Ed Sabol became the 19th contributor elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he was enshrined in 2011.
Underappreciated is the courage it took when Sabol, then a 46-year-old family man, took the risk and walked away from a comfortable living as a coat salesman to form Blair Productions in 1962.
He went out on a long limb and doubled the bid the National Football League had accepted in 1961 to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game. The $3,000 offer certainly got the attention of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, but that did not mean Sabol and his production company instantly would get the job.
Rozelle called Sabol into the league’s office to see if he was legit.
Sabol promised to double the number of cameras used on the field from four to eight. He also planned to use various forms of slow-motion photography. And finally, he vowed to use color film, which at the time was somewhat of a novelty and certainly was more expensive.
Two days later, Sabol got a telegram from Rozelle that stated, “Congratulations …”
In 1964, after two years of successfully filming NFL games, Sabol convinced the NFL and its 14 team owners that the league should own its own motion picture company for promotion and to capture the historical values of the game.
The league purchased Sabol’s Blair Motion Pictures and renamed it NFL Films, where Ed would serve as president.
This not only changed the professional football landscape, but it also changed the way people watched all sports.
Sabol filmed football using three camera methods he called “Trees,” “Moles,” and “Weasels.”
The Tree had a fixed camera high on the 50-yard line.
The Mole had a handheld camera at field level for shooting close-ups of faces, hands, and tight-spiraling footballs.
The Weasel also carried a handheld camera but roamed through the stadium, at all levels, looking for anything unique.
Once the three rolls of film were edited together, NFL Films had created a style all its own.
“NFL Films had a real impact on the way movies get made, particularly montages, lots of different images, images on top of images, using slow-motion combined with the live action, the hard-hitting sound effects. It’s very powerful,” said Academy Award-winning director Ron Howard. “You juxtapose that with the incredible music, and it creates a really emotional experience for the viewer. They made us better fans because they allowed us to appreciate it. You do begin to see the awesome athletic ability of the players. It blows me away.”
Many firsts occurred at NFL Films under Ed Sabol’s leadership. These include the first company to place a microphone on a player and coach during an NFL regular-season game, in 1965.
In 1966, they used graphics to explain football strategy, and the next season created “NFL Films Presents,” which today is TV’s longest-running sports series.
NFL Films won its first Emmy in 1978 for “Road to the Super Bowl.” During Sabol’s tenure, from 1964-1995, NFL Films won 52 Emmy Awards.
In 1995, NFL Films produced the first live-action sports movie shot in Cinemascope, the critically acclaimed “100 Yard Universe,” which was shown exclusively at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“My dad has a great expression,” said Ed’s son, Steve Sabol (Hall of Fame Class of 2020). “He always says, ‘Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.’ Interestingly enough now, my dad’s story is going to be in Canton, and hopefully that will live forever, too.”
Jon Kendle is Vice President of Archives, Education & Football Information at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His columns tell unique and interesting stories starting from the League’s founding in downtown Canton in 1920 to the present day.