Near the end of every National Football League season for decades, as fatigue accelerated its woozy, inverse dance with field temperatures and the playoffs neared, the staff of NFL Films routinely faces certain hazards.
For starters, when traveling to shoot teams like the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers, or New England Patriots in their perennially inclement winter habitats, the cinematographers’ cameras often required more weather-proofing than the players. Despite that utmost precaution, the shooters’ 16-millimeter film would still occasionally freeze and snap in the camera, requiring the machines’ urgent triage during some of the most dramatic passages of the games they were entrusted to document. Even the NFL Films crews assigned to the balmy climes of San Diego or Miami or the impervious domes of New Orleans or Atlanta had to eventually schlep their footage back to the organization’s Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, headquarters, where it was hastily processed and edited for dissemination in the days, the weeks, the years and the generations to come. And then they were off again.
As long as virtually anybody ever involved with this chain remembers, one of its constants was Steve Sabol. Back when he was 19, Sabol hadn’t filmed much of anything, but his father, Ed, and a partner had successfully wheedled rights to capture footage of the 1962 NFL Championship featuring the Packers versus the New York Giants. So on a bitterly cold December afternoon, Sabol hit the sidelines of Yankee Stadium. As the wind chill chiseled the temperature to roughly 13 degrees and the television cameramen tried to keep warm with bonfires (legend has it that one actually suffered frostbite), Sabol kept rolling film. He would roll much more the next year, and more still as he and “Big Ed” further allied their production apparatus, reasonably renamed ‘NFL Films,’ with the league.
Throughout this alliance, as NFL Films developed so sizably, so assiduously, so deifically that it soon came to be known to insiders simply as “Films”—indeed, as its look and feel and sound quickly came to represent the world’s collective sense memory of pro football itself—and as every Super Bowl gestated with all its potential for exhilaration and mythological primacy, Steve Sabol liked to invoke the same steady mantra to his exhausted squad that had come to him during his first game as a cameraman.
“When the playoffs started, you’d be in the screening room with the whole company, and he’d always say, ‘Finish strong,'” recalled Greg Kohs, who served under Sabol as an NFL Films cameraman from 1990 to 2000. “And that was something that really resonated with everyone—and does today, even when you’re on a set. You’ve been shooting multiple days, and you’ve been traveling and you’re coming down the stretch, and you just don’t want to let up. And he would always say, ‘Finish strong. Finish strong.’ And that was always a phrase that everyone would recount. And as a result, the place was lit up all night long throughout the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl and into the morning because people would be there working just as hard and making sure that the shows and the films were just as great as they always were.”
Finish strong. Year after year after year. From the NFL’s days idling in the long summer shadows of America’s Pastime to its slow burn of supremacy to today’s messy $9 billion monolith that has altogether swallowed the idea of American pastime as it flirts with illegitimacy, everything about NFL Films and the league its lens made legendary reflects Sabol’s half-century of vision and genius and inducements, right up to the morning of September 18, 2012, when Steve Sabol died.
The Sabols, père et fils, inhabit a narrative as ubiquitous as the NFL itself. You have likely seen or simply glimpsed it told and retold, repackaged and repurposed, a variety of ways in the days since Steve Sabol’s death last week, which followed an 18-month battle with brain cancer. It’s an easy, even intoxicating narrative to impart, with a charismatic subject at its center and 50 years’ worth of dramatic footage from which to assemble a punchy, poignant broadcast obituary.
That narrative is not especially important for our purposes, but for the record, its components can generally be enumerated this way:
1. The Sabols married myth and media in ways that professional sports had never seen, crafting rich stories from games, teams, individuals and other seasonal phenomena captured on film.
2. Through decades of hard work and innovation, Steve Sabol “changed the way” we look at pro football, winning 35 Emmy Awards for writing, directing, production, editing and cinematography.
3. NFL Films thrived first and foremost as a public-relations and marketing wing of the NFL.
4. The NFL’s cultural dominance is rooted deep in its conquest of television and video markets, facilitated in large part by the league’s investment in and the painstaking archival processes of NFL Films.
Whatever. This is all true and at the same time completely irrelevant to the image-making prowess and unalloyed class at the core of NFL Films’ success and Steve Sabol’s creative life. He was one of the most respected, honored and successful visual storytellers of his generation and yet somehow, simultaneously, one of the most influential and gracious filmmakers of the last 50 years to fly almost completely under the critical cognoscenti’s radar. Although many in and around Hollywood took notice: When Sabol wasn’t inspiring directors from Sam Peckinpah to Ron Howard with his slow-motion montages of gridiron trench warfare, he was responding to job inquiries from recent college graduates with handwritten postcards signed, “Thanx, Steve.” He hosted a motivational pre-Super Bowl breakfast and often celebrated his crews’ failures, just to remind them to take risks worthy of their subjects. He built and trained a staff of 300 people and never forgot how to do every one of their jobs. And when those staffers left Mt. Laurel to purvey these talents independently and develop legacies of their own, Sabol often remained their biggest fan.
