The Sabols — father Ed and son Steve — did for pro football what Cecil B. DeMille did for Biblical epics. Beginning in 1962, the Sabols’ film studio, NFL Films, essentially created the modern highlight film, with its slow-motion ballet of long bombs spiraling into receivers’ hands and the tumult of muscular giants colliding at the line of scrimmage, all set to majestic orchestral music.
The elder Sabol, now 94, was the visionary who turned clips of NFL action into a lucrative business franchise; Steve, who passed away on Tuesday at age 69 in New Jersey, pushed the ball even further down the field creatively. The onetime Colorado College running back and art history major dreamed up innovations that made the the outsized spectacle of an NFL game somehow seem intimate and human-scale. As he modestly explained in a 2000 New York Times article: “My father … knew business and loved schmoozing with people, while he let me try all these things with the films.” Here are five of Steve Sabol’s biggest contributions.
- Covering all the angles. Sabol was the first to use multiple cameramen to capture perspectives on the action that fans hadn’t seen before. One camera, “the tree,” shot from the press box, while the “mole” shot the field at ground level, and the “weasel” roamed the sidelines to ferret out intimate shots.
- Setting football to movie music. Ed Sabol, who was a big fan of the Richard Rogers score for the 1950s documentary Victory at Sea, got the idea of using orchestral music at NFL Films. But Steve, who was more into movie westerns such as The Magnificent Seven and High Noon, pushed the soundtracks to be even more stirring and dramatic. “To me, football is more associated with music than any other sport,” Sabol once explained. “I think of the drums and the band and I felt the music in our films should be more theatrical.” He hired a 65-piece German symphony orchestra to perform its original scores.
- The blooper reel. When Sabol created the Football Follies series in 1967, the idea was to humanize the game, but some NFL officials were aghast at the idea of poking fun at the super-serious sport. But when the debut film was shown to Philadelphia Eagles players after a workout, “these huge guys were roaring with laughter,” Sabol later recalled. The blooper series went on to break sales records, and led to numerous imitators in other fields.
- Wired for sound. In 1970,Sabol came up with the idea of having Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram wear a microphone on the sidelines at the Super Bowl. The results were so entertaining that sports broadcasts today routinely eavesdrop on coaches and players’ conversations during timeouts.
- Good writing. Sabol was a talented poet, as evidenced by his 1974 composition “The Autumn Wind,” which he created for a 1974 film. He used his nimbleness with words to craft the scripts that the late announcer John Facenda — the Sabols’ third choice (after Orson Welles and Richard Basehart turned them down) — read with such dramatic flourish. For Facenda’s initial script, Sabol came up with an opening line worthy of Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Chandler: “It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.”
Here’s a 2008 USA Today video on Steve Sabol and NFL Films.