Ed Sabol was a pioneer.
More than half a century ago, he created the company we know as NFL Films and, in so doing, he changed sports television forever. He was one of a kind, he really was.
Mr. Sabol died Monday at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was 98. He leaves behind an amazing legacy. Earlier this month, 114.4 million people watched the Super Bowl, the largest TV audience in U.S. history. Mr. Sabol brought many of those people into the tent. Long before Tom Brady and Katy Perry, Ed Sabol got us hooked on pro football.
To those of us who were fortunate enough to work at NFL Films, he was Big Ed. That's what everyone called him. He was one of those people who seemed to fill every room he entered. He had a presence that made all of us sit straighter in our chairs. We loved him. He was the head of the family.
On the wall of the conference room, there is a photograph of Mr. Sabol standing on the field before a game dressed in a big fur coat. He looks like a movie studio mogul from back in the day, the Darryl F. Zanuck of football, and that's what he was. He was a larger than life figure whose vision and salesmanship built the juggernaut that is NFL Films.
It is now a well-known story, how in 1962 Mr. Sabol, then an overcoat salesman, walked into the office of then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and asked to bid on the film rights to the NFL Championship game. When Rozelle asked about his film experience, Mr. Sabol said he had filmed his son Steve's grade school and high school games with the 16-millimeter camera he received as a wedding gift in 1941. Mr. Sabol put up $3,000 of his own money for the bid.
Rozelle was so impressed, he gave Mr. Sabol the rights. When the Commissioner saw the finished product - a film entitled "Pro Football's Longest Day" - with slow-motion ground action, close-ups of coaches and players on the bench, dramatic music and narration, he was blown away. He convinced the club owners to kick in $10,000 apiece to create a full-time film division headed by Ed and Steve Sabol.
The rest is history.
"It is a story that could never happen again," Steve Sabol said in a 2008 interview. "It is so corny and it speaks to so many things about following your dream, about the relationship between a father and a son, taking chances. The truth is if my father came to the league office today, he wouldn't even get in the building."
Together, the Sabols built NFL Films into the most honored sports film enterprise in the world. They started in a small space on 13th Street near Vine in Center City. They filmed "This Week in the NFL" with hosts Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier in the basement.
"Sometimes the heater would start making noise and we'd have to stop filming," Steve said. "We'd just laugh. I mean, what else could you do?"
What they did was build a brand new complex in Mt. Laurel, N.J., which they occupied in 1980. Twenty years later, they moved into a $45 million, 200,000 square foot studio just a few miles away. It houses the world's largest sports film library with more than 100 million feet of film, all stored on shelves and arranged by years so you can walk from aisle to aisle surrounded by the history of the game. Trust me, you feel it.
The Immaculate Reception, it's there. The Catch, it's there. John Facenda's voice. It's there. Vince Lombardi bellowing, "What the hell's going on out there." Yes, it's there. Jim Brown running, Dick Butkus growling, Reggie White sacking. It's all there. And the Sabols are the ones who put it there.
Ed and Steve Sabol are a true American success story. They started with an idea, a dream really, and built it into an art form. Today almost everything you see on TV sports started with NFL Films. Slow-motion action, microphones on the field, coaches wired for sound, it all started with the Sabols saying, "Why not? Let's try it."
I joined NFL Films in 1996. By then Mr. Sabol had retired to Arizona and Steve had assumed the role of president. But Mr. Sabol would visit from time to time and he made it a point to stop in every office, say hello to everyone and ask, "So what are you working on?" If you had a film project up on your screen, he would pull up a chair and say, "Play it for me." It was like having Picasso leaning over your shoulder.
One of my most prized possessions is a note I received from Mr. Sabol after a documentary I worked on, "Unitas", aired on HBO. It read: "Great work on the Unitas show. Watched it last night and was sorry when it was over!!! (signed) Ed." It meant the world to me. It still does.
I treasured those occasions when I could spend time with Mr. Sabol. I still remember him telling me how he convinced Lombardi to let him do a one-hour documentary on his career. He knew if he could gain Lombardi's trust, all the other coaches in the league would fall in line. Lombardi was the key but he was reluctant. He didn't like the idea of cameras and microphones following him around for hours at a time.
"Then one day I said to him, 'Coach, I'll make you the John Wayne of pro football,'" Mr. Sabol said. "I saw a little gleam in his eye. He liked the sound of that. Pretty soon, we had a deal."
The last time I saw Mr. Sabol was 2011 in Canton when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was an honor that should have come years earlier. When it finally arrived, Mr. Sabol was in a wheelchair and Steve, who was his presenter, was suffering from a brain tumor that would take his life just one year later. A large number of NFL Films employees, past and present, were in the audience. Many of us wore red socks, one of Mr. Sabol's trademarks.
What I recall about Mr. Sabol's speech is how he thanked the people who worked for him over the years and helped to build his dream into something so remarkable and enduring.
"I'm lucky, I really am," he said. "I did something."
Indeed. And we're all grateful.
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. Join Ray and Glen Macnow on Friday for Sports Movie Night, a discussion of the genre's best, with proceeds benefitting Eagles Youth Partnership. Tickets are available here.