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Monday, September 24, 2012

My 45 minutes with Steve Sabol

In February 2005, the Super Bowl was coming to Jacksonville.

Yes, that Jacksonville, as in Jacksonville, Fla., as in the biggest city per square mile in Florida Jacksonville.

And after covering the Jaguars for the second year I was working at the Palatka Daily News, I was excited to cover the big game. One problem -- my boss decided he wanted to cover the big game. Talk about being shot down in your hopes of doing great things.

So I wanted to contribute in some way to any Super Bowl coverage we would do. The problem was that my boss only put credentials in for himself and our photographer who was going up there to shoot the game. In other words, there was no backup plan or a backup pass for that matter in case something happened to him.

Greeeeeeeeat. But I was undaunted nonetheless. He could have the game, but I wanted to do one feature, something that would be interesting for our readers and might provide for great stories to put into our paper. And then I knew what I wanted to write about.

I knew that NFL Films was going to make the annual pilgrimage to the league's biggest game and I wanted to talk to the man who was at the forefront of NFL Films, the company's face. And though it was Ed Sabol who started NFL Films, it was his son Steve who took the company to the next level, pushing the brand on anyone and everyone within earshot. Though those in the know knew Ed Sabol and his contributions, most people knew his son as the embodiment of NFL Films. So I contacted NFL Films on the Monday of Super Bowl week, when things really began to warm up in northeastern Florida.

I got his secretary, who told me she would get a message to him. Well Tuesday came. No word yet. I called the offices in Mount Holly, N.J. again. And I got the same secretary. I told her I was wanting to talk to Steve Sabol about NFL Films and how things work during the week of the Super Bowl and actual game day. She apparently called in to Mr. Sabol's office to see if he was busy. He was and he couldn't get back to me, but he apparently told her to see about Wednesday.

I told her I was available, but I had a feeling she would tell me he would talk to me very early, which I really wasn't looking forward to.

"Can we make it late in the morning, like about 11 o'clock?" I asked. She checked with Sabol. All seemed fine. I left it at that.

Now you have to understand my routine and schedule. There are very few "9-to-5" jobs in the business, especially in the sports department where most of the local sports is taking place either in the late afternoon or in the early evening. So I have one of those schedules that has me going in at about 6 in the evening and leaving around 1:30 in the morning. Not exactly a "home-happy" schedule, but I was living with a girlfriend who worked at a sheriff's office from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. This was nirvana in that regard.

Well that early day, I didn't get to sleep until about 5:30 in the morning. Since my girlfriend was working a second job that had her jumping from her first job to the second in Jacksonville, I had really no way of being woken up other than maybe leave the television on, which I did.

Don't ask me how, but I woke up at about 10:05 a.m. on Wednesday, February 2, 2005. I was lacking from sleep and knew that I wasn't going to be at my best on 4 1/2 hours of sleep. Somehow, I dragged myself into a shower, got dressed and headed to the office. It was 10:50 a.m. Turned on the computer and looked on the Internet, waiting for the phone to ring.

I was anxious. C'mon phone ... ring already!! It was 11 a.m. Then it became 11:05, then 11:10. And suddenly my eyes got heavy from waiting. While there was a small amount of people in the newsroom at that hour, I literally dozed off waiting for a phone call. I was asleep literally in front of my computer for about five minutes. It was 11:15 and before I can get my bearings, there was the phone no more than a foot away from my desk and almost two feet from my ear. The red message light was blinking.

Oh f**kin' faaaaan-tastic! And I dreaded hitting the button and numerical code to hear the message, knowing it was Steve Sabol asking where the hell I was. But I did ... and it was Steve Sabol calling, leaving a very polite message and asking me if I could call him back as soon as possible. It was Wednesday after all and I knew that it was either that night or Thursday that he was getting on a plane and heading from Philadelphia to Jacksonville.

It took me about 45 seconds to a minute to get my bearings. Then I made the phone call back to NFL Films. The same secretary I talked to for two days answered and she knew to send me into Mr. Sabol's office.

"This is Steve Sabol," came an answer on the other end of the phone.

"Mark Blumenthal from the Palatka Daily News in Florida. Nice to finally catch up with you. How are you doing this morning?

"I'm doing fine. Making final arrangements here before heading down your way for the Super Bowl."

I asked how much time we had to talk. He was willing to give me a half hour. I wasn't sure 30 minutes was going to sufficiently be enough to hear him talk about NFL Films. What I did was put the onus on his telling of how NFL Films came about, how it evolved and what he does for Super Bowl week with the crew of cameramen and editors.

So I asked him about the very beginning and how it all came about. Steve Sabol was a fabulous football player in high school in the late 1950s and he eventually went on to Colorado College in Colorado Springs. His father pretty much taped everything he did on and off the football field, and from there, Ed Sabol had a passion to film football as a real profession. The New York Giants and Green Bay Packers were playing at Yankee Stadium in the 1962 NFL Championship and Ed Sabol was one of a handful of people who put in a bid for the game.

