How NFL Films transformed football
Ed and Steve Sabol brought humanity to football with NFL Films
John Facenda, the voice of NFL Films, originally knew little about the game
In addition to leading NFL Films, Steve Sabol is now an artist
MIAMI -- If you look very closely -- I mean very closely -- you can see the NFL Films camera quiver ever so slightly as it follows Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram up and down the sidelines at Super Bowl IV. You will remember that Super Bowl film -- that's the one where Stram was miked and said it looked "like a Chinese fire drill out there." A high punt made Stram wonder if the ball had helium in it. And, mostly, the film showed Stram calling the 65-toss power trap, begging for the 65-toss power trap, celebrating his own genius for coming up with the 65-toss power trap. It's fair to say that, because of NFL Films and Hank Stram, the 65-toss power trap is the most famously named play in pro football history.*
*Though Red Right 88 -- the pass play that led to Brian Sipe's tragic interception and a Cleveland Browns playoff loss to Oakland, and a giant hole in my childhood -- is right up there.
The point is if you watch closely, you can see the camera shaking just a tiny bit. That is Steve Sabol laughing. There are a million beautiful things about NFL Films -- its history, its writing, its voices, its music, the way Films changed the landscape of storytelling in and out of sports. But if I could sum up the thing that made NFL Films different and such a special part of my life as a sports fan, it would be, simply, the humanity of it. When Stram was riffing on the sideline, Sabol -- now president of NFL Films -- was filming. He heard it all through his headset and could not keep himself from laughing. And that, too, is part of the record of Super Bowl IV.
"My Dad was so mad when he saw the film," Steve Sabol says of his father Ed, who unwittingly started NFL Films when he bought the 1962 NFL Championship Game rights for $5,000. "But I told him: 'Dad, wait until you hear what the guy's saying. You won't be able to stop laughing.'"
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Here are five of my favorite NFL Films coach quotes:
1. Vince Lombardi at the chalkboard: "What we want is to get a seal here and seal here, and run the ball in the alley."
2. Bill Cowher: "Yeah, I'd like to have 75 degrees and sunny all the time too, but that's not football."
3. Marty Schottenheimer: "This is a game of the heart. Focus and finish."
4. Lou Saban: "You can get it done. You can get it done. What's more, you GOTTA get it done."
5. Jerry Glanville to official: "This isn't college. You're not at a homecoming. ... This is the NFL, which stands for 'Not For Long' when you make them horse-bleep calls."
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Steve Sabol is an interesting case. Here is a guy doing something he has wanted to do all his life. And that is special. Only in Sabol's case, it's jaw-dropping because the job he has wanted all his life did not actually EXIST when he was young. There was no NFL Films and no particular reason to have such a thing. It would be like someone today dreaming of, I don't know, getting paid to sit in baseball dugouts and come up with snarky comments or making the NBA by just shooting half-court shots at the end of halves and games. Make pro football films? Who is going to pay you to do that?
Then, Steve Sabol came from a family of dreamers. His mother, Audrey, ran an art gallery in Philadelphia and had a remarkable feel for the direction in which art was heading -- she championed (and was friends with) pop artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Wayne Thiebaud, Ed Ruscha and, frankly, a bunch of other people I never heard of until Steve mentioned them. Steve's father, Ed, sold overcoats, but he had been a spectacular athlete in college and performed on Broadway in his younger days. Steve's sister, Blair, would write for The Village Voice and be a radical force on the fashion scene. She still writes.* The Sabols were people who felt certain their bodies were too small to contain what they wanted to do while living on this earth.
*Steve Sabol: "My sister is the kind of person who, if she calls you, well, if you are in a certain business you don't want her to call you. You better be careful. She's a tough critic."
Steve Sabol, perhaps, felt that even more than the rest. "I'm more talented than Jimmy Brown," Sabol told Sports Illustrated in one of the more fascinating stories ever to appear in the magazine. The story is fascinating not so much because of what's in it -- it's an interesting story -- but because it was ever written at all. The story appeared in 1965 -- before Sabol had even started working full time for NFL Films. He was just a moderately talented running back for a decidedly non-football power, Colorado College. As you might suspect, moderately talented running backs at small losing schools do not generally get 3,000-word features in SI. Sabol literally talked himself into national stardom. He took out advertisements in the program and local paper celebrating his own greatness. He invented an exciting past for himself.* He created this character -- Sudden Death Sabol. He made himself into a piece of pop art.
