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Steve Sabol – President of NFL Films (Part 2 of 3)

By Admin | January 26, 2008


What do you do on Sunday afternoons during football season? You live in the Philadelphia area. Do you go to the Eagles games?

No. I might pick one or two games that I’ll go to. But the problem I have now is with Sunday Ticket.

That’s such a tremendous vehicle for me to study not only one team but the whole league. I have a room in my house which is called, oddly enough, the football room. You know, two big chairs and three screens and on Sundays I usually sit and watch seven or eight games.

Were the Eagles your favorite childhood team?

No, not really. I am the ultimate front runner. At NFL Films, we’re storytellers and we’re romanticists. So, my favorite team changes every year. It is the team with the best story. The team that captures the country’s imagination. As a storyteller, you gravitate toward that as opposed to being a fan that is a diehard that follows the same team every year.

I am a fan of the game of football – not of any particular team and every year it changes. Right now, I am a Patriots fan because if they go undefeated to me it will be the greatest single achievement in the 88 year history of the national football league and we’ll be the ones to tell their story.

Are rooting for them to win the last game?


How do you select your cameramen? How does somebody get to be an NFL Films cinematographer?

They are auditioned and we start them out doing some preseason. Usually it takes three to four years of doing some preseason and college before we move them up to the NFL.

We have a staff of ten full-time cinematographers and sound men that are full-time staff people and then we augment that with another fifty contract men.

When I say contract men some of them have shot for us for twenty five or thirty years. We don’t like to use the term freelancers because they are camera men that started shooting for us in the late 70s and early 80s and still shoot.

They might live in Denver or they live in San Francisco and they are so good. There is no reason for us to hire them for full-time. But, they are every bit as good as our full-time cameramen.


You filmed the 1962 title game in Yankee stadium. What do you remember from that game?

Windy, cold. I was at the Ice Bowl 1967 and this game in Yankee Stadium, because of the wind, the weather was almost as severe. The wind actually made it more difficult for the players then the cold did in the Ice Bowl.

What I remember about the game in hindsight was it was the first time that I had ever been on the field in an NFL game and in 1962 I was a runner… I have gone back to check – there were 17 Hall of Famers on the field for that particular game, which is the most in NFL history.

But, what I remember most about it was going into the locker room after the game. Here’s a guy that I had been playing college football and I was the captain of my team at Colorado College. I was all Rocky Mountain conference and felt that I had a pretty good feeling about what this game of football was like.

But, walking into the locker room after that game… the first person I saw was Ray Nitschke. His whole face was just caked in dried blood. He looked like Freddie Kreuger from one of those horror movies.

Then right next to him was Jim Taylor. He was getting seven or eight stitches in his mouth where he had been hit by Sam Huff. Seated right next to him taking off his pads was Bart Starr and his whole ribcage just was a ribbon of these big strips of purple and blue welts and bruises.

And, at that point I knew that the game I had just witnessed bore very little resemblance to the game I had been playing college.

What is your best Vince Lombardi story?

Well, to me what makes Lombardi unique is that he not only was he a winner but he captured the public’s imagination as a leader and all great leaders in history have distinctive voices. Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt. All had very resonant voices and distinctive voices and Lombardi’s voice was what I remember most about him.

I have two stories about him. The first time I ever heard that voice… was in 1964. We went out to interview him and the interview was supposed to take place at 8 o’clock. Chuck Lane who was the packer PR man said, “You know Coach Lombardi, if it says 8 o’clock you better be ready by quarter to eight because he is notoriously early and if he shows up and you’re not ready, he is going to be upset.”

So, we got there at 6:30 am and in those days all of our equipment would be in a station wagon. There weren’t any vans or lighting trucks or anything. We pulled up in a station wagon and parked as close as we could to the offices to unload our equipment and we set everything up and then we were all set to go.

At 7:45 am the door opens and I hear this voice and I knew right away who it was. But, this was the first time I had ever heard the voice in person. This voice boomed out, “Who the hell is in my parking place?”

That was me, of course, and that was my first encounter with Vince Lombardi. We scrambled out and moved the car and everything and the interview went pretty good. Although he was never really a good interview. He was totally spontaneous. He was the kind of guy who loved to hear a joke but really couldn’t tell one.

And the other instance with his voice was the next year I was at … their training camp. Before Lombardi came out the players were all doing calisthenics. He usually didn’t come out until after the calisthenics.

As the players were doing calisthenics there was this little dog, this little terrier that was running around on the field. The players were trying to shoo it away. Of course, this being a Packers practice there must have been thousands of people ringing the field.