“Last time I saw him, five or six weeks ago, we spent the time talking about my latest film,” said Jonathan Hock, the acclaimed documentary filmmaker (Through the Fire, The Lost Son of Havana) who got his start as a Films editor in 1987 and remained close to Sabol after leaving in 1995. “The things about it that he liked and how great this moment was or how well the music worked here or there—he would find all the things he liked about it. I could see that even though I wasn’t doing it for NFL Films, that NFL Films was so intertwined with his identity that he nurtured me, he taught me. Everything I am as a filmmaker is from him. And now that I’m doing it on my own and not for him, it was no less a source of pride for him.”
To the extent Sabol’s magnanimity and humor were facets of his identity, his identity was a facet of his art. And Sabol’s art was utterly immutable, the stuff of fabulist omniscience and steroidal romance and violence and propaganda and such aesthetic authority that it seemed to emerge fully formed from behind his unwavering brown eyes.
He was the kid from Moorestown, N.J., who, rejected by Harvard, sought and achieved a sort of fortune in the West by parlaying his lack of playing time on the Colorado College football team into a self-made legend: that of a character he named Sudden Death Sabol, the pugnaciously publicized pride of Possum Trot1, Miss.2 He took out newspaper ads and cut radio spots and issued press releases extolling his gridiron talents, up to and including dashing off challenges to unbeaten teams like Concordia who, duly antagonized, proceeded to target Sabol on the field and literally penalize themselves into defeat. The reality of it all was far different: As Sabol told Tom Brody of Sports Illustrated in 1965, when the 170-pound freshman first showed up in Colorado Springs, “the coach looked at me as if I were a side dish he hadn’t ordered.” Nevertheless, Sabol eventually bulked up and genuinely developed as both a punter (averaging nearly 40 yards per kick) and fullback (averaging more than four yards per carry), earning All Rocky Mountain Conference honors before surrendering much of this bulk and development to hepatitis in the summer of 1964.
When Brody caught up with him, the Pride of Possum Trot had reconditioned. He was also sharing word of his latest passion: a desire to enliven the public perception of pro football alongside his father Ed, the upstart “who produces the official color films of the National Football League’s championship games”:
“Football is such a great game,” says Sabol, “but football players are so dull. I remember this one pregame film showing Mike Ditka demolishing some guy. Now, this is a great player. He’s brutal. So do you know what he says when the commentator asks him to say something about the play? He sort of paws the ground, drops his head and says, ‘Ah, I was lucky.’ Now, surely after a guy makes a great play like Ditka did he can come up with something more colorful than that. Maybe they’ll let me write stuff for the players and get them to say it on the shows. You know what I’d have Ditka say? ‘Look at him. He’s still breathing!’ or something real colorful like that.”
It’s difficult today to imagine Mike Ditka lacking for color, or to contemplate an NFL mired in a moody firmament of players so laconic and boring that a league employee would think nothing of venting to the world’s most widely-circulated sports magazine about their dullness. It’s even more difficult to imagine an era when these dynamics were susceptible to transcendence—when the moving and, yes, breathing aura of the Professional Athlete retained enough accessibility that an outsider could easily plug into and permute this aura on film.
Yet such are the fundamental qualities we ascribe to pop artists of the era from which Steve Sabol emerged and to which he unquestionably belongs. If Andy Warhol could make his reputation drawing shoes and extrapolate artistic merit from the most quotidian of supermarket staples, it hardly seems coincidental to read in Brody’s story a description of Sabol’s oversized Colorado Springs apartment where framed Sudden Death iconography shared wall space with “paintings of The Phantom, Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician,” or to consider Sabol’s lament at watching Ditka “paw the ground”—paw the ground!—as less a disappointment than some kind of monumental creative challenge.
To the Fearless Tot from Possum Trot, football’s languor was hardly a byproduct of its inferiority. It simply meant that people hadn’t yet seen or heard it the right way—or, more precisely, they hadn’t seen and heard it the way Steve Sabol did. They hadn’t seen the vapors emanating from the hulks on the frozen tundra3 of Lambeau Field—white exhalations writhing over a muddy line of scrimmage, or steam lifting volcanically from shorn scalps on the sidelines. They hadn’t thought to decelerate these emanations for the sakes of both clarity and drama, or to slow down every pass, rush, field goal or pulverizing body blow and tackle into gorgeous atomic oblivion. They hadn’t considered or anticipated Sabol’s abridgments—full games neatly edited into compact stories, a gulf of big plays roiling between close-ups of enemy shorelines, annihilated bodies choreographed into compact pas de deux of grace and violence. They hadn’t seen the eyes widened and mouths agape in ecstasy and vexation, or, alternatively, in the regularly produced “Football Follies” series, the absurd chaos of 22 men chasing an especially elusive fumbled ball around the field in the romantic, expressive slow-motion with which a cameraman had initially intended to capture an exciting play-action pass or kickoff return or even a garden-variety punt.
