL Championship Game film -- that was the competition -- and they weren't especially impressed with it. But one shot caught their eye -- some cameraman was able to follow a ball in mid-air. It wasn't that great a shot because it was at regular speed, but Steve was awed. "I remember saying, 'That's an unbelievable shot.'"

The shot was taken by an old Navy guy with ridiculously steady hands named Ernie Ernst. So, Sabol hired Ernst and told him to get that shot again and again. And when they slowed it down, slowed it way down... magic.

"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."

SI Recommends

Ernst incidentally -- or perhaps not incidentally -- is also the only cameraman who followed the ball all the way into Franco Harris' arms during the Immaculate Reception.

• John Facenda. You probably already know this but Facenda -- the Voice of God whose deep voice defined NFL Films -- knew almost nothing about football. And the owners wanted no part of him.

"The owners said to us, 'Why don't you use Jack Whitaker or Curt Gowdy or Chris Schenkel. These were the big sportscasters then. And my father said, 'No, wait, we're trying to show Pro Football in a whole new way. We're trying to show Pro Football the way Hollywood would. We don't want a sportscaster. This is the guy we want."

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 Citizen Kane. The first line is 'It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.' Well, we had John read it. And as soon as he read that line, that one line, I remember looking at Dad, and our eyes met. And we both just knew this was something really great. John was a unique talent.

"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.'"

• The early years. When NFL Films first began, Steve Sabol would take the film -- and he would usually take along a couple of NFL players like Frank Gifford or Del Shofner or Alex Webster -- and they would go to a Kiwanis Club in Reading or an Optimists Club in Pottstown or a Rotary Club in Binghamton. And they would show the movie -- usually on a bed sheet or a blank wall -- and then answer a few questions. That's what NFL Films was for a few years.

"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.

"And then Pete Rozelle stands up. And Pete starts taking questions. There were some players there -- Gifford, Pat Summerall -- and they join in. They're holding a press conference while I'm desperately trying to get the film back up. Some of the writers left, but some of them stayed and they saw the rest of the movie. And the ones that stayed gave us pretty good reviews."

• On Ed Sabol and the first incarnation of NFL Films. "My Dad hated his job," Steve says. "He sold overcoats, but he wanted to make movies. He had a failed career working with the Ritz Brothers -- they were like the Marx Brothers, only a tier below. I always had a picture in my mind of him in a straw hat.

"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 John Philip Sousa march in the background go to with the film. It was really neat, and you can see the direct connection to NFL Films.

"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."

* * *

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"

The autumn wind is a RaiderPillaging just for funHe'll knock you round and upside downAnd laugh when he's conquered and won.

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."

* * *

After all this time, it turns out Steve Sabol is an artist after all. He is having an art gallery opening here in Miami during Super Bowl week. I'm no art critic, of course -- can't even claim I would know art if I saw it -- but I like the Sabol stuff because it's interesting and weird and nostalgic. It blends football and advertising and America... which I think was the magic of NFL Films, too.

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.

*You probably know this: Sabol insists Facenda never actually said the words "The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field." Not only that, but Facenda was not the narrator for the original Ice Bowl film.

To me two of the most arresting shots from the Ice Bowl film -- beyond the great shots of Bob Hayes running routes with his hands stuffed in his pockets -- had nothing to do with football. One was of the Green Bay cheerleaders, layered in clothes, frozen solid, trying still to go on. And the other was of a single fan pulling out a flask, drinking from it, and then looking at the camera as if to say: "Ain't life funny?" There's that humanity again. Sure NFL Films is propaganda -- sweeping music, military references, some overwrought words. But I love it still. Because of the humanity.

One of my editors at Sports Illustrated called me before I wrote the Sabol essay that appears in this week's magazine and said that something struck him. He had been watching a History Channel documentary on the battle at Stalingrad. I guess he's something of a student of Stalingrad. And as he watched it, it occurred to him: This is NFL Films! The icy ground is Lambeau. The voice is Facenda. The music is emotional. The narration is poetic.

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.