Ed Sabol, founder of NFL Films, died Monday at the age of 98. This man deserves as much credit for the NFL’s success as any other single person. That is not an exaggeration. It’s a solid fact. What he did for the NFL was make the game experience a personal affair instead of just an athletic contest. Ed Sabol had a vision to make professional football into art, one game at a time.
It has been just a couple of years since Ed Sabol’s son Steve passed away. Steve was more at the forefront of NFL Films, but both these men had a passion for the work they created. This duo helped shape the fan perception of the NFL for over 50 years. NFL Films won over 100 Emmy Awards along the way and entertained untold numbers of football fans even when there were no live games to watch.
Ed Sabol was a filmmaker who happened to love the NFL. If he had been in love with another sport, then who knows what the NFL looks like today. And who knows how another sport could have benefited from his skills. The NFL is not on top of TV ratings just because of players, coaches, and fans’ team loyalty. The brand took many years to build up. Ed Sabol’s NFL Films company helped make the viewing experience something to behold.
Today we have a ton of options to enhance our NFL watching experience. There are shows that debate the games for hours on end, along with the full morning of pre game coverage on Sundays. The NFL even has its own network that covers the league 24 hours a day. Think anyone saw that coming back in the beginning of the league when they were less popular than boxing, baseball, and even college football? Ed Sabol deserves much of the credit for bringing the NFL to the forefront of the sports world in America when it could have just as easily remained an afterthought among casual sports fans.
I have personally experienced what it’s like to have an impact on people through film work on a tiny tiny scale. A few years back, I made personalized gymnastic highlight videos for kids on my daughter’s team. I added some cool music, a few graphics, and used simple slow motion techniques that I thought looked nice. I probably subconsciously remembered those slow-mo cuts on the NFL Films I used to catch as a kid. I was told later by my wife that parents loved the gymnastic highlights I had created and that more than a few of the dads actually cried as they watched their daughter’s routine with the added music and special effects. This made me feel great about the work I had done. Getting a grown man to cry showed how impactful a film can be. I’m no Ed Sabol, as if that needs stating. I was just doing something for our gym team and wanted to do a good job. What I did on a small scale was enhance a memory for the fans of our little team. The memory was already great as we were watching our children do something they enjoyed. The video work just captured the moment and made it more memorable and special.
What I did for a handful of people, Ed Sabol did for a nation. He and his son made a nation care about NFL football in a way that trumped the other games in town. He made us cry, yell, laugh like hell, and remember the heroes and villains of the game in a more vivid way. He took an already great game and made it better by creating a story around it. It’s easy to forget a 20 – 17 game after a couple of years. A contest that was spun into a theatrical display of courage, grit, and athletic beauty will stay in one’s memory a lot longer. That’s what Ed Sabol did for the NFL. He made it stay on fans’ minds by creating work that was unforgettable. This man will be truly missed by me and anyone who loves the NFL. But his work lives on and that is the mark of a special person. Ed Sabol, unforgettable.