Fantasy Football

With another Super Bowl (minus the Eagles) upon us, Main Line native Steve Sabol’s NFL Films is an enduring success story worth cheering about.

It takes as many cutbacks, twists and turns as a talented tailback on a football field to get to Steve Sabol’s corner office. Lobby receptionist Sue Nelson is an able lead blocker as guests weave left, then right around and between walls adorned with football’s most prized memorabilia, including a program from the 1928 Army vs. Notre Dame game where Knute Rockne gave his legendary “win one for the Gipper” speech.

Steve Sabol in his office at NFL Films. (Photo by Shane McCauley)Behind a teak desk on this Hallmark-inspired National Boss Day, the president of NFL Films is acting like anything but a boss. The Main Line native admits he “could be sitting there in an eight-piece suit.” Instead, Sabol is dressed in a wild, multi-colored plaid shirt, khaki pants and sneakers as he sits opening resumes and puffy portfolios. The titanium frames of his eyeglasses match NFL Films’ streamlined corporate décor, if not the leather helmet of 1953 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner resting atop a nearby television monitor.

“This is something I do every day of my life,” Sabol says about the mail. “Most of these people are more qualified to work here than I am.”

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A devoted collector of magazines, programs, tickets and other printed memorabilia, Sabol mans a permanent flea market table every Sunday in Lambertville, N.J., in the spring and summer—his off-seasons. In the fall and winter, his Sundays are a bit different. He’s at home in front of a bank of monitors watching three National Football League games at once, six by day’s end. Frantically, he scribbles pages of notes. Sometimes he’s critiquing broadcasters. Sometimes he has a rooting interest.

The self-described “ultimate fan,” Sabol has never disguised his loyalties—or his relationships with Kansas City Chiefs president and general manager Carl Peterson and head coach Herm Edwards, along with semi-bad-boy coaches Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots and Jon Gruden of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sabol’s interest is always piqued by a great narrative—like the New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina or the Patriots’ dominance in recent years. “They’re a modern dynasty in a league that says it has unparalleled parity,” says Sabol of the latter.

Then there’s 44-year-old quarterback Vinny Testaverde’s comeback this season with the Carolina Panthers. “I look at it all from a dramaturgical outcome, not the outcome of the game,” Sabol says. “I love the story and the struggle, not the stats.”

When Peterson and Dick Vermeil were with the Eagles, Sabol was close with the Philadelphia franchise. Under current coach Andy Reid, it’s different. “It’s still a classy, well-run franchise, but I just wish we had a little more access,” Sabol says. “That’s not Andy’s style.”

Today, in NFL Films’ 200,000-square-foot Mount Laurel, N.J., studio complex, Sabol already has written his opening script for Sunday’s Game of the Week, met with his music department and edited a piece on Minnesota Vikings rookie running back Adrian Peterson. An hour from now, he’ll get a phone prompt for a radio spot—one of six he does per week. Afterward, he’ll meet with his camera department to discuss a new lens they’re using, then work on other scripts.

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“I’m doing the same thing I did 40 years ago—and it’s the greatest job in the world,” Sabol says. “You can say I’m the president, but I’m still just a filmmaker, and I’m as involved in the creative process as I ever was. Most guys get older and get further and further away from that.”

Now 65, Sabol knows he won’t walk away and retire as easily as his fabled father, NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, did in 1995. “I want to attend Super Bowl LXX (70),” Steve says, knowing that when he attends this year’s Super Bowl XLII (42) Feb. 3 in Arizona, he’ll be just one of nine people who’ve attended every one of them so far.

In 1987, Sabol took over for his father. Now he refers to the company as a “son,” and his real world looks like the world football fans see on television every Sunday. NFL Films has sculpted a once-groggy, soggy sport into a sleek, sensational marketing machine. The Sabols have done it with low-angle, visceral vig-nettes of miked gladiators grunting against bright blue skies, and with lethal linebackers snorting puffs of hot steam on ice-cold afternoons. They’ve done it with choice cameos (Vermeil crying in the locker room after Super Bowl XV), wonderful words (“the ice bucket chill of a Wisconsin winter”) and narrators with deep, powerful deliveries (like those of Harry Kalas, the Hall of Fame voice of the Phillies, and the late John Facenda, who some called “The Voice of God”).

“It’s all so much a part of me,” says Sabol. “It’s my hobby, but also my profession. And I realize how lucky I am—especially to have done it for so long. I don’t take any of it for granted.” 

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NFL FILMS IS owned by the league itself, so it has always polished the warts so viewers could gaze at the game’s greater glories—all while promoting and preserving its history. “We’re mythmakers,” Sabol says. “We shoot a game the way Hollywood portrays fiction.”

