Ed Sabol, founder of NFL Films, dies at age of 98 – NFL.com
Ed Sabol built NFL Films from the ground up in the 1960s and turned pro football into a myth. He and his son Steve, were brilliant propagandists (I say mostly with affection) who helped turn the NFL into the biggest sports enterprise in America.
One night last week, I stayed up and watched what I think is the best Super Bowl highlight film ever, Battle of Champions from Super Bowl XIII, a Pittsburgh Steelers 35-31 victory over the Dallas Cowboys. That Super Bowl decided who would be the team of the ’70s and had every thing great about NFL Films – distinctive cinematography, editing, music, local radio broadcasts clips and of course John Facenda, the “voice of God” narrating some strong writing. It was also partially played during the day and both teams had classic uniforms and played in the natural grass Orange Bowl
My belief is that NFL Films Super Bowl films peaked there for a variety of reasons. The most specific was Facenda’s death after Super Bowl XVIII, but also other things. The music wasn’t as epic as it was in the 1970s. Sam Spence rightly gets credited for creating the quintessential NFL Films music, but for a brief period, a number of British pieces from KPM music and de Wolfe served as the bulk of the soundtrack. It was funkier, blacksploitation-like in sound, but fit perfectly with the fast editing and colorful personalities of its time. Much of it can be found in this youtube playlist:
Another reason for the peak of these Super Bowl videos were some great dynasties, but also the games primarily being played during the day. Now, the only way to see any sunlight in a Super Bowl is if it is played in California. It’s been 20 years since the Rose Bowl hosted a Super Bowl by the way or L.A. even had a team for that matter. I don’t think Southern California is going to host a Super Bowl until some new stadiums get built. It seems like every other game is played indoors, though I like that this year’s game is being played in New Jersey in cold weather. Too bad it won’t snow.
For the moment at least, several Super Bowl films are on youtube. I’m sure they’ll be pulled down sometime soon, so watch them now.
SUPER BOWL X
Pittsburgh Steelers 21 Dallas Cowboys 17
This is a contender for top NFL Films Super Bowl movie. It’s almost 22 minutes of action, briskly edited and classic writing for Facenda. It also helps that the game went down the final play, a Hail Mary that was intercepted.
SUPER BOWL XI
Oakland Raiders 32 Minnesota Vikings 14
The next year was the last Super Bowl played entirely in daylight and the first at the Rose Bowl. It wasn’t much of a game, but it looked really pretty and had the classic shot of Willie Brown’s pick six with Bill King’s “Old Man Willie” play-by-play over it.
Tonight, the NFL Films series “A Football Life” features Washington Redskins great John Riggins. It is absolute must see viewing for any Washingtonian, whether they were a fan or not, and of course all football fans.
In my 35 seasons here, this has been by far the most enjoyable show I’ve ever worked on,” Douglas told me this week. “It’s not even close. Not even close. It’s not just John’s material and stories. Once you talk to him, and meet him, and have a couple beers with him, you realize how wonderful and real he is.
I can’t wait to see the whole thing. I’m half-hoping that some of the myths surrounding Riggins are elaborated on. One of them was he partied too hard before a game and asked his linemen, the Hogs, only to block well enough for him to get about 3 yards — he didn’t think he could run any farther. Naturally, they didn’t listen and he ran for something like 150 yards. From what I gathered, it was in January 1983 during the playoffs, the game he bowed to the crowd. Then again, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Transplants to Washington, this is part of the reason people still love the Redskins and have put up so much from Dan Snyder. Hopefully, Snyder will see this documentary and go make peace with the Redskins and “get him back in the family.”
When I was a kid, I met Riggins in the Vienna Mister Donut (RIP). I got his autograph, complemented him on his preseason game analysis. He was shy, but accommodating to an autograph request. That was probably at least five years after he stopped playing and he still looked like he could play.
Watch it now, until it’s taken down
Riggo one on one with Steve Sabol for over an hour:
Joe Posnanski puts it quite sufficiently in this passage from his SportsOnEarth column Masterpiece Theater:
Before Steve Sabol, mud was mostly a nuisance for a pro football game. Players slipped in it, slogged in it; mud covered their bodies so you could not even tell which player was on which team. After Steve Sabol, mud became something ennobling; it became the canvas to paint Gale Sayers’ grace, Jerry Rice’s precision, Jack Lambert’s force of will, Johnny Unitas’ high-tops.
Before Steve Sabol, snow and ice made football boring and miserable to watch. Nobody could complete passes in that stuff, nobody could gain traction. Heck, you couldn’t even see the yard markers. After Steve Sabol, football in the snow and freezing cold separated meek from mighty; you could not forget seeing Dallas’ Bullet Bob Hayes trying to shove his hands inside his pants just to warm them, and you could not forget seeing Bart Starr push his way into the frozen end zone.
Before Steve Sabol, pro football was a game without mythology. It was a good game, one gaining popularity all the time, but it lacked the poetry of baseball, and it lacked the history of boxing, and it lacked the soul of college football. What was pro football anyway? What did it even mean to be a pro football fan?
A big part of the greatness of NFL Films was that Sabol found the right voice, John Facenda, to narrate them. I don’t think it is a coincidence that NFL Films, while still good peaked in the 1970s with Facenda reading Sabol’s copy. Then again, part of that might be my own nostalgia for the NFL Films that were around when I was younger (even if they predated my time watching football/breathing). Another strength of NFL Films was incorporating the local radio broadcasters instead of the national ones. The local flavor and theater of the mind aspects of radio complimented the slow-motion film well and certainly raised the profile of the radio teams.
I pulled up a few videos, including the first NFL Films production with Facenda. Sabol wrote and produced “They Call it Pro Football” which is credited as the breakthrough for NFL Films:
Sabol also wrote “The Autumn Wind” poem about the Oakland Raiders: