Ed Sabol likes to tell about the time he wanted the Johnny Weissmuller book on swimming. Sabol was 10 years old and crazy about the water, so when his mother said he couldn't have the book, Ed sat down on the curb outside Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia and cried. He put on such a performance that a crowd gathered and traffic stopped. Finally his mother relented and bought him the book. It is significant that he got what he wanted. In the years since, Ed Sabol has met similar forms of rejection with the same lusty disdain, attracting crowds and stopping traffic while he turns an ordinary situation into a happening, preferably to music and always with a flair.
The object of Sabol's latest obsession is pro football. He came to the game only 12 years ago. From the beginning his immersion was total, his approach wild-eyed, his ideas extravagant. He is today the producer and recorder, on film, of all that happens on the playing fields of National Football League teams. The way he has gone at his job has made a dramatic game more dramatic, a fast and violent sport faster and more violent—and with music. All of the NFL highlight recaps one sees on television this season are the work of Sabol. So is the official NFL championship game film. His off-season show, Edwin Sabol Presents, muscled into prime time last spring and ran all summer. It was easily the best football fare, outside of an actual game, ever presented on TV.
When Sabol first broached the idea of a weekly out-of-season series, people were skeptical. With half a dozen exhibition games, 14 regular-season games, two conference playoffs, a championship game, a super playoff, a runner-up bowl and a pro bowl game, not to mention all of the AFL and college games scheduled, who needed more football? The sight of red dogs in spring might send even the most rabid football fan over the edge. The reaction would be particularly harsh, Sabol's critics said, if the show were to be another rehash of things past.
A rehash was not what Sabol had in mind. Rather than reruns of the year's best plays, Sabol proposed to have each film deal with a specific: runners, receivers, big plays, rookies. Each of the 25 shows was to be a little extravaganza of its own. The shows were to be built around carefully conceived themes; they were to be meticulously edited, and amidst the yards and yards of drama there would be comic relief, close-ups and irreverent and irrelevant asides that would serve to amuse, edify and keep audiences mesmerized for a solid half hour—give or take a few commercials.
November 20, 1967
The object of the presentation was to lift professional football out of the realm of grunts and thuds into something slightly surrealistic, infinitely modern, genuinely artistic and captivating. How well Sabol succeeded is indicated by the fact that the show will run again next year, same time, same station, same sponsor.
A special installment was the Green Bay Packers film. It opened with one full minute of trench warfare from World War I. Brutal, straight-on, carefully and massively prepared grind-'em-into-the-mud violence. For those fans who go all goose-pimply watching the San Francisco 49ers' Dave Parks catch a pass and then get flipped on his head, Sabol in another film gave them scrambled Parks in rapid-fire sequence. Parks catches the ball and gets hit. Another catch and he's hit again. And again. All this to the roll of kettle drums. Or Gale Sayers, who makes those breathtaking runs for the Chicago Bears a couple of times each game. In the Sabol film on runners, Sayers zigs and zags for six minutes to the coolest kind of jazz. If there is a problem with the Sabol format, it is that his shows might be too good, better than the game itself. Even the National Football League is capable of turning out an occasional stinker, sloppily played, lopsided, dull. Call Sabol sloppy, even lopsided, but not dull. He has never been dull.
In the comparatively short, crowded life of Edwin Milton Sabol—he is 51 years old—there is no recorded evidence of his ever having been caught in a listless pose. Whether his action is compulsive or carefully conceived, Sabol's object has always been to make things happen. Sabol learned how to swim at 5, for instance, and says of it: "Big deal. Any idiot can swim. But swimming fast, faster than anyone else ever has—now, there you have something." He set out to do just that and ended up with three interscholastic records (one of which he took away from Johnny Weissmuller), an undefeated swimming career at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J. and a scholarship to Ohio State. He seemed certain to win a place on the 1936 Olympic team, but a strange thing happened. Sabol began swimming slower and slower, and when the team left for Berlin he was left behind. What had happened? Sabol simply had found that his enthusiasm for life made the Spartan rigors of training unbearable, especially on a big college campus where coeds, fraternity high jinks and drama productions were irresistible.
