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Posted: Wednesday February 3, 2010 12:30PM; Updated: Wednesday February 3, 2010 3:08PM
Joe Posnanski
Joe Posnanski>INSIDE THE NFL

Sabol and NFL Films (cont.)

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Illustration by Darrow

Sabol talked a little bit about some of those things that have made NFL Films legendary.

The slow motion shot of the spiral. The most iconic shot at NFL Films is probably the one of the spiral pass hanging in the air for what seems like weeks. Sabol says that shot -- like so many of the things that worked at NFL Films -- came out of luck and happenstance. The Sabols were watching an AFL Championship Game film -- that was the competition -- and they weren't especially impressed with it. But one shot caught their eye -- some cameraman was able to follow a ball in mid-air. It wasn't that great a shot because it was at regular speed, but Steve was awed. "I remember saying, 'That's an unbelievable shot.'"

The shot was taken by an old Navy guy with ridiculously steady hands named Ernie Ernst. So, Sabol hired Ernst and told him to get that shot again and again. And when they slowed it down, slowed it way down... magic.

"That's what we call the Jesus Christ shot," Sabol says. "Because it makes you go, 'Jesus Christ, who shot that?' It's a signature shot for our films, and it's something that's very, very hard to do."

Ernst incidentally -- or perhaps not incidentally -- is also the only cameraman who followed the ball all the way into Franco Harris' arms during the Immaculate Reception.

John Facenda. You probably already know this but Facenda -- the Voice of God whose deep voice defined NFL Films -- knew almost nothing about football. And the owners wanted no part of him.

"The owners said to us, 'Why don't you use Jack Whitaker or Curt Gowdy or Chris Schenkel. These were the big sportscasters then. And my father said, 'No, wait, we're trying to show Pro Football in a whole new way. We're trying to show Pro Football the way Hollywood would. We don't want a sportscaster. This is the guy we want."

Ed Sabol was a natural salesman. And even though the NFL owners were a famously conservative bunch, he convinced them to let NFL Films use Facenda.

Steve: "I remember when we were making 'They Call It Pro Football,' which was our Citizen Kane. The first line is 'It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.' Well, we had John read it. And as soon as he read that line, that one line, I remember looking at Dad, and our eyes met. And we both just knew this was something really great. John was a unique talent.

"But it is true that he didn't know much about football. My Dad told the owners: 'He doesn't HAVE to know about football because Steve is writing it.' But people never quite got that. I used to kid John: 'I'm working so hard writing these lines and everybody thinks your just ad-libbing them.'"

The early years. When NFL Films first began, Steve Sabol would take the film -- and he would usually take along a couple of NFL players like Frank Gifford or Del Shofner or Alex Webster -- and they would go to a Kiwanis Club in Reading or an Optimists Club in Pottstown or a Rotary Club in Binghamton. And they would show the movie -- usually on a bed sheet or a blank wall -- and then answer a few questions. That's what NFL Films was for a few years.

"I remember when we had our first premiere," Sabol says. This was 1962, before the operation was called NFL Films. It was 'Blair Motion Pictures' -- named after Blair Sabol -- and Steve had come back from college to help out. They had filmed the championship game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants -- and they had absolutely no idea how to promote this thing. That game was lousy, and it was on a cold miserable day -- Ed Sabol would say it was the second most miserable day of his life behind only the day he stormed the beach on D-Day. They called the film: "The Longest Day."

"It wasn't a great film," Steve says. "We were still learning then."

They decided to show the film at Toots Shor's, the famous bar in New York where sportswriters were likely to be hanging out anyway.

"All of a sudden, halfway through, the image disappears. And there's this sickening crash. I look up; someone had tripped on the cord and there was the projector and film laying in crab meat and shrimp sauce. You could not have thought of a worse disaster. Dad's cursing, I'm trying to clean it up with a wet towel, we're screwed.

"And then Pete Rozelle stands up. And Pete starts taking questions. There were some players there -- Gifford, Pat Summerall -- and they join in. They're holding a press conference while I'm desperately trying to get the film back up. Some of the writers left, but some of them stayed and they saw the rest of the movie. And the ones that stayed gave us pretty good reviews."

