Idol Makers: How Steve And Ed Sabol Turned NFL Films Into An Empire

Illustration for article titled Idol Makers: How Steve And Ed Sabol Turned NFL Films Into An Empire

Originally published in the Sept. 1996 issue of Philadelphia Magazine, and reprinted here with the author's permission.


Lined up on a shelf in the dining room of his South Jersey home is a row of 35 old poison bottles. Wandering over to them with an evening cocktail in his hand, Steve Sabol removes one from its place and, with a twinkle of pleasure in his eye, points out a small but fascinating fact: that each bottle has small indentations on its sides to keep people from accidentally grabbing it in the dark. Unearthed in the odd corners of junk shops during his travels across the United States and costing upwards of $85 apiece, the collection dates back to the 1890's and seems in perfect harmony with the surrounding decor, which includes (and this is but a small sampling): a regulation fire ax, oil paintings of obscure Russian generals, antiquated anatomical charts and assorted icons of Elvis, who—if he indeed is dead—lives on at chez Sabol in the form of statues and other odds and ends on display in each room.

Whatever else Sabol is (and that would include a lot of interesting things), he is an incurable romantic when it comes to preserving history, be it his odd obsession with old poison bottles or his zealous passion for professional football. In his position as president of NFL Films, where in the course of three decades he has become the Spielberg of the sports documentary, Sabol has taken a handoff from his colorful dad, Ed—who founded the organization under the auspices of the league in 1964—and transformed the coaches and players of the NFL into the Knights of the Round Table. Of the 65 Emmy Awards that NFL Films has captured, Sabol, a former running back at Colorado College who billed himself as "Sudden Death Sabol," has won 23 for cinematography, editing, directing, producing and writing. But no award has ever touched him as deeply as a letter he once received from the Papa Bear himself, Chicago coach George Halas, who in earlier years regarded NFL Films as "spies for the league" but conceded before his death: "You are the keepers of the Game."

No one at NFL Films is more cognizant of that holy designation than Sabol himself, whose just-completed documentary, Football America, is scheduled for a short theatrical run after airing on TNT next month. Setting out to explore that tight hold football has on Americans at the grassroots level, Sabol sent film crews the length and breadth of the United States, and, in the editing room of the company's Mount Laurel, New Jersey, headquarters, he assembled an offering of 10 off-beat pieces, ranging from the profile of a high school team playing on the frozen Alaskan tundra to the story of a 6o-year-old semi-pro player in California. No project Sabol has ever undertaken has been this enterprising, and he would only be disingenuous if he did not concede that one of his aims is to add an Oscar to the walls and walls of Emmys that decorate the corridors at NFL Films. A segment on football at Graterford state prison will be shown in theaters in the hope that it can capture attention in the short-subject category of the Academy Awards.

Whatever hardware Football America ultimately picks up, Steve Sabol has reached a point in his life where he can truly say he has found happiness. Shaken by an altogether too public divorce from his wife, Lisa, Sabol has set up housekeeping in Moorestown with NFL Films art director Penny Ashman, of whom Sabol observes: "She is the first person I have ever met—and I am 53 years old —where there was that instant communication. That click." Together, the couple has spent hours rummaging through secondhand shops, carting home with immense joy whatever strange items they could somehow use in their artwork, a project that fully engages the two in their time away from NFL Films. Not sure what he will end up doing with some of this stuff—or what a psychiatrist would have to say about it—Sabol does know this: "If I had a tail, it would be wagging."


Up in the first-class cabin of the American Airlines flight to Miami, Steve Sabol settles into his window seat and orders a vodka and tonic. Scheduled to interview Miami coach Jimmy Johnson aboard Johnson's boat the following day for his show NFL Films Presents—which enters its 29th season this year—Sabol reaches into the seat pocket in front of him and removes the air sickness bag—not for his personal use but for, well... allow him to explain: "l use them as envelopes," he deadpans. "I tape up the ends and send people stuff in them." He slides the bag into the carry-on beneath his seat and focuses on the assignment ahead.


"I spoke to Jimmy the other day, and he said, 'I knew it would be just a question of time before the Sabol Missile landed,"' says Sabol, whose film crew is scattered through first class and the back of the plane. "Jimmy just loves to break our balls."

Jetting across the United States not just to document pro football for television but to canonize it has been the mission of NFL Films ever since its founding. While it could be correctly argued that the NFL would not be as popular as it is today without TV having expanded its presence, it would also be fair to say that NFL Films has been a vital force in sustaining that popularity. Identified in the early days by the great oaken voice of the late John Facenda—who could elevate third-and-short into a mystical experience—Sabol and Co. had an essential role in gradually transforming the NFL from the stepson of baseball to the Godfather of American sports. Today—and this has always been true—the films capture not just the historical significance of the game, but the aura of it. "Growing up, I identify NFL Films as one of the reasons I probably own a team today," says Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie in one documentary. "It just hooked you into the whole culture of football."