The theater was especially attractive to him. Ole Olsen, who, with Chic Johnson, was then riding high with Hellzapoppin', saw Sabol in a college drama club revue and told him he was good. It was all Sabol needed. He bolted Ohio State, took up residence in a West Side walk-up and began to haunt casting sessions all over New York. Eventually he landed a part in a play co-produced by Oscar Hammerstein called Where Do We Go from Here? "Hammerstein had some good ones," says Sabol, "and he had some great ones. But this one? It closed after two weeks."
Sabol did get a couple of good notices out of the flop—which was wonderful for his ego but did absolutely nothing to establish credit at the friendly neighborhood grocer. So much for Broadway.
Then Ed Sabol, age 25, got married and received a 16-mm. camera as a wedding present. It almost ended the marriage but it proved an early omen of what ultimately was to be a turning point in his life. For weeks thereafter everywhere wife Audrey went, there was Ed, his camera whirring, recording every move. Audrey picking flowers—the bushes part and whirrrr. Audrey frying eggs—up pops the kitchen window and whirrrr. Audrey writing a letter—squeak goes the bedroom door and whirrrr.
It did not immediately occur to Ed—or Audrey—that all this whirring might have commercial value. In fact, for the next 20 years Sabol settled down to what some have called "making a respectable living." Sabol hated it. He bought a house in Philadelphia and worked for his father-in-law, at the time one of the biggest makers of men's topcoats in the country. It was honest work, and lucrative, but Sabol, impulsive as ever and still eager for action, was frustrated. "Can you imagine looking forward to a trip to the dentist?" he asked. "Every day? For 20 years?"
One day in 1956 Sabol looked in a mirror. He saw that his red hair was growing gray, and that his trim athlete's body was getting flabby. "What am I doing?" he asked himself and answered immediately, "Going in circles." Like that, at the age of 40, he retired—but not to rest. Sabol had retired to speed up. He set out to see all the things there were to see, do all the things there were to do, to stuff himself—to excess—with all the action and excitement he could find.
Step one was learning to fly. Sabol swooped down on a Texas flight school, flew five hours aloft every day for two weeks and roared out at the controls of his own brand-new Cessna. Next came travel. Off went the Sabols to Japan and back they came with plans for an Oriental house, to be built in the middle of the Tudor grandeur of Philadelphia's Main Line. Sabol gave his architect a free hand but did specify that the house had to have a 12-foot bar and a bathtub eight feet long, eight feet wide and two feet deep.
Of all the postretirement indulgences, puttering around with his movie camera, which he had never really given up during his so-called working days, was the one that gave Sabol the biggest kick. On an impulse he flew to Nassau and buzzed the Bahamas for a week, piloting with one hand and firing the camera with the other. Now, everybody knows how ridiculous a home movie can be, even under ordinary circumstances. Imagine a movie shot single-handed from a plane: upside-down sand spits, horizontal palm trees, blurred instrument panel. Sabol's film not only was free of such piffle, it was so well conceived and beautifully done that it was bought by the Bahama Development Board for use as a tourist come-on.
Another time Sabol set his tripod up beside a Howard Johnson motel that was abuilding. Every day, at the same time, he filmed developments until the motel was finished. Then Sabol got the division manager in front of his home screen. To the latter's astonishment, an entire Howard Johnson motel sprang out of the ground in full color, blossoming blue and orange two minutes after construction was begun. Sabol sold that film, too.
Like fathers everywhere, Sabol was enthralled with the antics of his son, and the first recorded adventures of Steve Sabol—who was later to gain notoriety himself as Sudden Death Sabol, the self-proclaimed "Fearless Tot from Possum Trot" (SI, Nov. 22, 1965)—were of him making a bubble. Eventually, when Steve began playing football in prep school, his father was right there with his camera. But what interested him most was not the play of his son, which was good enough to eventually earn him all-conference honors as a fullback at Colorado College, but the game itself. Even on a prep school level, the violence and the color of football became irresistible to Sabol. He had always enjoyed watching the game; now, to get a better angle of the action, Sabol had a rickety tower built 25 feet above the field at Haverford School and, ignoring its tendency to sway in alarming arcs during high winds, spent hours grinding away.