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Without question, NFL Films is the sultan of the sport’s silver screen. Since its inception, the company has shot more than 9,000 professional football games. Every season, it documents 270 with about 1,000 miles of film stock. All told, it produces more than 4,000 hours of programming every year on ESPN, its own NFL Network (launched in 2003), HBO and other outlets.

The company remains Kodak’s top 16mm client; it buys more film than the U.S. Army. Its series NFL Films Presents is the longest-running syndicated sports program in TV history, but it’s just one of its seven weekly in-season shows. The family-friendly ION Television network recently purchased the rights to air NFL Films’ Game of the Week. The Greatest Moments series details classic games, and NFL Films Presents highlights today’s matchups.

Every week, the company sends a minimum of two cinematographers to each NFL game. One, a “tree,” is positioned at the 50-yard line—rooted and capturing every play. The others are either ground-level “moles,” roving and shooting from a player’s perspective, or “weasels,” shooting cameos and candids as they pop up just about anywhere.

NFL Films still makes end-of-the-year highlight films for all the league’s franchises, and the company is the largest producer of sports videos in the country, having created 3,000 shows. Its vault is the world’s largest sports film library: 37,650 cans of film; more than 100 million feet of NFL archival footage; every pro football championship game since 1933; every NFL game since 1948; and the fourth film ever made—by Thomas Edison, who shot a Princeton vs. Rutgers game in 1894.

And to think, venerable Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi once hated the company. When he first viewed its 1965 Packers’ highlights reel, Ed Sabol asked if anything should be cut. Lombardi responded, “Yeah, the throat of the guy who wrote this crap.”

Steve had.

Two years later, after the Packers won their third straight title, the Sabols tried again. This time, they ran a preview for Lombardi on a bed sheet in his basement. “At the end [of the film], we had each of the players say what it meant to play for the Packers,” Sabol recalls. “When I turned the lights on, Lombardi was crying. If there was ever a goal I had, it was to make a film he’d like.” 

AS A CAPTAIN and All-Rocky Mountain Conference running back at Colorado College, Steve Sabol fashioned himself into a sort of movie star—”Sudden Death Sabol,” a fullback from Possum Trot, Miss. He sent out press releases, had T-shirts, pencils and postcards imprinted with the nickname, and wrote a school newspaper column (“Here’s a LOT from Possum Trot”). Sports Illustrated even featured him and his fiction.

But Sabol’s storybook career actually began years earlier at the Haverford School, where in recent years he’s been a member of its board of trustees and chairman of a massive capital campaign to improve its athletic facilities. In 1999, Sabol was named a distinguished alumnus. Two years later, Haverford’s new gymnasium opened.

Sabol’s parents, Ed, 92, and Audrey, 86, still maintain their home in Villanova. Ed likes warmer weather, spending all but three months a year in Arizona. Audrey—who prefers more cultural stimuli “than cactus,” Steve says—is here five months.

Steve moved from Haverford to Moorestown, N.J., a decade ago following a divorce. He lives there with fiancée Penny Ashman and their Weimaraner, Felix, who’s also the namesake of Penny’s company, Felix Design.

When he first mentions living in New Jersey, Sabol is quick to add, “Yuck!”

“I’m still trying to master the left-hand turn. Full-serve gas and tomatoes are about all New Jersey has going for it,” he says. “My heart’s still in Philly and on the Main Line, though I still get in to eat at the Old Guard House Inn (in Gladwyne).”

Sabol’s only child, Casey, spent a few early years at the Haverford School, then finished at the Woodlyn School in Stratford before he matriculated two years ago to Berklee College of Music in Boston.

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“It takes a certain person,” Sabol says of Haverford. “It’s a grind, but I was a grinder. It’s where I learned about discipline and competition. But there were things that were neglected. I don’t think I had a date until college; I thought the menstrual cycle was some kind of Italian racing bike. But look at our class (1960): Ron Perelman, one of the richest men in the world; Al Hunt, the former executive Washington editor of the Wall Street Journal. Yet headmaster Leslie Severinghaus told us we were the most wayward, frustrating group of young men he’d ever been around.”

Sabol first played football in the fourth grade for Donald Brownlow. “Brownie,” who taught history at the Haverford School for 55 years, was a legend until his death in 1996. It was in a Brownlow class that Sabol made his first film. Instead of writing a book report on Hiawatha, the teacher let him make a movie. “The key to the inspiration a filmmaker needs is the ability to concentrate, and the Haverford School taught me that,” Sabol says. “Everybody is creative. The question is whether you’re put in a situation where that talent is liberated and developed. A combination of organization, information and concentration equals inspiration.”

