By Admin | January 24, 2008
Steve Sabol was a running back at Colorado College in 1962 when his father asked him to help film that year’s NFL title game. What grew out of that small, family motion picture business is today’s NFL Films, which Steve Sabol now heads. We recently had a chance to speak with him.
Have you read your Wikipedia biography?
No, as far as the internet, I am internet autistic. I really don’t follow it. I have one or two sites and I have a thing where I look at newspapers.
It is very interesting how your Dad started NFL Films. Your dad was working for your grandfather selling overcoats.
And he was filming your high school football games?
Yep, that’s true.
Do you still have those films?
Yeah, we have a tremendous home movie library.
Was he filming on 8 mm or 16 mm film?
16mm Kodak film. It holds up today beautifully.
The camera…was a wedding present from my grandmother. My dad sold overcoats and he hated it. As a wedding present, when he married my mother he got a 16 mm Bell and Howell windup movie camera.
And everything I did as his first and only son, from my first haircut to my first pony ride to my first birthday to my first football game he filmed.
And he got pretty good at it and he filmed more and more of my football games from when I was in fourth grade all the way to when I was a senior in high school.
And then I went away to college at Colorado College which was a little too far for him to travel to keep pursuing this hobby.
So, he decided at that time in his life, he was 48 years old, he was going to make his hobby his profession. So, he quit the overcoat business and took his life savings and started a film company.
The first film that he made was called To Catch a Whale and he was going out with some whalers off Newport Rhode Island. They were on the boat for like a month and he got sea sick and even worse than that they never even saw a whale.
That’s when he decided that he wasn’t going to do those kinds of documentaries and so he went back and rethought it and said, “You know, I have been filming football with Steve for so long that will be the next thing I want to try.”
He found out that the film rights for the NFL championship game every year go up to the highest bidder and in 1961 they had gone to… I don’t even know who it was, but an independent film company who had paid $2500 for the rights to film the NFL championship.
So, in 1962 my dad went to the auction and he decided he would double the bid. That was sort of my dad’s personality. Everything he always thought of – you do it twice. If a doctor gave you a prescription, you double it. If you like a certain car buy two of them because if one breaks you want to have another ready… Everything was always doubled.
He doubled the price – he bid $5000. Pete Rozelle opened up all the bids and he was really excited that someone had doubled the bid from the year before, but he was also somewhat concerned that this bidder’s experience filming football was filming his fourteen year old son.
So, my dad, as legend has it, after a three martini lunch with Pete Rozelle had convinced Pete to let him film the championship game.
That night I got a phone call from my dad. This was my second or third year at Colorado College and he said, “You know, Steve I can see by your grades that all you have been doing out there is going to the movies and playing football and so that makes you uniquely qualified so come home and help.” I left over Christmas vacation and helped Dad film that championship game in 1962.
And then, he bid again in ’63 and won the rights and then in ’64 they started to go up even more. Then, in 1965 my dad had the idea that why doesn’t the NFL buy our family motion picture company. Our company was called Blair Motion Pictures. It was named after my sister.
And, up until that time Blair Motion Pictures had filmed those championship games. My dad presented a plan to the owners and they all agreed that it probably would be in the best interests of the NFL to own its own film company.
Plus, they liked the style of movie making that we were doing. It mythologized the game. It created a unique image for the game and that was what Pete Rozelle liked right away.
So, he helped my father convince the twelve owners to buy our company. Now also, my dad was concerned, he felt sooner or later, some big Hollywood film company like Universal or Twentieth Century Fox would realize, “Hey. there is something here with this football.” He was afraid that eventually he wouldn’t be able to have the money and he would be outbid.
The owners agreed mostly on my dad’s personality. They all really liked him. He was a great salesmen. You know, if he could sell overcoats he could certainly sell his dreams.
Each owner put up $20,000 and they bought our film company, which was four people at the time and then we changed our name from Blair Motion Picture to NFL Films.
Was your sister Blair involved in the business?
No… actually, my sister went on to be a political writer for the Village Voice.
What did your mom think about all of this?
My mother was extraordinary woman in that she had her own interests as well. My mother ran the Art Alliance in Philadelphia. And she, at least in Philadelphia, was one of the first people to recognize the pop art movement.
She would have these pop artists arrange to have showings in the various galleries that she oversaw. The galleries would usually open for a week and the artists very often would stay at our house.
So, there would be Robert Rauschenberg one night… Roy Lichenstein another night, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha who painted the famous gas stations – he dated my sister.
There was this sort of dual creative energy at the Sabol household where my dad and I were focused on football and then there was this other group sometimes on the weekends that was part of this new very controversial art movement called pop art.
But, as a young kid growing up and who would be in a creative business it was incredibly stimulating for me to be around these people even though I didn’t understand the transfers that Rauschenberg was doing or Claus Oldenberg was doing, making a hamburger, Ruscha was painting gas stations.
Roy lichenstein designed some dishes for my mother which she still has and actually they were in the biennial museusm show in the Whitney two years ago – probably worth a lot.
That was the environment that I grew up in.
So, she was supportive?
Oh yeah. I mean extremely supportive even before we started the film company. My dad (would say) I want to build a swimming pool and we are going to heat it. “Ed, whatever makes you happy.” “ I am going buy horses and we are going to build a stable and I am going to learn to ride.” “Ed, whatever makes you happy.” “ I want to buy a Mercedes with gull wing doors… I am going to start a film company.”
She was incredibly supportive but in a very unobtrusive way. She was always, “Ed, whatever makes you happy.”
So, your mother and sister went and had their own careers and their own creative outlets but they were actually never involved in NFL Films?
No interest whatsoever.
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