August 5, 2011

Guest Post! HOF Saturday- An Ode to Ed Sabol and NFL Films

For the first time ever, we are having a guest blogger here on DKSB, and I couldn't be happier. Great stuff here from an old friend of mine on Ed Sabol and the staggering impact of NFL Films on all of our lives.. Enjoy!

Guest Blogger: Brad Nelson

To begin, I’d like to thank Johnny for the opportunity to serve as a guest blogger. His DKSB is a entertaining and informative blog. I hope my post below keeps with the tradition of high quality insights on football (and all things Seahawks, of course) that Johnny has established over the last few years.

On Saturday, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is set to induct another group of legendary men into its relatively tiny but hallowed and glorious building. Seven men (six players, one contributor) from different backgrounds, all of whom have made a lasting impact on the game. Admittedly, as a Bears fan, I’m happy that Richard Dent is finally getting enshrined; he should’ve been recognized as one of the game’s premier pass rushers long ago. He has the statistics (137.5 sacks), a signature game (MVP in Super Bowl XX), two rings (Super Bowls XX and XXIX), a signature move (the strip-sack, which he and LT popularized in the 1980s). And he was arguably the best and most feared defender on probably the greatest single-season defense (1985) in the history of the NFL.

But I’m most pleased that NFL founder Ed Sabol will finally get his day in the sun. I’ve been banging the drum for Ed–on Twitter, via messages to HOF voting members, and in conversations with friends–for the past decade. In my view, he has done more than anyone to popularize the NFL. Most significantly, it was largely through his vision and effort that the American public shifted from seeing the NFL as a corrupt, nasty and violent game (a major problem in the 1950s) to singing its praises as glamorous and essential viewing. Remember, at the time of the inception of NFL Films, pro football was at best on an equal footing with the college game, a notion that seems preposterous nowadays. Under Ed’s leadership, NFL Films helped to grow the game, attracting more television viewers, in-game attendees, and fans and adding billions of dollars to the league’s coffers. And NFL Films itself has become an extremely respected motion picture dynamo that’s unrivaled in any sport in any country around the globe.

In the early 1960s, Ed Sabol quit his job as an overcoat salesman and launched a company devoted to capturing professional football on film. Initially, his new venture was called "Blair Motion Pictures," named after Ed’s daughter. At the heart of this was Ed’s love of making movies. Indeed, Ed constantly tinkered with his motion picture camera, first producing short films of the mundane in the Sabol household and then eventually son Steve’s high school football games. In 1962, for $4000, Ed won the rights to film the NFL championship game between the Giants and Packers.

The timing and location of the 1962 championship is central to the formation of NFL Films. The game took place in New York on December 30. The brutal weather conditions were not particularly conducive to putting together a top-notch short picture for a bunch of young and inexperienced film makers. The freezing cold (game time temperatures were 13 degrees and dipped into single-digits as the game progressed) and high winds (gusts up to 40 MPH) made life miserable for Ed and his crew of cameramen (as well as the players). They struggled, as camera lenses constantly froze and film rolls cracked, and had to adapt to the weather on the fly. But in the end, they succeeded, and this was important for a couple of reasons. One, Ed and his men captured the 1962 Packers, one of the greatest teams in NFL history, on film in their finest hour. And two, the fact that they effectively did the job under such difficult conditions made Ed confident that his team could tape NFL games on a full-time basis. This was the start of what would be known by 1965, after the league purchased BMP, as NFL Films.

It’s rather startling to grasp the progress of NFL Films from its infant stages to the organization as it currently stands. In fact, to get an understanding of how far NFL Films has come, as well as the specific changes it’s implemented along the way, I encourage readers to check out the "Lost Treasures" series. Today, NFL Films is an omni-present force in football. It’s cameramen are everywhere and highly-regarded. It’s work is featured prominently on a host of ESPN stations, the NFL Network, HBO, Showtime, among other outlets. (Additionally, keep in mind that the Sabols have carved out a niche in other industries, such as the Olympic Games, the Ringling Bros. circus troupe, Harley Davidson, Sony Music, and more.) NFL Films DVDs sell very well. The way NFL Films has shot footage has influenced the way that contemporary football games are filmed and aired. And the soundtrack and the distinctive voice of NFL Films are pop culture sensations.