Then Sabol quotes Leonardo da Vinci, who once said that a small room helps a man focus but a large room distracts him. Sabol’s corner office, replete with banks of windows overlooking corporate America—South Jersey style—suddenly seems daunting. “I do a lot of my work in a small room in the back there,” he says.

And it’s not even his personal bathroom. 

FROM A TOWER that once stood on the far side of the 50-yard line at the Haverford School, Ed Sabol shot home movies. For all practical purposes, it’s this football field that spawned NFL Films. Ed documented Steve’s football games with a Bell & Howell 16mm movie camera he got as a wedding present. Now there’s a persistent possibility that, pending a significant financial contribution, Haverford will name its football field after Steve. School officials say no formal decision has been made, but Sabol has been approached about the possibility by fellow alumni.

At 48, Ed scrapped selling overcoats to begin Blair Motion Pictures (named after his daughter). With savvy salesmanship and a $3,000 bid, he earned the right to shoot the 1962 NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers. The resulting film impressed then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who asked the league’s owners to buy Sabol’s company. Though they balked initially, in 1965 they agreed and renamed it NFL Films. Ed, the president, received $12,000 in seed money from each of the league’s 14 owners at the time. In return, he shot all NFL games and produced a highlight film for every team.

Steve retains vivid memories of the 1962 championship game. For one, it was the coldest day he’d ever experienced. And playing that day were 19 eventual Hall of Famers, the most ever assembled on one field. (Super Bowl XIII had 20, but two were executives who weren’t in pads.)

When he entered the Packers’ post-game locker room, Steve came face-to-face with his childhood idol, running back Jim Taylor, whose No. 31 he’d worn as a player. Taylor was getting 20 stitches in a lip Giants linebacker Sam Huff had split open. Quarterback Bart Starr’s mid-section was a topography of purple welts, mostly cleat marks. Middle linebacker Ray Nitschke had mud and blood caked over his helmet and facemask. “I realized this was not the sport I played at the Haverford School and in college,” Sabol says. “This was the game at a whole different level. But even then, I didn’t know I’d become part of that sport, or play a role in making it grow.”

The game has changed, Sabol says. No one teaches tackling anymore. If the players in the 1960s and ’70s were reliable, steady workhorses, now they’ve become gifted, fragile thoroughbreds—and protecting them is paramount. But NFL Films’ creative vision, patented formula and product haven’t changed. “With us, the public has come to expect a certain style,” Sabol says. “Viewers expect to get goosebumps.” 

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TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT of Steve Sabol’s employees have 20-plus years of experience; another 25 percent have five years or less with the company. When those generations clash, it creates friction—sparks—and it leads to a creative atmosphere that mirrors the formula on a football field. When NFL Films started, there were two television shows on the league: NFL Films Presents and CBS’ Countdown to Kickoff. Now, there are 172 shows a week—if you include radio, the number more than doubles.

On its path to success, NFL Films has relied on two freedoms: the “freedom to” and the “freedom from.” The first has allowed for ideas and programs; the second has allowed the Sabols and their crews to perform without interference. Even in 1965, Ed Sabol could’ve easily been told to move to NFL headquarters in New York. But Rozelle, who became a close friend, drew a dividing line. “We’re corporate,” Steve recalls Rozelle saying. “You’re image makers. You don’t need to be around the constraints and politics. You’re the pure romantics.”

That “freedom from” relationship has continued under current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. “He’s been a great fit,” Sabol says. “But he grew up with NFL Films.”

In a sense, everyone has—Steve included. He was 20 years old when he started. The company would go on to make the first sports bloopers film (1968), offer titles like 100 Yard Universe (1995) and become the first professional sports league to air programming on the internet at (1997).

Nor could anyone have dreamed that NFL Films would have an all-in-one, script-to-screen production house—or be earning more than $50 million in annual revenue, for that matter. Once with just six employees, the company now has 300, including two full-time composers. NFL Films also handles 200 non-football assignments a year—everything from historical documentaries and exercise videos to police surveillance projects.

At the helm, Sabol is easily the most storied filmmaker in sports history. In 2003, he and his father were honored with a Lifetime Achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts. Of the 92 Emmys NFL Films has won, Steve’s won 35 of them in everything from writing, cinematography and editing to directing and producing. No one has garnered as many Emmys in as diverse a number of categories.

And he’s earned accolades outside TV, too. In 2002, Sabol was named Sports Executive of the Year by The Sporting News. Within the league itself, he’s won the Pete Rozelle Award for his contributions to the NFL—joining the likes of Lombardi, Dan Rooney, Lamar Hunt, Tom Landry and Don Shula.

Sabol considers filmmakers the artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, and he never tires of his craft. “If Monet can paint the same pond of water lilies 400 times, I can’t possibly get bored making football films,” he says.

He should know—or at least he’d know how to best capture that sensation on film.

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