Glorifying Gridiron Gladiators

Back in 1962, Ed Sabol thought pro football was going to be big.

Back in 1962, Ed Sabol thought pro football was going to be big.

The Philly-based overcoat manufacturer contacted Pete Rozelle and offered The Commish $3,000 for the film rights to the NFL championship game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers. Never mind that Ed’s only relevant experience was taping his son Steve’s high school football games.

Flash forward: Some 9,045 games later, Ed’s Mt. Laurel-based firm, NFL Films, has won an unprecedented 92 Emmys for writing, cinematography, editing, directing, and producing. Steve, after an all-conference career at Colorado College, has won 35 of those Emmys himself. The younger Sabol, now company president, hosts NFL Films Presents, the longest-running sports series on TV. Ed’s bold idea, Steve’s artful vision, the booming voice of the late John Facenda (the longtime Philadelphia news anchor known as “the voice of God”), and the orchestral scores of Sam Spence combined to set the standard in sports filmmaking.

At a time when ESPN didn’t exist, NFL Films provided a highlight show to a nation that got no exposure to NFL teams outside their own market. To achieve a cinematic look, Steve Sabol, an art major in college, would use only film, not video. To capture the intensity of the action, he added slow-motion techniques. The scripts (by legendary Philadelphia sportscaster Harry Kalas) influenced broadcasting, including HBO’s Emmy-winning Inside The NFL. According to Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, the Sabols’ influence can be seen throughout the movie industry.

In 2003, father and son received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for “revolutionizing the way America watches football.” Among the innovations NFL Films has brought to the field are miking a player and coach (1966); making the first sports blooper film (1968), and posting the first sports highlights on the Internet (1997). NFL Films is a key contributor to the NFL Network, launched in 2003.

The company’s $50 million, 200,000-square-foot facility in Mt. Laurel also houses the world’s largest sports film library, which contains more than 100,000,000 feet of 16mm film. Steve Sabol calls the headquarters “one of the last great self-contained Hollywood studios, providing every imaginable production resource to the film and video community.”

NFL Films may have shaped the way sports is seen on television today. But the upstarts who have followed in their cleat marks have yet to connect the dots. What’s essential is not just the touchdown pass, it’s the shots leading up to it—the frosty breath escaping from exhausted linemen just before a snap, the wide eyes of a running back desperately seeking daylight, the toothless maw of a linebacker barking out signals. Like Steve Sabol, one of only nine people to have attended every Super Bowl, the key is both old-school and high-tech.

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