Five-thousand dollars, a dream and a camera

NFL Films founder Ed Sabol went from selling coats to giving football its mythology

Ed Sabol in 2011 (Getty Images)

In 1962, a coat salesman named Ed Sabol bought the rights to film the NFL Championship Game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers. He had bid $5,000, a seemingly tiny amount, but he had two things going for him:

1. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle liked his passion for the game.

2. Nobody else bid more.

Ed Sabol was a dreamer, the sort of person who always believed he could do big things. He might have made the 1936 Olympics as a swimmer, but as a Jew, he had no intention of going to Berlin. He fought at Normandy. He performed comedy on Broadway. And he loved futzing around with a movie camera; his son Steve loved to tell the story of Ed’s amateur movie about whales, which was only slightly compromised by the fact he didn’t find any whales to film.

When Pete Rozelle asked Ed what experience he had filming football, Sabol replied: “I filmed the games of my 14-year-old son.” And while that undoubtedly sounded a bit flimsy to Rozelle, the truth is that those were good little movies, especially when you consider it was just one man with a camera. He had an eye for showbiz, probably left over from his time working with the Ritz Brothers and other vaudeville acts. Ed would film games by looking for unique angles and unusual scenes. Then he edited. And then he invited the team over to the house, parents too, and he would show not a jumbled home movie like most people, but an actual film with a story — he would slow the film down in places to give a sense of drama, he would play John Sousa marches in the background, and every now and again he would say something like, “The warrior Steve Sabol broke two tackles on his way to a four-yard gain.”

“My father,” Steve Sabol told me once, “wanted to make the memories even better than the moments themselves.”

Together, that’s what they did. Ed Sabol bought the rights to film the 1962 NFL championship game and made a movie that impressed the owners. Two years later, Sabol’s film company Blair Motion pictures — named after Ed’s daughter Blair — became NFL Films. And NFL Films changed everything in professional football.

NFL Films gave pro football both a history and a mythology. That’s what baseball had — history and mythology. A game played in Green Bay, Wisconsin on ice became a Greek Epic through the lenses of Ed and Steve Sabol. A long pass from Terry Bradshaw became a 20-second poem as we all wondered if the spiraling football would ever fall out of the sky. Stirring music and tight angles and the deep voice of John Facenda or another narrator turned the Oakland Raiders into a band of pirates, Joe Montana into Clark Gable, Lawrence Taylor or Jack Lambert into Scarface.

Much of this was the imagination of Steve, a born storyteller and the truest football believer, but it began with the vision of Ed Sabol. He died on Monday, about 2 1/2 years after Steve of brain cancer. Ed Sabol was 98. Years ago, I asked Steve how he thought his father would want to be remembered. Steve thought about it for a moment and then offered a little epitaph: Ed Sabol didn’t want to sell coats.