At precisely this time—1959—Ed Sabol came to another fateful decision: to unretire. "I was dropping out of things," he said. "I was getting frantic. If you're not part of something, I mean a business, or you're not creating, you are forever an onlooker—never a participant. Meanwhile I had this wild scheme..."
The scheme had been brewing for several months. Sabol had met Dan Endy, who was then working for an undernourished company making NFL game films, solemn reruns of the week's plays to the accompaniment of Sousa marches. Sabol and Endy had talked for hours, mulling over what had been done in football and what had not been tried. Sabol thought all the football films he had ever seen had been unimaginative and terrible. "My God, what you could do with color," he told Endy. "And that music. Why not get the Tijuana Brass...?"
"Wait a minute," Endy would say. "I agree, I agree. But do you realize how much all that would cost?" To that Sabol, who had never been known to scrimp on anything, would reply "Bah. You remember the quality long after you forget the price."
Equipped with nothing more than ideas and his amateur standing, Sabol had the gall to bid for the right to film the 1962 championship game of the National Football League. The morning before the sealed bids were to be opened in New York, Sabol walked up and down Broadway desperately anxious over the outcome. As usual, he had committed himself completely to the project. The 1961 championship game had gone for the grand total of $5,000. Sabol had sounded out Endy, who agreed it was a good idea to offer $7,000. Sabol had thought an instant and said: "Dan, let's not blow it. We'll go whole hog. We'll try $12,500."
Sabol and Endy, who by this time had become Blair Productions, had the high bid, by $2,500, and now it was NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle's turn to take a deep breath, or so Sabol thought. "I came to Pete with all these big, wild ideas," he said, "and a whole closetful of home movies to show as credits. He didn't know anything about me, my background, my drinking habits, anything. And high bid or not, he didn't have to give the game to Blair Productions."
Rozelle was not flustered. The filming of NFL games was considered small stuff next to TV. Movies of the championship game were something that owners amused their friends with and that booster clubs showed at Thursday night smokers. It was not the money in Sabol's offer that attracted Rozelle. Sabol proposed to use eight cameras—four more than were focused on the previous year's game. All were to employ color and varying degrees of slow motion and the best, most modern music Sabol could find. Two days later Sabol and Endy opened a letter bearing the NFL letterhead and beginning: "Congratulations."
"I let out a whoop," said Sabol, "grabbed Endy and waltzed him around the desk. For 10 minutes we were delirious. Then it hit us. Now that we had it, what did we do with it?" Sabol had wonderful ideas, all right, but what he had in fact was no photographers, no cameras, no sponsors, precious little capital and only the vaguest notion of how to get into Yankee Stadium, where the Giants would play the Packers.
This was November. By December, Sabol somehow had rounded up equipment, a staff, sponsors and a story line. His theme, though obvious, was unassailable: little Green Bay versus great big New York. To backstop himself against the possibility of a dull game or bad weather, he decided to take lots of pregame color in the Giant and Packer camps. Sabol even buzzed Manhattan in his Cessna for a shot of the skyline to open the film. Not even Vince Lombardi was better prepared for the showdown.
Then came Sunday, Dec. 30, one of the bitterest days the pros have ever faced. By game time the temperature was 15°, the wind was blowing in gusts up to 30 mph and the field was cement. If the weather was bad for the players, it was murder on Sabol's cameramen. They froze, the cameras froze and the film broke. The elaborate walkie-talkie communication system between Endy—high in the stadium—and the cameramen managed to contact four cab companies, three construction sites and a fishing boat out of Fall River, Mass., but not the photographers.
Sabol started bonfires in a dugout to thaw out the cameras—and the cameramen—as they froze. When the game was over, the men of Blair Productions were so numb they did not even bother to sort and label the film. It was just dumped into a laundry hamper and all principals fled for warmth.
