Of all the bronze plaques hanging in Canton, until today the one belonging to the man who did the most for professional football in this country was conspicuously absent from the Hall of Fame.
Oddly enough, the journey of the the man who put football in all our living rooms didn’t start on a football field; rather it began at a place called Toots Shor’s Manhattan restaurant, swimming in cocktail sauce and martinis.
Born on September 11, 1916 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Ed Sabol found himself as a 46-year old aspiring filmmaker, who had formed a fledgling company called Blair Productions. He didn’t have the resume of a filmmaker; he admittedly was an overcoat salesman whose only industry experience was filming his 14-year-old son’s football games.
Despite all that, Sabol found himself sitting across the table from NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, having convinced the head of the second-rate league (that’s right, there was a time in this country when nobody really cared about the NFL) to sell the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship by doubling the bid of any competitors.
Now, back at the same restaurant a few months later, it was time for the unveiling of Sabol’s celluloid capturing of the epic battle between the Packers and Giants. This was the moment that would make or break Sabol’s career.
It was an unmitigated disaster.
Sabol’s meisterwerk lay on the floor after a waiter had tripped over the projector cord, spilling it along with a tray of shrimp cocktails. Naturally, the delicate film was sliced to ribbons in the process.
How times have changed.
Despite this disaster, Sabol continued shooting the NFL. In 1964, Blair Motion Pictures became NFL Films after Sabol gained an exclusive deal to preserve NFL games on film. In 1995, he officially retired from NFL Films in his role as President and Chairman. In 1996, he was elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. On February 5th, 2011, Sabol was elected for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Today it finally happens.
Nearly 50 years after NFL Films was born, Sabol can take credit for building the first spors production company to put microphones on coaches and players, to keep a camera on the quarterback even after he threw a pass, to zero in on the flight of the ball, to include original musical scores, and to emphasize the beauty of slow-motion replay.
NFL Films is home to the longest-running sports series, the first entity to use graphics to explain football strategy, and the first live-action sports movie filmed in Cinemascope.
Not only did his pioneering work in sports cinematography and production build NFL Films into an film-making empire; the role it played in building the NFL
cannot be overestimated. Face it, one of the reasons the NFL enjoyed such popularity it it understands its television appeal. Sabol was the first guy to understand that a football game was as much a dazzling Hollywood narrative as a competition, and that such a narrative made for great film.
Today, Sabol is 94 and retired, and accepting yet another in a long line of awards.
In his younger days, Sabol was also an accomplished swimmer. While attending Blair Academy, he excelled in several sports, and set a World Interscholastic Swimming record in the 100-yard freestyle. He continued his noted swimming career at Ohio State University, where he was selected for the 1936 Olympic team but refused to participate because of the games’ connections to Nazi Germany. He served in World War II, and upon returning to civilian life, worked as a clothing salesman in his father’s factory. Along the way to toady, here’s a listing of the accolades Sabol accrued.
1935: World Interscholastic Record holder, 100-yard freestyle swimming
1937: Big Ten championship, 400-yard freestyle relay swimming
1937: National AAU championship, 400-yard freestyle relay swimming
1962-Today: A total of 97 Emmy Awards
1987: Order of the Leather Helmet (presented by the NFL Alumni Association)
1987: Bert Bell Memorial Award (presented by the NFL)
1991: Pete Rozelle Award (presented by the NFL)
1996: International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame
2003: Lifetime Achievement Emmy
2004: John Grierson International Gold Medal
2011: Enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame
But most importantly, Sabol created an empire which so far has won 97 Emmys to date and completely revolutionized the manner in which sports are presented. The bottom line, without Sabol, there would be no football-based programming like Hard Knocks or Inside the NFL, there would be no ESPN, in fact, the NFL might still be a second-rate league. After all, before Sabol, the NFL rated behind baseball, college football, boxing, and horse racing in terms of popularity.
This is why Sabol is one of only 19 “contributors” elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and clearly it’s most important.