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Happy ending for pro football's ultimate storyteller

Professional football is America's most popular sport and the Super Bowl is its biggest event of the year. Ed Sabol helped make that happen.

It was the visionary Sabol who founded NFL Films in 1962 and forever changed the way football is watched. He took a violent game and turned it into an art form, a bloody ballet performed in the snow and mud by 300-pound men in helmets and pads.

The NFL always had a history, but Ed Sabol gave it a mythology. Every memorable image -- from the fearsome scowl of Dick Butkus to the graceful leaps of Lynn Swann -- is preserved in the vaults of NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J. Now, Sabol is immortalized as a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2011.

"When I started, I wanted us to be storytellers," Sabol said. "Each game, each team's season, each league season, is like a book. It's our job to bring that book to life."

Sabol's company did exactly that and did it in a style that now is widely imitated, yet remains unique. In a cluttered TV landscape, the work of NFL Films stands out. The photography, the sound, the music; it is as powerful today as it was when Sabol first introduced it almost a half century ago.

NFL Films does more than just show people pro football. Its cameras and microphones take the viewer inside the game. They put you eyeball-to-eyeball with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis; they put you in the huddle with Peyton Manning; they shove your face in the snow in Green Bay; they make you feel what it's like on the field.

In Super Bowl IV, Sabol convinced Hank Stram, the Kansas City coach, to wear a wireless microphone. No one had ever dared to try such a thing, but Sabol talked Stram into it.

"Hank," he said, "this isn't just a football game. This is history."

The result was an unforgettable portrait of a strutting Stram watching his Chiefs defeat the Minnesota Vikings, 24-7, as he orchestrated every move and gloated at his success. ("Just keep matriculating that ball down the field, boys," he cackled). It was a ground-breaking moment in TV sports. Now, live sound is everywhere.

The networks can provide the highlights, the replays and the "Hi, Mom" shots, but they cannot take you into the coaches' booth and the trenches the way NFL Films does. Television delivers the facts, but Films packs the emotion. People who wouldn't know a draw play from a drop-kick enjoy the work of NFL Films because it is not bogged down in statistics and jargon.

A typical NFL Films piece will open with the pounding of kettle drums and a close-up of, say, Tom Brady calling signals. He is breathing steam through his face mask. His gunfighter eyes scan the field in slow-motion, the music swells and just like that, you're hooked. Even if you know how the game turned out, even if you were in the stands, you keep watching because you never saw it quite like this.

NFL Films has come a long way from 1962 when Sabol, who was then an overcoat salesman in Philadelphia, bid $3,000 of his own money to secure the rights to film the NFL championship game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.

At the time, Sabol had only a 16-millimeter Bell and Howell camera which he received as a wedding gift in 1941 and his only experience in filming football was shooting his son Steve's high school games. But Sabol -- he was a salesman, remember -- convinced NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to give him a chance.

With a few sidekicks, including Steve, Sabol shot the title game, which the Packers won 16-7 at Yankee Stadium. There were all sorts of problems -- as the film turned brittle in the frigid weather, several camera lenses cracked, Sabol himself spent part of the day in the bathroom with a nervous stomach -- yet, the final product, "Pro Football's Longest Day," was a triumph.

Rozelle gave the film a gala premiere at Toots Shor's restaurant in New York City. The response was overwhelming. The ground-level cameras, the slow-motion shots, music heightening the drama; it was a revelation. Rozelle convinced the 14 team owners to kick in $20,000 apiece to create the company originally called Blair Motion Pictures (named after Ed's daughter) and now known as NFL Films.

Since that time, pro football has soared in popularity, far surpassing baseball, the long-time king, and all other sports. I would argue it is because pro football has NFL Films and the other sports do not. Sabol's company -- which has grown from six original employees to 250 today with Steve Sabol as president -- makes the game and the men who play it seem larger-than-life.

The NFL Films influence extends beyond the playing field all the way to Hollywood. Oscar-winning directors such as Oliver Stone and Ron Howard have credited NFL Films for helping to shape their style of movie-making.

"NFL Films had a real impact on the way movies get made, particularly montages," said Howard, who won an Academy Award as best director for the film, "A Beautiful Mind." "Lots of different images, images on top of images, using slow-motion combined with the live action, the hard-hitting sound effects, it's very powerful. You juxtapose that with the incredible music and it creates a really emotional experience for the viewer.

"They made us better fans because they allowed us to appreciate it," Howard said. "You do begin to see the awesome athletic ability of the players. It blows me away."

Ed Sabol did not have such grandiose thoughts when he turned his old Bell and Howell camera on pro football for the first time. He just knew he loved the game, had a love of film and thought, if done properly, it could be a beautiful marriage.

"This is a great game for the TV screen," he said, "but it is even better for the wide-screen movie screen. The field is shaped like one. This game is made for a movie camera."

He was so right.

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