Ed Sabol likes to tell about the time he wanted the Johnny Weissmuller book on swimming. Sabol was 10 years old and crazy about the water, so when his mother said he couldn't have the book, Ed sat down on the curb outside Wanamaker's department store in Philadelphia and cried. He put on such a performance that a crowd gathered and traffic stopped. Finally his mother relented and bought him the book. It is significant that he got what he wanted. In the years since, Ed Sabol has met similar forms of rejection with the same lusty disdain, attracting crowds and stopping traffic while he turns an ordinary situation into a happening, preferably to music and always with a flair.
The object of Sabol's latest obsession is pro football. He came to the game only 12 years ago. From the beginning his immersion was total, his approach wild-eyed, his ideas extravagant. He is today the producer and recorder, on film, of all that happens on the playing fields of National Football League teams. The way he has gone at his job has made a dramatic game more dramatic, a fast and violent sport faster and more violent—and with music. All of the NFL highlight recaps one sees on television this season are the work of Sabol. So is the official NFL championship game film. His off-season show, Edwin Sabol Presents, muscled into prime time last spring and ran all summer. It was easily the best football fare, outside of an actual game, ever presented on TV.
When Sabol first broached the idea of a weekly out-of-season series, people were skeptical. With half a dozen exhibition games, 14 regular-season games, two conference playoffs, a championship game, a super playoff, a runner-up bowl and a pro bowl game, not to mention all of the AFL and college games scheduled, who needed more football? The sight of red dogs in spring might send even the most rabid football fan over the edge. The reaction would be particularly harsh, Sabol's critics said, if the show were to be another rehash of things past.
A rehash was not what Sabol had in mind. Rather than reruns of the year's best plays, Sabol proposed to have each film deal with a specific: runners, receivers, big plays, rookies. Each of the 25 shows was to be a little extravaganza of its own. The shows were to be built around carefully conceived themes; they were to be meticulously edited, and amidst the yards and yards of drama there would be comic relief, close-ups and irreverent and irrelevant asides that would serve to amuse, edify and keep audiences mesmerized for a solid half hour—give or take a few commercials.
The object of the presentation was to lift professional football out of the realm of grunts and thuds into something slightly surrealistic, infinitely modern, genuinely artistic and captivating. How well Sabol succeeded is indicated by the fact that the show will run again next year, same time, same station, same sponsor.
A special installment was the Green Bay Packers film. It opened with one full minute of trench warfare from World War I. Brutal, straight-on, carefully and massively prepared grind-'em-into-the-mud violence. For those fans who go all goose-pimply watching the San Francisco 49ers' Dave Parks catch a pass and then get flipped on his head, Sabol in another film gave them scrambled Parks in rapid-fire sequence. Parks catches the ball and gets hit. Another catch and he's hit again. And again. All this to the roll of kettle drums. Or Gale Sayers, who makes those breathtaking runs for the Chicago Bears a couple of times each game. In the Sabol film on runners, Sayers zigs and zags for six minutes to the coolest kind of jazz. If there is a problem with the Sabol format, it is that his shows might be too good, better than the game itself. Even the National Football League is capable of turning out an occasional stinker, sloppily played, lopsided, dull. Call Sabol sloppy, even lopsided, but not dull. He has never been dull.
In the comparatively short, crowded life of Edwin Milton Sabol—he is 51 years old—there is no recorded evidence of his ever having been caught in a listless pose. Whether his action is compulsive or carefully conceived, Sabol's object has always been to make things happen. Sabol learned how to swim at 5, for instance, and says of it: "Big deal. Any idiot can swim. But swimming fast, faster than anyone else ever has—now, there you have something." He set out to do just that and ended up with three interscholastic records (one of which he took away from Johnny Weissmuller), an undefeated swimming career at Blair Academy in Blairstown, N.J. and a scholarship to Ohio State. He seemed certain to win a place on the 1936 Olympic team, but a strange thing happened. Sabol began swimming slower and slower, and when the team left for Berlin he was left behind. What had happened? Sabol simply had found that his enthusiasm for life made the Spartan rigors of training unbearable, especially on a big college campus where coeds, fraternity high jinks and drama productions were irresistible.
The theater was especially attractive to him. Ole Olsen, who, with Chic Johnson, was then riding high with Hellzapoppin', saw Sabol in a college drama club revue and told him he was good. It was all Sabol needed. He bolted Ohio State, took up residence in a West Side walk-up and began to haunt casting sessions all over New York. Eventually he landed a part in a play co-produced by Oscar Hammerstein called Where Do We Go from Here? "Hammerstein had some good ones," says Sabol, "and he had some great ones. But this one? It closed after two weeks."
Sabol did get a couple of good notices out of the flop—which was wonderful for his ego but did absolutely nothing to establish credit at the friendly neighborhood grocer. So much for Broadway.
Then Ed Sabol, age 25, got married and received a 16-mm. camera as a wedding present. It almost ended the marriage but it proved an early omen of what ultimately was to be a turning point in his life. For weeks thereafter everywhere wife Audrey went, there was Ed, his camera whirring, recording every move. Audrey picking flowers—the bushes part and whirrrr. Audrey frying eggs—up pops the kitchen window and whirrrr. Audrey writing a letter—squeak goes the bedroom door and whirrrr.