The Sabol Story – NFL Films Legacy

28 Oct

The recent passing of Steve Sabol, son of the founder of NFL Films and long-time president of the company, Ed Sabol, sent me searching through my modest DVD collection for the NFL Films gems that I dig out and replay every year around Super Bowl time. Between those DVDs, the Super Bowl highlight shows that are shown late at night around that time and the collection of NFL Films music that I have on my Ipod, I can always count on working myself into the proper frame of mind to get psyched up for the game, no matter who is playing in it that particular year. There’s no doubt that the work of the Sabols in uniquely capturing the game of pro football in the 1960s drew many fans to the game. The use of sideline cameras to capture the action up close, and the use of slow-motion to punctuate great plays, were markedly different than the way the game was shown on television broadcasts, and enhanced the game for fans. The shot of a perfect spiral, spinning in slow motion through the air and landing softly in the hands of a receiver, was a trademark of what NFL Films brought to the game.

The NFL Films story began when Ed, who was a topcoat salesman but filmed his son Steve’s high school football games as a hobby, formed a small production company, called Blair Motion Pictures, hiring his son Steve to join the company. In 1962 the company won a bid to film the league championship game and put together a highlight movie. I remember watching a show in which Ed Sabol recalled the filming of that game. It was played between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers at frozen Yankee Stadium, and the some of the cameras the Blair Motion Pictures crew was using wound up freezing. Sabol recalled thinking, “what the hell kind of footage are we going to get from these?” Well, the footage turned out to be pretty good, and the highlight film that was put together impressed NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle so much that he lobbied the league’s owners to buy out Sabol’s company and put them to work full time promoting the league. The owners, relunctantly, agreed and the company was renamed NFL Films. It was one of the best decisions those owners ever made, as NFL Films turned out to be a tremendous promotional tool for the league, bringing the game closer to its’ fans and personalizing the players to the public. Steve Sabol once said that it was Rozelle’s genius that really should be credited for the company’s success. He claimed that at the time, nobody working for NFL Films realized what they were accomplishing, but Rozelle did, and realized the potential it had. Eventually, the highlight videos and shows produced by the company were enhanced by the music of Sam Spence, whose orchestral scores combined elements of jazz, classical, rock, marching band music and western movie tracks to add drama to the close-up, slow motion game films. NFL Films videos were narrated by John Facenda, who has been dubbed “The Voice of God”. His narrations were classic, and the combination of his deep baritone voice and the poetic scripts he read made for unforgettable viewing. Maybe the best example of the style of NFL Films  is the Oakland Raider film titled “The Autumn Wind“, featured below. A television critic named Matt Zoller Seitz probably summed it up best when he called NFL Films “the greatest in-house P.R. machine in pro sports history . . . an outfit that could make even a tedious stalemate seem as momentous as the battle for the Alamo.”

Over the years, the Sabols and NFL Films produced such classics as Football Follies, featuring bloopers from NFL games, This Week In Pro Football, which would show highlights from the previous week’s games, NFL Films Presents, Lost Treasures, Greatest Moments and the recent HBO series Hard Knocks. The company has won a total of 107 Sports Emmys, and was a big player in helping the league reach its’ position as the most popular sport in the country today. The league, of course, now has it’s own network, and NFL Films provides a lot of the content shown on it. Steve Sabol, whose love for the game always came across on the screen in the videos he produced and introduced on camera, will be sorely missed. To view The Autumn Wind , click on the link below.



  1. Can-C Eye Drops

    November 5, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    The presence of NFL Films’ cameras allowed for the preservation of video footage from many of the NFL’s 1960s era games in an era when sports telecasts were either broadcast live without any recording or whose films and tapes were destroyed and recycled for later use, a practice that did not fully stop until 1978. Without the presence of NFL Films, there would be no surviving footage of several of the early Super Bowls . In comparison, other major leagues that lacked the film resources that the NFL had have archives missing all the way up through the 1970s, with much of the time before that preserved only by Canadian television broadcasters.

  2. Louise

    October 30, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    Can’t underestimate how much the Sabols contributed to the success of the NFL with their films. Nothing else like it in all of sports.