Before Ed Sabol started documenting it, pro football was canned as newsreel footage, shown in two minute increments in the movie houses across America.
It was filmed in black and white, always from the same high angle with the camera perched at the 50 yard line.
The images were sterile, the music usually a cheesy version of some college fight song.
There was nothing about pro football on film in the 1940s and ‘50s that was compelling. You’d find more drama looking at a fish tank.
Then along came a 46-year-old Jew from New Jersey with a 16 millimeter camera, owner of a small company called Blair Motion Pictures—named after Blair Academy, the school he attended.
Ed Sabol and his camera landed a whopper of a contract in 1962: filming every play of the ’62 NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium in New York, pitting the Green Bay Packers against the New York Giants.
In 1964, Blair Motion Pictures became NFL Films.
And just like that, the NFL became more than a league—it was mise-en-scène, played out in slow-motion with close-ups and reaction shots. And in living color—the blood was red.
Sabol bought more equipment once he started cashing the checks from the league, so that every game every Sunday could be documented.
One of his first cameramen was his son, 22-year-old Steve.
Sabol’s NFL Films brought the league to life. His company began producing mini-documentaries and team highlight films.
But as enthralling as the images of Sabol’s NFL were on celluloid, they doubled in their drama when Sabol brought in a former Philadelphia newsman named John Facenda to voice the pictures in his trademark stentorian baritone.
The two men met in a tavern.
It was Lana Turner being discovered at that malt shop, sort of.
So Facenda is at this tavern called the RDA Club, near Philadelphia, and some NFL Films footage is being shown on the TV. I’m not making this up.
Facenda gets interested in the slow-motion images adorning the TV screen, being drawn to them like a bug to a porch light.
Here’s Facenda, telling the story.
“I started to rhapsodize about how beautiful it was. Ed Sabol, the man who founded NFL Films, happened to be at the bar. He came up to me and asked, ‘If I give you a script, could you repeat what you just did?’ I said I would try.”
That was in 1965. Facenda was hired on the spot, and would remain the voice of NFL Films until his death in 1984.
Sabol had his images. He had his voice. All he needed was the music.
Running beneath every great film is a gripping soundtrack.
What’s a thriller without the music building to a crescendo, warning the heroine to LOOK OUT!!—if she could only hear the strings and horns of doom?
Sabol knew that his NFL was richly documented, but signature music would be the pièce de resistance.
Enter Sam Spence.
Spence was a former music instructor at USC who Sabol brought into the fold in 1966 to score some NFL Films documentaries and shorts.
The combination of Spence’s music cues with Facenda’s “Voice of God,” as it had been nicknamed, was the best thing to hit film since emulsion.
The tunes Spence composed aren’t known by name, but they have given football fans goose bumps for over 40 years.
They do have titles, of course.
“West Side Rumble.”
“Ramblin’ Man from Gramblin’.”
“Salute to Courage.”
Head over to YouTube, type the above in the search box, and it’s impossible not to visualize Joe Namath throwing a perfect spiral to Don Maynard, or Dick Butkus slamming an unsuspecting runner three yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The NFL before and after Ed Sabol got his mitts on it is like a caterpillar before and after pupal transformation.
That 22-year-old cameraman son, Steve, gradually took over his father’s business and became synonymous, facially, with NFL Films.
We marveled at the images, listened delightfully to Facenda’s voice and Spence’s scores, but the films needed to be introduced once they began being shown on television.
Steve Sabol became the face of NFL Films, the last piece of the puzzle.
The younger Sabol, with his handsome face and in his Philadelphian dialect, became the Rod Serling of sports films. He was there to usher us in and out of each segment, teasing us with what we were about to see.
Ed Sabol is still around, thank goodness. He’s 94 years old.
I say thank goodness because only last week did the powers that be deem him worthy of induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
You heard me—it took them nearly 50 years after he fed his first footage into his 16 mm camera to put Ed Sabol into the Hall of Fame.
This is more overdue than a cure for the common cold.
Ed Sabol doesn’t just belong in the Hall of Fame, he should have his own wing. This is like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame realizing it hadn’t yet inducted the electric guitar.
But at least he’s in. At least Ed Sabol—God willing—will be live and in person when it comes time to call his name in Canton this summer.
They flirted with doing this posthumously, and that would have been a disgrace.
Ed Sabol, and his son Steve—who should probably go in, too, someday—rescued the league from black-and-white conformity and whisked it into a world of color and drama.
The Sabols breathed life into the National Football League with their expert photography, gripping music, and the “Voice of God” telling the stories.
Steve Sabol once put everything his dad started into perspective.
“The only other human endeavor more thoroughly captured on 16-mm film than the National Football League is World War II,” Ed’s kid said.
Those Hall of Fame voters have bad clock management. They damn near let the time run out on Ed Sabol, who was powerless to stop it.
I wonder if he’ll walk up to the podium in slow motion.