Sabol was certain he had a disaster on his hands. "By golly," he said, "when Ed Sabol goofs, he doesn't fool around. All that time, all that hard work, all that money spent and what do we have? A laundry hamper full of frozen spaghetti."
But Sabol was wrong. The film was tangled, all right. It took two days to sort it out and a week to edit it and put it together, but when it was done Blair Productions had a primitive masterpiece. "Best football film I ever saw," said Pete Rozelle.
Blair Productions got the rights to film the next year's championship, too, but the company had to go up to $17,000 for the privilege. And right then Sabol said to himself, "Oh-oh. Here it comes. Next year it will be $25,000, and when those hotshot outfits with the inexhaustible bankrolls see what can be done with the film and that it can be marketed, they'll snow us under." So Sabol went to Rozelle and said: "Pete, it's time for the NFL to go into the film business. You buy us out and then make your own championship films. You can even do weekly regular-season stuff."
Rozelle immediately saw the merit in the idea. He ran into difficulty with some of the NFL owners when he tried to convince them that a subsidiary company could be rewarding financially as well as artistically, but eventually the word went out that the league would absorb Blair Productions and its staff.
Blair Productions and its staff sounded impressive, but in fact it consisted only of Sabol, Endy, John Hentz, an editor, and Art Spieller, the production manager. Not for long, though.
With more than his own money now backing him, Sabol began expanding. First he bought an old building owned by M-G-M in Philadelphia. It had space, room for labs, offices, sound rooms, projection rooms and a plush theater as well as what appeared to be hundreds of bathrooms. "I wonder what their problem was?" says Sabol.
Then came the new faces. Sabol requirements were odd, to say the least. Experience? Not necessary. Maturity? Not wanted. Education? Who needs it? Sabol had but one prerequisite: the prospective employee must be insane about football. "They'll get the experience soon enough," was Sabol's explanation. "I want fresh faces with fresh ideas. I want to be shocked and amazed, and if I am you won't see anything ordinary come out of this place. You'll see new concepts, modern, bold, alive. These films will sing," he concluded in the best tradition of Hollywood.
A recent visitor to the studio said, "I didn't know if I had walked into a film company or a discotheque." He may never know. The place throbs with youthful exuberance, and it will so remain if Sabol continues to have his way.
Last fall NFL Films went into an orgy of activity that continues today. Sabol's crews cover every single game with two regular cameras and one slow motion, all in color. Work begins on Friday when editors and cameramen leave Philadelphia for the eight cities (seven if the Eagles are at home) where the games are to be played that week. They spend the next day searching out information, hints and rumors—anything that might give a clue as to what is going to happen in the game and what should be photographed. If Bob Lilly has been a tiger in scrimmages this week, the big Dallas tackle gets special treatment. If Lilly snarls, the cameras will catch it. Lilly gets a finger in his eye, the camera records it. Lilly wipes out a backfield in an explosive rush—got it.
When the sun goes down late Sunday afternoon and the players head for hot showers, the men of NFL Films grab their equipment and dash to the local airport. Their game is on. Washington is the rendezvous point and for good reason. Dan Endy has only 24 hours to get eight game films ready and a fogged-in airport would destroy the schedule. Washington, it was found, has fewer airport shutdowns than any other major city in the East, so NFL Films set up a shop in Georgetown, where the staff works for 24-plus hours from the time the first film arrives on Sunday evening until it is ready to go on the air Monday night.
It is on the plane ride back to Washington that the editors begin studying the shot sheets (the play-by-play account of the game), and by the time they land they have an idea of which plays are meaningful. Then comes the race for the laboratories where the film is processed. By the time the editors are in front of their viewers they know what they want and the job of putting the film together begins. It is hectic work and the pure enthusiasm of Sabol's young staff does not make the task any easier, although it does make things more interesting. "Look at that run," comes a cry from the editor working the Cleveland Browns' game. Time is precious and the editors are bleary-eyed but Leroy Kelly going 80 yards through a broken field is an irresistible interruption.
