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A tribute to filmmaker of NFL's trenches

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  • A tribute to filmmaker of NFL's trenches

    A tribute to filmmaker of NFL's trenches

    This story stretches from the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field to the leafy glades of Bryn Mawr.
    It's the tale of a pop-and-son operation, armed with a portable movie camera and an eye for myth. It began circa 1965 in places like smoky Knights of Columbus meetings. Wednesday night, it will reach a milestone on the Main Line, where the guy with the camera will receive the Bryn Mawr Film Institute's Silver Screen Inspiration Award.

    The guy is Steve Sabol. If you don't recognize the name, you must spend autumn Sundays out antiquing or raking leaves, not planted in front of the high-def TV.

    Steve Sabol is the head of NFL Films. He's the man who wove the myths that made the NFL a lucrative Sunday cult.

    Before Sabol, football shows were herky-jerky reels shot from one vantage high above the stadium, set to tinny pep-band tunes.

    Sabol's the genius (yeah, I said genius) who took his camera (and, with it, the grateful fan) down to the sideline and into the trenches. He filmed muddy warriors exhaling slow-motion mists like mythic beasts. He miked players for sound, capturing the staccato jabber of strategy, the grunts of hand-to-hand combat. He turned touchdowns into morality plays.

    The NFL of NFL Films is, frankly, much more interesting than the real thing, with its tedious pauses and commercialism. In Sabol's cinematic league, sharp-edged characters and sudden turnabouts drive dramas to clear endings. All of it gets set to seductive music and Sabol's Kipling-inspired prose.

    The distinctive NFL Films style - those slowly spinning spirals, framed against lowering November skies - is as much a part of American pop culture as Motown tunes or Seinfeld reruns. And as tempting to parody. (The famous "frozen tundra" line is not genuine Sabol; it's ESPN shtick.)

    Sabol, it turns out, didn't stumble into myth-making. He knew what he was up to from his start, toting a camera for his dad's Philadelphia-based Blair Motion Pictures, NFL Films' precursor. Sabol followed the work of '60s documentary innovators such as D.A. Pennebaker.

    "All of us were using the new equipment, with the live sound, to take film in different directions. They did it at insane asylums and rock concerts," Sabol, now 65, says. "I did it at football games."

    At first, Sabol and his dad, Ed, took their new-breed highlight films to sports banquets and club meetings, mostly around Philly and New York. For their first longer film, Ed Sabol (still kicking, by the way, at 93) used a chance encounter at a Philly bar to snare a well-known narrator.

    "John Facenda was the Walter Cronkite of Philly," Steve recalled. Ed Sabol talked the anchorman into doing the voiceover, though Facenda knew nothing about the game (and never learned, since "the Voice of God" read better when not distracted by Sabol's images of mayhem and grace).

    From the moment Facenda intoned the first, classic-Sabol line of the script - "It begins with a whistle and ends with a gun" - father and son knew they'd hit paydirt.

    The payoff continues. NFL Films, based in Mount Laurel, employs 300. Its work appears all over TV. It racks up Emmys the way Brian Westbrook does touchdowns.

    For Sabol, the salt has never lost its savor, even as the working-class heroes of his early films have given way to the peacocks of today, each with an agent and an Escalade:

    "I still look forward to every season. There's always a different story to tell. I look at football in dramaturgical terms. It's not about the score, it's about the struggle. And here's a thing that still thrills me: For the fan, the most frustrating thing about sports is that the actual moment of triumph is so fleeting. What we do is, we capture it, we put it in the bank, so that the fan can draw on it again and again."

    The man speaks truth. On the DVR at home, there's one recording my wife knows never to delete: NFL Films' Greatest Games series, the Cleveland Browns beating the New York Jets in overtime, '86 playoffs.

    So, yes, to me it makes perfect sense for a film institute to give its Silver Screen honor to an exuberant Everyman whose films (never video) appear only on TV. Sabol has 30 Emmys, but this award means a lot to him because as a youth he spent hours in the Bryn Mawr theater, soaking up the classic films that would shape his storytelling style.

    Films such as what, Steve?

    "Oh, like Duel in the Sun."

    Sounds about right.
    Official Sponsor of the National League Three-Peat.

  • #2
    NFL Films is probably the biggest reason that the NFL is the top passion in my life today. I can remember as a kid I couldn't wait until Saturday mornings so I could watch Inside The NFL, which was a locally produced show when it first began, and Football Follies.
    Official Sponsor of the National League Three-Peat.


    • #3
      Same here. The original LT and NFL Films are huge reasons why I'm a football fan. I always watched the Inside The NFL show before The NFL Today pregame show came on.


      • #4
        Yep I love when they show that tight shot of the football slowly spiraling towards the end zone to be caught by the WR. Just freakin awesome.


        • #5
          If you guys want to watch a really good show try to catch Live Wire on the NFL Network on Thursday nights.
          Official Sponsor of the National League Three-Peat.


          • #6
            I will do that. Thanks !


            • #7
              Originally posted by GreatestShow99 View Post
              I will do that. Thanks !
              It's only 30 minutes but it's jam packed with some great stuff.

              They had Marshawn Lynch mic'd last year playing against the Bengals and you heard Justin Smith tell him that he was going to steal his gold teeth after the game. I was cracking up.
              Official Sponsor of the National League Three-Peat.