"There wasn't much interest in taping the 1962 NFL Championship," Steve started. "There were only four bidders. They were all separate film companies and the price for the previous year's NFL Championship (between the same two teams) was $1,500. Then my dad, who really wanted to do the taping, doubled the bid and we got it for $3,000. My mom said he was not very smart, but he didn't care and he wanted to do it."

The problem, though, according to Sabol, was his dad's lack of any big-time film work. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle took a look at Ed Sabol's resume and knew he may have had a little problem.

"Pete Rozelle was excited that someone would open the bid that high," Steve said. "Then he read my dad's resume -- under 'experience' was 'filming my 14-year-old son.' Rozelle was concerned. My dad was selling overcoats, but he could sell his passion. He wanted to make football films desperately. So over a four-martini lunch, he convinced Pete to get him to film the game and the beginning of a long relationship between Pete and my dad began."

And it was that $3,000 investment to do the '62 title game that was the start of what would be a major film industry. Meanwhile, Steve Sabol was still in Colorado, finishing up his sophomore year at Colorado College with the team's final game against Idaho State.

"My father told me, 'You've been out there and all you've done in that time is go to movies and play football,'" Sabol said. "So I quit school and came home (to New Jersey) to help him. It took two to three years to develop a style for our films. The first film we did was with John Facenda (the legendary Philadelphia-based broadcaster with the passionately deep voice) and it was shot in slow motion. It took a while to do what people recognize as 'theatrical.'"

Sabol is one of very few people who was able to attend the first 46 Super Bowls. And he has long-lasting memories of those games, including the first one at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, a game most people didn't even think was going to be close and figured to be a Packers blowout that January afternoon in 1967.

"The game was pretty hyped up," he said. "It was a carnival ... a freak show. The stadium wasn't filled because everyone thought it was going to be a 70-0 win for the Packers. There wasn't a sense of real competition, but (Packers coach) Vince Lombari was really nervous. He didn't want to play the game initially. Frank Gifford tells the story that he interviewed Lombardi before the game and that his clothing was so wet and he was shaking like a leaf. He felt if he lost, the whole Packer legacy would be ruined."

And though most people point to Super Bowl III when the New York Jets of the American Football League stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Colts at the Orange Bowl in 1969, Sabol was quick to say Super Bowl IV between the Minnesota Vikings and Chiefs in 1970 was a bigger game for a bigger reason.

"When the Jets beat the Colts the year before, everyone thought it was a fluke," Sabol said. "But in Super Bowl IV, parity was born out. The Vikings were a 14-point favorite over the Chiefs. There was no equality between the two leagues, but that game was a butt-whippin' (a 23-7 Chiefs win). (Coach) Hank Stram's Chiefs were one of the greatest teams of the modern era, but for some reason they are forgotten. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback (game MVP Len Dawson), linebacker (Bobby Bell), a great wide receiver in Otis Taylor and a fine defense headed by Buck Buchanan and Johnny Robinson."

That game highlighted the quirks and sounds of Stram, who was miked up, giving the famous lines "Keep matriculating the ball down the field Lenny," "Let me ask you something Mr. Official. How can six of you miss a call like that?" and the famous "65-toss power trap" that led to Mike Garrett scoring a touchdown and Stram yelping wildly on the sideline, repeating the scoring play over again and yelling, "Atta way boys!"

It was that 30-minute highlight real that put NFL Films and Super Bowl chronicling on the map forever. But that day at New Orleans' Tulane Stadium came at a high price. Sabol told me about the experience of being in New Orleans for the first time during the first full week of January 1970 and how awful it was.

"We had 20 rooms booked at our hotel and to show the clout the game had back then, they canceled 10 of the rooms because of a dry cleaners convention," he said vividly remembering that week as if it were only yesterday. "One of our assistant cameramen was a doctor. He got us rooms at a charity hospital, so 15 people were staying at the hospital. The worst thing that happened was our main camerman shared a room with a guy brought in because of a heart problem and the guy died in the middle of the night. The cameraman was so upset, he didn't want to shoot the game, but he took time to get over what happened and he was professional about it. However, he was still so distraught that he shot the first quarter in the wrong camera speed and didn't realize it. And that was my initial experience in New Orleans."

And Sabol minced no words when it came to New Orleans -- he wasn't a fan of the Crescent City whatsoever.

"It's a horrible place. We've been robbed three times there," Sabol said less than seven months before the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. "We had 10 (crew) people who suffered food poisoning one year. It's awful, it's seedy and it's the kind of place you'll see Lee Harvey Oswald in the corner of a bar. My hotel room was robbed and for Super Bowl XV in 1981, our equipment was stolen."

Sabol had a favorite place for Super Bowls. To him, it was a no-brainer.

"Los Angeles," he told me. "They start the game in the daytime at 3 p.m. and the Rose Bowl has a beautiful backdrop to it. The crowd blends right into the field of play. There's no sights of ambulences or forklifts in the background. L.A. is a big city that can handle the game."

But his mind wandered back to another Super Bowl in New Orleans at Tulane Stadium, the place they held the game before the Superdome was erected. It was Super Bowl IX between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Vikings, a game won by the Steelers, 16-7, for their first title on a grey, yucky day with game-time temperatures at 46 degrees.