Slim and broad-shouldered (at 195 lbs., he is five pounds lighter than his playing weight during his final season at Colorado College), Steve Sabol has never had a job outside NFL Films and says, quite earnestly: "This is what l was born to do." Seemingly not a terribly complicated person—which is to say, he professes to be unburdened by deep, unresolved issues—he is a fellow who prefers his sirloin rare and his potatoes baked, and who freely admits that when the beloved songstress Kate Smith belts out "God Bless America," it still leaves goose bumps running up and down his spine. Quirky, he occasionally sends his friends letters (with Elvis stamps on them, of course) with such tidings on the envelope as WE ARE LIIVING IN A WORLD OF UNPUNISHED VILLAINS AND UNREWARDED HEROES. Or: JESUS LOVES YOU (BUT EVERYBODY ELSE THINKS YOU ARE AN ASSHOLE). He is such a creative filmmaker that he probably could have found himself in Hollywood at some point, but Sabol shrugs and says, "I just love it here."


"Here" is 90,000 square feet of deluxe office and studio space in Mount Laurel, a far cry from the origins of NFL Films back in the '6o's. Housed in those days over a Chinese laundry in Center City, it commenced as a hobby for Ed Sabol, who had received a Bell & Howell camera as a wedding gift years before and shot home movies of Steve during the early days of his football career at Haverford School. Immensely flamboyant in manner and style (he favored loud checkered sports coats), the elder Sabol once had aspirations for the stage and even appeared in the Oscar Hammerstein Broadway production of Where Do We Go From Here? at the 44th Street Theater. "It was about life in a college fraternity house," Big Ed said, "and I was the fellow who came around each night to sell sandwiches." The show ran for two weeks. In 1941, he married Audrey Siegal, whose immigrant father, Jacob, owned one of the largest overcoat companies in the East. Ed worked for his father-in-law for 15 years—and hated it. "The old man was a tough son of a bitch," says Ed, lowering his voice to add: "Too tough."

Seeing that neither Ed nor his own son Herb were willing, or in his eyes capable, of carrying on the business, Jacob Siegal sold out and divided the proceeds. Though Herb used his share to eventually purchase United Paramount Network, Chris-Craft and Piper Cub, going on to become one of the largest stockholders in Time Warner, Ed decided he had come to the point in his life—at 45—where he no longer could devote himself to something he did not have his heart in. Because his two passions were his camera and sports—football especially—he entered a bid hid to shoot the 1962 NFL World Championship Game, the ultimate event of the season before the Super Bowl was instituted in 1966-67. A Philadelphia firm had won the rights the previous season for $1500.


"So l doubled that," Ed says. "In those days [commissioner] Pete Rozelle would have everyone with a bid come to New York, and he would open up the envelopes. So there were—if I remember correctly, there were three of us—and the first two bids were for $1,500 and $2,000. Then he opened our bid for $2,500, paused and said, 'Normally, I would announce the winner right now, but since I have never worked with Mr. Sabol before, I will hold this decision in abeyance until the close of business tomorrow.' I remember thinking, 'Shit, he is going to check me out and find that I have not done a goddamn thing.'"

It was 4:30 p.m. the following day before Rozelle called. "When he addressed me as 'Ed' instead of 'Mr. Sabol,' I knew we were in good shape," says Ed, who thanked Rozelle for the good news and immediately began hiring an organization to shoot the Packers-Giants title game at Yankee Stadium. The film was called Pro Football's Longest Day, and it premiered at the famed New York nightspot Toots Shor to critical acclaim. When Sabol won the rights again in 1964 to shoot the championship game, he approached Rozelle with the prospect of creating a studio that would "not only promote the NFL, but help ensure its history." The owners approved the proposal and anted up $12,000 each to purchase Blair Motion Pictures (named after his daughter, it would later become NFL Films). Sabol remembers a conversation he had that day with Baltimore owner Carroll Rosenbloom.


"He was friends with Joe Kennedy," Steve says. "He asked 'Do you have any dirty movies I can send him?'"

One Sunday, when Steve Sabol was just starting out at NFL Films, he happened to be filming at Wrigley Field when Chicago kicker Roger LeClerc came on to attempt the game-winning field goal. The year was 1965. Sabol followed the ball in his lens as it sliced through the uprights and landed in the seats behind the end zone. A fan reached to catch it, but as he raised his arms his coat flew open to reveal a pistol wedged in his belt. When Sabol included the shot in a highlight film he assembled and sent it to George Halas for his approval, the Chicago coach flew into a purple rage.