This became a funny little skit or little scene that was unfolding. This little dog would run up to Herb Adderly and sniff him and then Herb Adderly would try to shoo him away. Then the dog would come up to Willie Davis and Willie would you know say, “ shoo shoo.”

The dog was getting in people’s way and then Lombardi came out. And, he stood at the head (of the field) while all the players were doing the calisthenics and he noticed the dog and everybody was waiting to see what was going to happen. He just pointed at the dog and just said “Get that damn dog off the field.”

And the dog… just put tail between legs and it shot right off the field and the crowd erupted. The crowd went nuts. Everybody cheered. And Lombardi didn’t understand, he wasn’t there earlier. He couldn’t get it… He just said get this goddam dog off the field and everybody just started cheering and laughing.

Again, it goes back to the quality of his voice.

Speaking of which – John Facenda. Is the San Marco story true?

I don’t know, let me hear it.

Your dad was at the San Marco restaurant, which was a popular night club night spot for the local newscasters, and he was showing the film, the ’62 title game film. Facenda was at the restaurant and watching it and commented and that is actually how your dad met him. And your dad liked his voice and then signed him up.

That’s sorta true. There was more planning into it than that. When we started, one of the things that I felt strongly about was that most of the scripts were clever and I felt they should be more dramatic, just nouns and verbs in the scripts. They shouldn’t be as cute… things like “Milt Plum takes a peach of a pass to become the apple of Coach George Wilson’s eye.”

You thought it too poetic and not prosaic enough?

Yeah, but they were clever. My idea was that to me football was a game of passion It was a game of fierce physical contact and intense competition and I just felt that scripts, instead of being that clever, should be more dramatic. To me, if they were more dramatic there should be less words and if there were less words whoever narrated that script would need an arresting and compelling voice.

And growing up in Philadelphia, John Facenda was the Walter Cronkite of Philadelphia. He was the anchor man of WCAU. He had that great oaken, authoritative voice and I thought he would be great to narrate the films. But, not written in the way they previously were and my dad agreed.

I don’t know whether it was at the San Marco. I think it was at the RDA club. That was a little nightclub that was right around the corner from NFL Films and I think my dad was just there for a drink and John was there.

My dad came up to him and just said, “We are doing a new film called They Call It Pro Football and my son is writing it and we both feel it would be great if you narrated it. Would you be interested in it?” And John said yes and that was the beginning.

How did They Call It Pro Football turn out?

That one film…which was produced in 1965 became the Citizen Kane of sports films in a sense. That sounds a little immodest for me to say but, so much of what you see today all started with that film. It was the first follies. It was the first montage editing. It was the first use of theatrical music.

It was the first time a coach was mic’d for sound in a game. It was the first time that cameras shot ground level slow motion. It was the first time a camera ever stayed on the quarterback after he released the ball. It was the first time a reverse angle was ever used. Prior to that, all cameras were always put on the same side of the field.

That (film) was narrated by John Facenda. I remember being in the recording session and in those days the equipment was a little archaic. You sat in the booth with him and you’d tap him whenever you wanted him to speak. So I tapped him and I remember the first lines I had written were, “It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.”

And, the minute he said that my dad was on the other side on the window and we both looked at each other and my dad winked at me and we both knew at that point that this was going to work.

You knew what you had?

Exactly. Sorta the way Sam Phillips must have felt the first time Elvis went into Sun Studio and started bing banging on his guitar. NFL Films – it was a similar moment.

So the 1965 film was your iconic breakthrough?

Yep. That was the film that the NFL film style, the signature style started. Up until that time we were just really learning on the job and the most important thing was just to get an image and get in focus to prove to the owners that this overcoat salesman and his little son can actually make a film about football and not embarrass us… Also, that was the first film that Sam Spence’s music appeared in too.

Your dad was pretty lucky, because without much film success you got Sam Spence and sports cameraman Dan Endy involved?

Well, Dan Endy was great because Dan had the experience and Dan knew football. Dan had been involved in all phases of production and Dan was a great mentor to me.

Dan had a great sense of humor. He had a great understanding of my Dad and how flamboyant my Dad was and Dan was a steadying influence. All of us really relied on Dan because Dan was really, after we became NFL Films, Dan was the one who was the most experienced and he had done this before.

He had been working for TelRa and I think he had his own business. I would definitely consider him one of the pioneers more because of his personality and his encouragement to try new things.

Dan was by nature conservative and both my dad and I were exactly the opposite. So it was a good balance of minds there in the beginning. We would say “try this” and Dan would say, “Well, if you want to do that you better be careful about this and that.” Technically he was very good too.

The opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the person being interviewed and are not attributable to DailyInterview.com or the editors.

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