*The story is called "The Fearless Tot From Possum Trot," -- Sabol had claimed to be from a place called Possum Trot, Miss. Of course, the place doesn't exist. Possum Trot was not Sabol's first choice as imaginary hometown -- originally he claimed to be from Coaltown Township, Pa., another place that doesn't exist. Sabol had grown up in Villanova, Pa., which does exist but was not romantic enough for Sabol's football sensibilities.
Steve prepared to be an artist because, as mentioned, he did not have even the slightest suspicion he would be able to make a career out of filming football games. Then Ed hired him to be a part of NFL Films. And together they created a whole new vision of the NFL. The editing, the cinematography, the sound, the music, the rhythms -- a lot of people are responsible for the NFL Films style. But the vision comes from Steve. When it came to football, he heard John Facenda's voice of God narrating in his head long before he knew John Facenda. In his mind, even as a kid playing sixth grade football, the games were epic struggles. The players were gladiators. The uniforms transformed mortals into gods. The autumn wind was a Raider. No, Steve Sabol never thought small.
To make the point: Before the Sabols and NFL Films, mud on the football field was just mud on the football field. NFL Films turned that mud into something holy, something that reflected guts and manhood and courage. Mud proved a Herculean test for the players' souls. NFL Films showed cleats sloshing in mud, mud dripping off taped hands, mud caked on arms, the way mud turned linebackers into heroic and dangerous figures. We take that for granted now because NFL Films has created this image of pro football, but there's nothing intrinsically romantic about mud. This is best demonstrated by Eric Dickerson's semi-famous and unfortunate "This is a cleat" sideline report during a Monday Night Football game.
But this was the lens Steve Sabol saw football through long before he carried around a camera. Mud! Snow! Heroes! Warriors! Villains! Sabol will tell you that he spent his childhood mainly doing two things -- playing football and going to movies. And he was never entirely sure where one began and the other ended. Truth is, he never thought one or the other ended. It was all the same thing. The plays did not matter. The scores did not matter. The only thing that mattered was the story.
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Here are five of my favorite characters on NFL Films (in no particular order):
1. Lou Saban. NFL Films turned Lou Saban -- a nomad who coached at 10 places in his life and who had a losing record in the NFL -- into an every-man legend. He's the guy shouting, "They're killing me, Whitey!" And, as mentioned, who can forget the gritty yet desperate look on his face when he told his men: "You can get it done...."
2. Earl Campbell. One of the greatest players in NFL history anyway, but NFL Films took him into a whole other stratosphere. My vision of Campbell is of the NFL Films where he runs over Los Angeles Rams linebacker Isaiah Robertson. The thing that turns the amazing run into art is the voiceover that NFL Films uses of Campbell. He essentially says, "I saw this guy standing straight up and I thought, 'You don't really think you're going to tackle me standing straight up." In later years, Campbell -- one of the classier men you will meet -- has refused to talk about that run because he was told it really messed with Robertson's head and he never quite recovered from it.
3. Marty Schottenheimer. One of the great sound-bite coaches of all time -- he's the man behind the already mentioned, "Focus and finish." There's "One play at a time for as long as it takes." And, another of my personal favorites, "There's a gleam, men. There's a gleam.... Go get the gleam." Whatever the hell that means.
4. Art Donovan. I was having a discussion with someone -- who are the funniest athletes in the history of sports? That's probably a whole other story. I think Bob Uecker would have a real shot at being No. 1. Bill Lee: Hilarious. Casey Stengel. Charles Barkley. But it's possible that Artie Donovan is the funniest of them all. Then again, part of it is the delivery. Donovan can read a Denny's menu and I'd be on the floor laughing. Especially when he said, "Moon over my hammy."
5. Ken Stabler. It always shocked me that the Snake is not in the Hall of Fame. Then I look at his numbers -- 194 touchdowns, 222 interceptions, only played in four Pro Bowls and made All-Pro once -- and I think: "Meh." The thing is, NFL Films made Stabler seem larger than life. The Holy Roller.* The sea of hands. The Ghost to the Post. Stabler was a throwback, a wild-off-the field quarterback who on the field was a rock of steadiness in the final two minutes. Read that last sentence in the voice of Facenda, by the way. I think Stabler belongs in the Hall of Fame... but I get that from NFL Films.
*Bill King's famous call: "Stabler back... here comes the rush... he sidesteps. The ball is flipped forward. It's loose. A wild scramble. Two seconds on the clock. Casper grabbing the ball. It is ruled a fumble. Casper has recovered in the end zone! The Oakland Raiders have scored... on the most zany, unbelievable, absolutely impossible dream of a play. Madden is on the field. He wants to know if it's real. They said yes, get your big butt out of here. He does! There's nothing real in the world anymore."
My favorite part of that call -- the "He does!"
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