On Ed Sabol and the first incarnation of NFL Films. "My Dad hated his job," Steve says. "He sold overcoats, but he wanted to make movies. He had a failed career working with the Ritz Brothers -- they were like the Marx Brothers, only a tier below. I always had a picture in my mind of him in a straw hat.

"But as a wedding present he got an old windup movie camera. And so everything I did as his only son, he would film. Pony rides. Haircuts. He filmed everything. He especially loved filming my football games. I was pretty good, and so he would film every game. He would film from the end zone. He would shoot slow motion. Nobody was doing that stuff in those days.

"And I remember we used to invite all the kids on the team over to watch the games. We would put out ginger cookies. And everybody would watch themselves play. My Dad would put in a John Philip Sousa march in the background go to with the film. It was really neat, and you can see the direct connection to NFL Films.

"In fact, when my father bid $5,000 for the 1962 Championship Game, that was a huge amount. It was double the bid the year before. Pete Rozelle was flabbergasted. Who was this guy who was willing to spend so much money on what seemed like relatively worthless rights to the NFL Championship Game? And, Rozelle got a little concerned. He asked my father what experience he had shooting football. And my Dad said -- this is absolutely true -- that his experience was filming his 14-year-old son."

* * *

Five of my favorite Steve Sabol/John Facenda lines:

1. "Lombardi. A certain magic still lingers in the very name."

2. Sabol's poem, "The Autumn Wind is a Raider"

The autumn wind is a Raider
Pillaging just for fun
He'll knock you round and upside down
And laugh when he's conquered and won.

3. "Do you feel the force of the wind? The slash of the rain? Go face them and fight them. Be savage again!"

4. On defensive linemen: "It's one ton of muscle with a one-track mind."

5. "The third quarter was dying. And so were the Colts."

* * *

After all this time, it turns out Steve Sabol is an artist after all. He is having an art gallery opening here in Miami during Super Bowl week. I'm no art critic, of course -- can't even claim I would know art if I saw it -- but I like the Sabol stuff because it's interesting and weird and nostalgic. It blends football and advertising and America... which I think was the magic of NFL Films, too.

You know: I love the Ice Bowl film. That's the film that featured the NFL Championship Game between Green Bay and Dallas when the field was frozen solid* and the temperature was minus-15. I love it because NFL Films turned such a disastrously cold day -- a day, you could argue, clearly NOT meant for football -- into legend. You could feel the cold rushing through the television set. You could feel the despair of the players trying to get any footing. You could feel the hopelessness everyone felt and yet they went on because winning and losing still mattered.

*You probably know this: Sabol insists Facenda never actually said the words "The Frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field." Not only that, but Facenda was not the narrator for the original Ice Bowl film.

To me two of the most arresting shots from the Ice Bowl film -- beyond the great shots of Bob Hayes running routes with his hands stuffed in his pockets -- had nothing to do with football. One was of the Green Bay cheerleaders, layered in clothes, frozen solid, trying still to go on. And the other was of a single fan pulling out a flask, drinking from it, and then looking at the camera as if to say: "Ain't life funny?" There's that humanity again. Sure NFL Films is propaganda -- sweeping music, military references, some overwrought words. But I love it still. Because of the humanity.

One of my editors at Sports Illustrated called me before I wrote the Sabol essay that appears in this week's magazine and said that something struck him. He had been watching a History Channel documentary on the battle at Stalingrad. I guess he's something of a student of Stalingrad. And as he watched it, it occurred to him: This is NFL Films! The icy ground is Lambeau. The voice is Facenda. The music is emotional. The narration is poetic.

And ever since then, I have thought about how often I see something on television or in movies or just in daily life that was inspired, at least a little bit, by NFL Films and Steve Sabol. I think it happens all the time.

"I think we looked at the game like a Cubist painter," Sabol says. "We wanted every angle. We wanted different perspectives. I think we were studying the game the way Picasso studied a bowl of fruit."

And Sabol stopped -- he wondered if he was sounding immodest. Cubist painters? Picasso? Well, it's how he felt. And Sabol knew that it would have sounded even better if John Facenda had said it.

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