"How can you use a shot like that in this film?" Halas shouted over the phone. "How will I ever he able to show it to church groups?"

So Sabol came up with an idea.

"The Bears' fans were a rowdy hunch—the infield at the Indianapolis 500 looked like Parliament in session compared to Wrigley Field back then," Sabol says. "So what I did the following year was this: I went down to Washington and shot some of the fans there—people dressed in fine coats and scarves—and spliced them into the Chicago highlights. And for ten years Halas would say: 'Now that is a Bears film!'"

Give Steve Sabol this: He is resourceful. When he blew his college boards and ended up at Colorado College instead of Harvard—the place for which his grades at Haverford school seemed to earmark him—he had a wonderful time creating a new personality for himself. An unexceptional but devoted football player through high school, he told people at Colorado that he was from Coaltown Township, Penn., a fictional location that "sounded a lot tougher than Haverford." But later he reversed fields and said he was from a small town in Mississippi called Possum Trot, which was also fictional but would be sure to attract attention: "Who could ignore someone from Possum Trot?" He gave himself that dashing nickname, "Sudden Death Sabol," paid for newspaper ads, brochures, T-shirts, and lapel buttons that bore the legend The PRINCE OF PIGSKIN PAGEANTRY IS NOW AT THE PINNACLE OF HIS POWER. In December 1965 he found himself the subject of an adoring feature article in Sports Illustrated under the headline: "The Fearless Tot From Possum Trot." Says an old teammate and friend from Haverford, Jimmy Scott: "What happened is that Steve let his hair down when he got away from the Main Line. He was able to cut loose out in Colorado."


Sabol agrees.

"I had a great time out there," he says. Sabol captained the Colorado team for two years and won All-Rocky Mountain Conference honors. "From second grade until I was a senior at Haverford, I had been the ultimate grind. I studied every night … never went out on a date. So when I went to Colorado, I decided to have some fun."


He had so much fun that he stayed for five years—and never came close to getting a degree. When he came back to Philadelphia at the end of the '65 college season, he hooked up with his dad at NFL Films and learned filmmaking from the bottom up. Though Ed oversaw the operation from a big-picture point of view and effectively courted the NFL owners, Steve became a driving force in the evolution of the product itself. He developed such technical innovations as ground-level slow motion, reverse-angle replay and sideline sound (he was the first to equip coaches and players with audio devices). He also urged his father to hire newscaster Facenda (which ultimately led to the use of actors such as Orson Welles as narrators), promoted the use of popular and even original soundtracks to underscore the action instead of the standard college fare like "On Wisconsin," and wrote scripts that reflected how he had experienced football as a player. Instead of the old style of narration—which consisted of "Milt Plum pegs a peach of a pass to become the apple of Coach George Wilson's eye"—Sabol captured the raw intensity of the sport: "The snot flying, the swear spraying and eyes bulging." Says Big Ed: "Steve knew what it was like to be kicked in the balls."

Word is that no two people could be more opposite in personality than Ed and his son. Though the two have always been close and have gotten along well at NFL Films ("It was like going to work each day for Milton Berle," Steve says), Steve leans in creative temperament to his mother, Audrey. Ed was essentially a salesman—a superb one—whose flashy clothes and effuse demeanor reminded NFL Films producer Phil Tuckett of "one of those old Hollywood moguls." Steve picked up some of the razzle-dazzle from the old man, but he drew quite a lot of his artistic flair from Audrey, who has never been to a Super Bowl but who—as a member of the Philadelphia Arts Council—commonly invited artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein home for dinner. "My father would say, 'Audrey, who are these faggalas?"' Steve remembers. "But I was in awe of those people."


"What I learned from Mom was the unity of opposites—take two different things, put them together, and come up with something totally different. I remember we had a tight shot of some violent action, and she said: 'What' would happen if you used a woman humming over that?'"

Whatever artistic quirkiness Sabol possessed seemed to disappear during his 12-year marriage to the former Lisa Kapp, whom Audrey refers to as "that woman." When Sabol himself looks back on that relationship—at the end of which Lisa had been linked romantically to radio disc jockey John DeBella—he observes that if he once "thought marriage would be like a 1950's TV sitcom…lots of laughs…Lucy and Desi," he found that his ex-wife was "better suited for the leading role in a Joan Crawford boss-lady movie." Curtly, Lisa responds today by asking, "What can I say to that? Other than I feel bad he thinks that." She adds that the reason she filed for divorce was "we just became different people" and concurs wholeheartedly with her ex-husband when he says: "Splitting up was the right thing to do—for both of us." Although Sabol is somewhat troubled that their son, Casey, 11, has not experienced the same close parental environment he had, Sabol asserts: "I learned a lot about who I am—and who l am not."