"It was colder than what the temperature actually was," he said. "I was wearing an Air Force jacket that I had to buy two days before the game because it was so cold that week in New Orleans."

Before there was ESPN to show all those amazing Super Bowl films, Sabol and his father found various "venues" to show the artsy films the two of them made.

"I remember so distinctly the first seven, eight, nine years of NFL Films, the only way we could show games was if you were a member of the Rotary Club or the Kiwanis Club or the Elks Lodge," he said. "We do a 16-mm film and take it to various conventions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was underground film. We were strictly a mom-and-pop company. If we had a championship game (to show), you'd call to get the game and we'd bring along Frank Gifford or Don Meredith or Pat Summerall to show the film.

"Then when we got to TV, it would be shown at 6 in the morning when our audiences were milkmen, bartenders, parking-lot attendants -- people who were up late or getting up early. Then ESPN came along and spread the films out in various times and we became nationally recognized."

For the first Super Bowl, Sabol said there were 20 employees at the L.A. Coliseum to do the filming. For Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, there were over 100 people going. He told me what he did was allow the cameramen there shooting the game to be their own "artists" and to "create" their art on film.

"I was a cameraman and I don't believe in overdirection," he told me. "I talk to them briefly and then send them off to do the game. It's like sending 13 artists out there and each comes back with their own interpretation of what they see. Then, after the game, it's up to myself and editors to take the tape and present the story in an enlightening and entertaining way."

It wasn't a surprise to me that college kids wanted to make their mark shooting NFL games. And again, Steve Sabol let me in on the secret.

"To work with us, they have to work as an intern first," he said. "We must get 350 to 400 applications from people, then another 200 for internships. It's like getting into Harvard. It's flattering to get all the letters."

And with those he had on staff,  he took them under a precious wing and let them know it's OK to fail as long as they understood what it was they were doing.

"If you see them trying and they're not the best at what they do, but they get along with people, we give them a shot. It's like a football player who may not run the 40 that fast or have a great vertical leap, but if they are a good person and willing to work hard, you put them in talent coordination. It takes a while to become a talented filmmaker."

It was beyond the 30 minutes I was allotted to chat with him by now. And I heard this man talk about his passion like a big-time director would. What Scorsese, Spielberg and Cameron were to the big screen, Steve Sabol was to the small screen. And unlike those other big-time directors, Sabol never had to give a directorial cue to his "actors." I asked him if he had done anything that wasn't football-related.

"I did a film for NASA on the 10th anniversary of man landing on the moon (in 1979), and they wanted me to make the film equivalent to what it's like when the Dallas Cowboys won a big game. That was fun."

Ultimately, I heard something from Steve Sabol that I could relate to -- he couldn't really do anything else other than the craft he became famous for doing.

"I love the job of making movies, but I'm not a director that wants to expand beyond football," he said. "I'm a one-trick pony and I love football."

I could've talked to Steve Sabol into the afternoon hours about the technology that made his job better and easier over the years or about the rise of the Steelers and San Francisco 49ers dynasties or even the budding dynasty of the New England Patriots. But ultimately, he saw the clock on his wall in his office.

"I have to cut this short because I have a flight to catch," he said. "Anything else?"

"Well, one thing," I said. "How long do you see yourself doing this for?"

He wasn't hesitant about his answer one bit.

"I hope I can keep doing this as long as I'm coherent and can make good film," he said. "Picasso and Matisse painted into their 80s. I hope I can do the same thing."

And that was it. I thanked him. He was gracious in saying I was welcome. And he was off to Philly Airport to head to Jacksonville to work on the filming of Super Bowl XXXIX, a game that I eventually got to cover when my boss got double pneumonia that week. It was a heck of a thrill that I hope I'll do again in my lifetime.

I never saw Steve Sabol at the Super Bowl, but that was OK. He was busy doing what he was there to do and I was as well.

Sabol wanted to do his craft into his 80s like Picasso and Matisse. Unfortunately on September 18, 2012, he lost his 18-month battle with brain cancer, only two weeks from his 70th birthday. It gave me a chance to reflect on that late morning in February 2005 when I got to hear him talk about his passion in a 45-minute phone conversation that I no doubt could've heard all day. By the end of the conversation, I was convinced the man had a story for every occasion, no matter where he was or what audience he was in front of.

To this day, he's the most interesting sports figure I ever interviewed. It will not be the same to watch any archived NFL Films on ESPN or the NFL Network, which began broadcasting in 2005. Steve Sabol will always be the face of NFL Films, even though it was his father who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 and Steve Sabol gave the speech, even as he was fighting brain cancer, wanting badly to do that one task.

Someday, Steve Sabol will join his dad there even though he won't be able to celebrate it.

He proved to me he was a Hall of Fame person that morning. And his work will live on forever through NFL Films. Because that combined group of young and veteran cameramen and editors are as passionate and dedicated as Steve Sabol was.

And that, my friends, is one hell of a legacy to leave behind.

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