The guiding light behind NFL Films is an interesting character. Ed Sabol grew up in New Jersey, was an excellent swimmer as a teen, attended Ohio State, where he continued his swimming career, and even qualified for the 1936 Olympic Games. He reportedly declined the invite because the Games that year were held in Nazi Germany. And like many American men in the 1940s, Ed served in World War II.

Ed has been and still is an eccentric guy. One could see him in the early days of NFL Films wearing crazy multi-pocketed suits, smoking a cigar, and talking furiously to anyone and everyone. He’s energetic, garrulous guy. But that served him well. He was the networker, the recruiter, a schmooze. In this way, Ed formed connections to important people. He built a strong relationship with Commissioner Pete Rozelle. He pulled legendary voice and Philadelphia newsman John Facenda into the NFL Films orbit while drinking at a neighborhood bar. Ed developed a great bond with Packers coach Vince Lombardi. In fact, so great was this bond that Lombardi allowed Sabol’s crew to record him throughout the 1967 season. Four years later, Redskins coach George Allen (see video below) participated in a similar program for NFL Films. Rozelle, Lombardi, Allen, and other coaches and players backed NFL Films because they liked and trusted Ed; they believed he worked with the best interests of the NFL in mind. And without a doubt, they were right.

That said, it would be a mistake to undersell his creative vision for NFL Films. It was Ed who made the decision to create short football films that resembled in many ways the big Hollywood blockbusters of the 1960s. He sought something that was eye-popping–in terms of the visual footage, musical score, and the dialog. This was a sharp change from how pro football was typically presented. Prior to the emergence of BMP and NFL Films, NFL clips and highlights were packaged in a very dull and boring format by the teams themselves, with employees usually taking their cues from how evening news telecasts displayed content during sports segments.

In the end, Ed’s successfully implemented his ambitious vision, and that, in turn, effectively glamorized the NFL. He created a world in which kids, men, and women wanted a part of. How? Ed helped to create a new image for the NFL. Pro football wasn’t just a vicious and bloodthirsty sport. Sure, NFL Films didn’t avoid showing the big hits. After all, the organization has reams of film on such superstar aggressors like Dick Butkus and Night Train Lane and proudly shows this footage. But what NFL Films did do is open up a whole new side of the NFL that many Americans didn’t see before. Now, the game was also inhabited by aerial assaults by the likes of Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath; swift, balletic receivers like Lynn Swann and Lance Alworth streaking down field; opportunistic defensive backs like Willie Brown; and agile yet powerful running backs such as Walter Payton and Jim Brown. Grace, beauty, artistry gradually became buzzwords associated with the NFL, thanks to Ed and his crew.

It would be a gross oversight to leave out the role that Steve Sabol has played in the growth of NFL Films. Steve, hired by Ed, his dad, worked for years as a cameraman before moving up the organizational hierarchy. Steve brought a distinct and crucial aspect to NFL Films: he played college football (as a RB). Which meant that he brought an awareness and understanding of football to the film crew. As Steve began to take on a bigger role in NFL Films, he made sure to emphasize offensive and defensive line play in the organization’s videos and highlights, a piece of pro football that was usually far overshadowed by offensive glitz and hard hits. Lastly, we should not forget that Steve has been a great spokesperson for NFL Films. He is smart, articulate, and extremely knowledgeable about the history of pro football. And Steve’s passion for the game radiates through NFL Films telecasts and his other broadcast appearances.

As we know, NFL Films has left a significant impression on pro football, and some of its accomplishments I’ve already described above. Here, I’d like to discuss two more.