He began seeing Penny Ashman in 1993. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and the School of Visual Arts in New York, Ashman, a divorcée, had been working at NFL Films since 1986 when Sabol asked her to join him at the wedding of Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham in May 1993. Immediately, Sabol was intrigued: Here was a woman he found attractive who had a "realness" to her. She rode a Harley Davidson to work, followed boxing and shared his passion for Elvis. Now she and Sabol create three-dimensional collages together, and Sabol likes nothing better than to pass time quietly in his art room, far from the social scene Lisa favored, elbow-deep in old photos of Liberace, football card wrappers, and rat traps (of which he observed, "We have more goddamn rat traps than the City of Philadelphia"). He also used to own an old electric chair from the Blacksburg State Prison in Virginia, but donated it to a bar.

"This is who I am, and it has come out again since I met Penny," says Sabol, who purchased his-and-her gun permits for target practice. "She is just an energizing person."


Ashman echoes that: "Not only is he funny, he is real clear-eyed on what is real and important."

That extends to his film work. The guiding principle he has adhered to since assuming control of NFL Films has been, quite simply: "Do what you do best." As NFL Films has cautiously branched into music videos and commercials, Sabol has not been tempted to stray too far afield of football. He remembers a conversation he once had with the late Howard Cosell, the legendary voice of Monday Night Football. Cosell scolded him for "wasting" his time on football films.


"You should be doing films that are socially relevant," Cosell boomed. "Films of larger importance."

"Such as?" Steve asked.

Cosell looked at him balefully and replied: "You should do a film on me."

Up in one of the studios at NFL Films, Tom Hedden is working on the soundtrack for Football America. Standing to the side in casual attire is Steve Sabol, who crosses his arms and listens intently as Hedden flips a dial on a synthesizer. Welling up from the speakers in the small room is a march that Sabol has asked Hedden to compose, which will be recorded in the weeks ahead by the Sinfonia of London. As the piece draws to a close, Hedden looks up at Sabol for his reaction.


"Good," Sabol begins, "but it could use something. One real blowout of, say, 20 seconds. The opening is terrific, then it goes into that da-da-da-da, but it needs a stronger final section to finish it off. Would that be too difficult to do?"

"No," Hedden replies, "not at all."

"Jack up the pace," Sabol continues. "Drive it home. You know? Air it out."

"Otherwise it works?" Hedden asks.

"Oh sure," Sabol says. "Sounds good."

No expense has been spared on Football America. Not only has he signed on the Sinfonia of London, Sabol has selected actor James Coburn to do the narration and invested $500,000 in the development of the story. When producer Tuckett stopped Sabol in the parking lot one day and told him that he had seen a photo of some sailors in a touch football game on an aircraft carrier moored in Norfolk, Va., Sabol dispatched Tuckett and a film crew there in order to get a single shot that would appear in the film's opening sequence. When former Daily News sportswriter Ray Didinger discussed the project with Sabol before leaving the paper and signing on as the lead writer of the film, he said Sabol told him: "I want to do a picture that shows that football is not just a sport for the Steve Youngs and Barry Sanderses. Football heroes come in all different shapes and sizes."


It is precisely that passion that has so endeared Sabol to his workforce, 25 percent of whom have been with NFL Films for more than 20 years (an additional 20 percent have been there less than three years, creating a blend of experience and fresh ideas that Sabol finds valuable). Far less buttoned-down than NFL headquarters in New York, NFL Films has no particular dress code, though Sabol did post a memo when employees began showing up on summer days in sandals—that seemed to go too far. The whole staff is invited each Thursday to the Edwin Sabol Theater to critique the shows that NFL Films produces: NFL Films Presents, Inside the NFL on HBO, NFL's Greatest Moments on ESPN, and assorted specials, and Sabol is liberal when it comes to dispensing perks. Whenever an NFL Films crew member goes on assignment, Sabol authorizes the employee to sit in first class. "That got us in trouble once with [former Eagles owner] Norman Braman, who happened to be on a plane with his wife and saw one of our cameramen in his NFL Films T-shirt," Sabol says. "Braman wrote a letter to fellow team owner Art Modell wondering why our people travel first class, and it pissed me off. I told Art that the cameraman Braman saw had been on the road for 12 straight days and had been working his ass off."