When the film is ready, Sabol reviews it and one of the editors writes the script. It is now 3 o'clock Monday morning, and while the original film is being whisked back to the plant, where two duplicate copies are made, Sabol's crew can sleep—until 6 a.m. The duplicates are back in the laboratory by then and an hour later the narrators arrive—Chuck Thompson from Baltimore, Jim Gibbons from Washington and Jack Whitaker from New York. When one of these three is not available, Frank Glieber from Cleveland fills in.
While all this is going on, the other working copy of the film is getting the once-over by Music Editor Frank Decola, who is deciding which cool sound goes where. The editors and Decola then coordinate their efforts, so that a clash of cymbals does not drown out Chuck Thompson's description of a blocked field-goal attempt.
And there it is—clean, vibrant and in color—by midafternoon on Monday. Eight hours later the first of the 123 prints are ready and are being rushed to the airport by motorcycle for shipment to 42 cities.
Such devotion has made Sabol's employees irrefutable authorities on who's doing what to whom in the NFL. Press-agentry and a few carefully selected examples of a big play may wow the All-Pro selection committee, but they are liable to produce only a sneer at NFL Films. With a flick of a switch you will see the current rage missing blocks, leaping on pileups after the play is over or standing stark still when the quarterback has not called his number. How, for instance, do you select the best offensive lineman for a season? "Name an offensive lineman All-Pro once," says Sabol, "and he is an automatic selection every year until they give him his gold watch and a season's ticket. Who watches offensive tackles, for crying out loud?"
Sabol's people do, hours and hours of them. An NFL Films version of the All-Pro team would shock a lot of experts. But it would be absolutely legitimate.
For the championship game in Dallas last year, Sabol used 18 cameras, three sound crews and every editor on the staff. Out came 50,000 feet of film that was eventually edited down to 990 feet. It was a neat package, full of unique montage effects, but more, it revealed why—and how—the Cowboys blew the championship.
Early in the game Tackle Jim Boeke jumped offside for an apparently insignificant five-yard penalty. It did not mean anything then, but later, when Dallas was driving for the tying touchdown, Boeke jumped offside again. This time he killed the drive—and the Cowboys.
It was a touchy situation for Sabol. One man does not lose a championship, and singling out the Cowboys' tackle for special censure was not going to make Dallas ecstatic.
"Our first instinct was to squelch it," said Endy, "but the more we studied the film, the more obvious it became that this was the key to the game—an overeager lineman, who has played well all year and who played well for most of the game, makes the same mistake twice. The first time it was trivial. It didn't hurt, but it was indicative. The second time, it was costly. Now, then, do we ignore it?"
"You do not," decided Sabol. The film was built around the two plays and the reaction from Dallas was immediate and violent. "Unfair," the fans cried.
"Well," said Sabol, "it was honest and, besides, they loved it in Green Bay."
The championship game over, NFL Films went to work on the 25-week series. Making the installments was a lot less hectic than the weekly schedule the crew had been used to and the results were considerably more sophisticated. It was in the series that those audacious young ideas first got full play. Steve Sabol, for instance, fresh out of Colorado College, walked in and talked his father into using long focal lenses for special closeup shots. Sabol Senior was not convinced anything would come of it, but he did not want to put thumbs down on a new idea. Steve had the cameraman zero in on the hands of the defensive linemen in the game. "Hands?" said the cameraman. "You want hands?"
"Hands," said Steve, and the results were startling. All those hands in a row suddenly became fists just before the ball was snapped. The long focal closeups are now a regular feature of NFL Films.
The first film of the series, They Call It Pro Football, was shown in March and it was a great success. Written and directed by Steve, it got his father so excited he decided that the first press preview in New York was going to be no ordinary affair. "None of that Toots Shor stuff," said Ed. "We'll show it in the Huntington Hartford Theater."
"But that's an art theater," came a voice.
"Right," said Ed.
And when Sabol said he wanted music, he was not just whistling The Stars and Stripes Forever. He sent his music editor, Frank Decola, to Germany this summer to tape the works of a 60-piece orchestra. No doubt the music could have been obtained more cheaply by dipping into the public domain for some selected organ music, but what you are now getting with your NFL highlights really swings. And that is just the way Ed Sabol works—always with music and always, always with flair.