1. Amazingly, NFL Films has provided the iconic pictures (the short movies and highlights, of course), voice (John Facenda and Harry Kalas), music (Sam Spence), and language (scripts by Steve Sabol) of American pro football. So enduring are the contributions of Facenda, Kalas, and Spence that I believe each should be recognized somewhere in the Pro Football HOF. Unfortunately, a complete discussion of each of these components is beyond the scope of this blog post, though I do want to add a few words. If readers aren’t familiar with "Autumn Thunder," a 10-disc compilation of NFL Films music, I encourage them to check it out. There, you will find well-known and moving tunes like "Battleground," "Round-Up," "Journey to the Moon," "Wild Bunch," "The Raiders," and "Classic Battle." Furthermore, the narration of NFL Films has provided a number of brilliant, vivid lines. Here is an unforgettable quote, and a personal favorite: "Lombardi. A certain magic still lingers in the very name. It speaks of duels in the snow and cold November mud." Probably the most memorable set of lines comes from "Autumn Wind," a poem composed by Steve Sabol for "The Championship Chase," an hour-length video that collected highlights of the 1974 season.

2. NFL Films has gone behind the scenes and revealed worlds that were previously unknown. For instance, game planning and strategy, coaching, player development and acquisition are all familiar and knowable concepts at least in part because the organization has covered them in a thorough manner over the years. There are many examples of this, but the recent "Hard Knocks" series is likely the most prominent one. Just as important, individual profiles of football players, many of which show them on and off the field, have made these athletes relatable and knowable to fans, an extraordinary feat considering that players wear uniforms that cover their entire body and helmets that shield their faces. Yes, it was long thought that football, both college and pro, would lag behind baseball and even basketball because fans could see clearly see the players’ faces. NFL Films effectively worked to overcome this barrier.

On a final note, I’d like to share a few of my personal memories of NFL Films. As soon as I first watched an NFL Films program, sometime during the 1981 season, I was hooked. As a kid, I watched as many programs I could find on television: NFL Yearbook, Super Bowl highlights, Game of the Week, Inside the NFL, NFL Films Presents, among others. These programs quickly enhanced my knowledge of the game. And programs like "NFL Films Presents" provided an essential visual history of the NFL. Impressively, in the course of only a few hours, I was able to get a historical tour de force of key teams and players during several decades. To this day, my single favorite NFL Films movie is the 30-minute highlight package of Super Bowl XVI. True, this wasn’t a riveting game, as the 49ers built a 20-0 by the half, but it was the first Super Bowl I watched, so it still holds a special place in this football fanatic’s heart.

NFL Films also helped to bring some of my favorite players to life, creating a bond that continues to the present. As a kid, I loved running backs. Players like Walter Payton, Marcus Allen, Eric Dickerson and Curt Warner (yes, that’s right, Seahawks fans!) were my gridiron heroes. In an era absent constant football coverage, without the NFL Network or the Sunday Ticket, it was a special treat to see these players on television. Although it happened four years before I began following the NFL, I was able to catch Payton’s magical 275-yard performance (see video below). And whenever possible, I watched Payton in action in Chicago’s yearly Team Yearbook, the Game of the Week, and Inside the NFL.

I originally became a fan of Warner when he was running the ball as a young pup at Penn State. After he was drafted by the Seahawks in 1983, I continued to follow his career. His 1983 season was absolutely breathtaking (see video below). In just one season, he cemented his place as one of the top five running backs in the league. Certainly, I was bummed when I heard of his opening day knee injury against Cleveland in 1984. But he bounced back and had a very solid and at times outstanding career. Warner, in my opinion, is one of a handful of running backs from the 1980s (e.g., Billy Sims and William Andrews) who have been regrettably forgotten primarily because their careers were impaired by injuries. Fortunately, through the wonders of NFL Films programs on DVD, television, and online (You Tube, Hulu, etc.), we can relive the glory days of Warner, Payton, and any other of our favorite teams and players.

As should be evident, I’m a fan of Ed, Steve, and NFL Films. I’ve watched NFL Films for years. I value the work that organization has done. Ed’s induction will be a great moment. And this weekend should be a wonderful one for the Sabol family. Bravo, Ed! Here’s to many more years of wonderful NFL Films programming!

Brad is Co-Founder and President of Center for World Politics and Peace, a think tank on international politics. His work can be found on Facebook and Twitter. Brad has been a fan of pro football, and the Chicago Bears in particular, for the past 30 years.

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