Generally speaking, Sabol has had a solid rapport with the league owners—excluding Braman. Braman characterized NFL Films as a "Mom and Pop" organization, which Sabol viewed as a compliment until someone pointed out that Braman was not pleased with the revenues being generated by the company. Though Sabol concedes that "even in our greatest year, our profits amounted to just one-quarter of one percent of total league revenues," he says NFL Films draws its operating expenses "out of whatever revenues we can create" and disperses the balance among the teams in the league in the form of royalties. He also stresses that NFL Films was not intended to be a cash cow, but instead a vehicle to promote and enhance the image of the league. Though Sabol has been philosophically accepting of the imperative, he has occasionally found himself at odds with the NFL on the subject of violence: The league has asked him to tone it down here and there, though Sabol explains that it is an essential part of the game. He remembers a quote from George Halas, who said: "A good player becomes less good the harder he is hit."

No journalist covering the NFL could ever have the rapport that Sabol has with the coaches and players. The fact that he is connected with the league is part of it, but it goes even deeper. When a coach or player sees Sabol show up for an interview, he knows the subject at hand will not include his latest altercation with the cops down at the No-Tell Motel. Which is not to say that Sabol is not a skilled interviewer. His questions are educated and incisive, but they carefully avoid issues that could be embarrassing to the league—such as how some former stars are hobbled with debilitating injuries their whole lives. Or this: When Sabol interviewed former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson down in Miami, he covered the philosophy of coaching in fascinating detail, but only briefly addressed the issue of Johnson's relationship with Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who effectively fired Johnson despite the team's two Super Bowl wins.


"We are not journalists but romanticists," Sabol says. "We approach it in the same way Plutarch wrote of his approach to the lives of Alexander and Caesar. And that is: 'I try to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, rather than insist on every particular circumstance of it.'"

Critics have come to accept this predisposition to gild rather than tarnish, and the coaches and players have come to expect it. Consequently, in addition to gaining access to those who would perhaps avoid a daily beat writer, Sabol (and his father before him) has convinced a few of them to do interviews and even wear microphones, which enables fans not just to see the game but to hear it—and sometimes more. When NFL Films first used a microphone on former Eagles coach Joe Kuharich in a game in Florida in 1965, the fans not only heard Kuharich, but a transmission from the Coast Guard. "You would hear Kuharich say, 'Watch that zone...'" Sabol says, "then suddenly, there would be some static, and 'The tuna are biting out here on Biscayne Bay."' Coaches such as former Miami legend Don Shula and others refused to wear a microphone—and Shula even prohibited his players from doing so—but Sabol has convinced Johnson to allow Dan Marino to be hooked up this season, and he has agreed.


"We have Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Dan Fouts—all the greats," says Sabol, walking through the corridors at NFL Films to the film archives. "I told Jimmy, 'You have to allow us to do this. This is history.'" He stops at a door. "Come on in," he says. "This is the soul of the game."

Step inside and the room is immense. Metal shelves reach high into the air, upon which sit close to 30,000 cans of film—including 5,000 shows, specials and features. According to archival director Ace Cacchiotti—who once slept here for a period during his divorce—the video library contains 9,300 games and 41,000 touchdowns. (He knows because he has watched each of them.) You can come here and find the 1903 Princeton-Yale game that Thomas Edison shot, or the Colts-Giants 1958 World Championship game (considered by some the greatest game ever played), or the "Immaculate Reception"—the batted pass Pittsburgh Steeler running back Franco Harris picked up just before it hit the ground and ran in for a touchdown to beat the Raiders in 1972. (Only NFL Films cameraman Ernie Ernst got that picture.) You can also find that "socially relevant" documentary Sabol ended up doing with Howard Cosell… and soon, a print of Football America.


"Sometimes looking at some of them is like looking at a picture of an old girlfriend," Sabol says. "You remember her far better that she was."

Funny, but now that Shula has retired from Miami, no coach and only a handful of owners in the league have been affiliated with the NFL longer than Sabol. Though it sometimes seems as if he has done every football film there is to be done—that he has exhausted the genre—he points out that "as the faces around the league change, so do the plots and subplots." It still feels as fresh to him as the day he started working for Big Ed over that Chinese laundry. Obviously, the NFL has changed dramatically since then, but not in the romantic eye of Steve Sabol: It is—and will remain—a game of 22 strong, tough men on a field 100 yards long and 160 feet wide. No one could be as honored to be the keeper of the flame, to cup it in his hands and assure that it never flickers out.


Mark Kram Jr. won the 2013 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing for Like Any Normal Day: A Story of Devotion. Kram Jr. has also edited the forthcoming anthology of his father's best work, Great Men Die Twice: The Selected Works of Mark Kram, which will be published this June by St. Martin's Press.


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