Nor had they heard the game appropriately. They had barely heard the game at all beyond the sound bites and marble-mouthed platitudes so lamented by Sabol, who had stood by with his silent camera and listened first-hand to the exhortations of Vince Lombardi and eavesdropped on fourth-quarter offensive collusions and gleaned poetry from the stamping of cleats over autumn wind (sometimes literally4). They hadn’t heard the music underlying these epics. They hadn’t heard narrators relate the gist of the games before them—hyperdoses of context often written by Sabol himself—with a kind of unearthly intensity that made other narration seem like a whimper by comparison.
“The story was the king, and the character was the story,” Hock told me. “I think that’s what maybe some people miss when trying to appreciate Steve Sabol’s influence. They talk about the orchestral music, and they talk about the slow-motion close-up cinematography, and all that is true. But what was at the core of that was empathy for the subject of the film. It wasn’t just a beautiful image of two football players close-in, 96 frames a second, hand-to-hand combat at the line of scrimmage. It was a presentation of a human being struggling with a purpose—with a goal. That provided America with an understanding of professional football player in a way that it had never had before. And that’s why it worked.”
And yet, as with the footage of fumbles and aestheticized sloppiness, viewers also hadn’t heard the deep currents of comedy leavening the game’s proceedings. They hadn’t yet been exposed to what happened when Sudden Death Sabol was left in the editing room late at night when the adults had left the building: For all the power we attribute to Sam Spence or Dave Robidoux’s score compositions and John Facenda’s seminal “Voice of God” narration, the breadth of Sabol’s vision is arguably best distilled by men like Abe Gibron, the erstwhile Chicago Bears coach—and Sabol hero—whose grudging acquiescence to wear a wireless microphone for NFL Films resulted in one of the funniest, boldest, most intelligently crafted documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Insofar as America had watched men play and coach and withstand and defy and survive this game of football, it had not watched them within this sort of framework. It had not watched them—and thus ourselves, fans and casual viewers alike—win like this.
Understanding how and why the NFL Films machine works means knowing about more than the Sabol engine and the symbiosis between the league and its production house’s most classic output. It means knowing how and why Films corralled such searing footage as victorious Jets quarterback Joe Namath wagging his finger in slow-motion en route to the tunnel after Super Bowl III in 1969, or Franco Harris’ wrenching, controversial “Immaculate Reception” of 1972 that seemingly reversed the Pittsburgh Steelers’ playoff fortunes once and for all, or Dwight Clark’s famous 1982 touchdown catch (i.e. “The Catch”) that became the symbolic cornerstone of the San Francisco 49ers’ championship dynasty. It means knowing how and why these moments and others like them can be repeatedly captured time and again.
Around Films, they know Donald Marx a few different ways. Mostly he’s Donnie, who, like Sabol, picked up cinematography somewhat by accident after his father got mixed up shooting National Football League games in the 60s. (“We were testing a brand-new camera at a preseason game; my father was in charge of making sure it was being tested. I said, ‘Can I go shoot it?'”) Marx is also one of the organization’s foremost essayers of the “OH GOD!” shot, a classification conceived by Sabol and his film loggers for any game footage of such artistry that the viewer cannot help but to give in to its pulse-quickening splendor. On paper, Marx’s approach is nothing fancy: He takes out the same Arri SR3 16-millimeter camera that he’s used for a decade and a half, with the customized viewfinder that crosses his face—right shoulder to left eye. He loads in 17 or 18 magazines containing 400 feet of film each, and cranks the shooting speed up to 120 frames per second. This produces roughly one mile of celluloid per game, featuring action that unfolds five times slower when played back in the standard 24 frames per second. The rest is mostly placement and timing: Maybe 30 yards downfield on a third-and-long, so that the likely pass play ideally culminates in a catch 10 yards in front of him. Or 20 yards downfield on first and 10, or in the corner of the end zone as the offense drives toward a touchdown.5
But that’s just technique. The trick—the “OH GOD!” stuff, the NFL Films stuff, the legacy stuff—is in the Zoom.
“You try to bring your own talent out; you try to shoot it your own way,” Marx explained. “That’s basically what Steve Sabol’s always preached. And that’s the difference between us and a lot of people. We’re all individual storytellers, and we all shoot with our own style. We’re not being told to shoot head-to-toe, and we’re not told to cover—just in case the quarterback gets hit. I could be in too tight, and maybe I miss the hit, but I get a different dramatic look at the hit. We’re all being our own storytellers.”
For example, Marx was crouched in the corner of the University of Phoenix Stadium end zone on Feb. 3, 2008, when, with 35 seconds remaining in Super Bowl XLII, Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress caught the touchdown pass from Eli Manning that defeated the heavily favored, unbeaten Patriots. Burress’ catch was not the most memorable reception of the game; it wasn’t even the most memorable reception of the fourth quarter—David Tyree’s helmet-top, fingertip miracle is generally regarded as holding that distinction.6 Yet for sheer, cinematic indelibility, the Burress catch is without peer, and this owes entirely to the Zoom: As if he were filming some magnificent Hollywood stunt or explosion, Marx had one chance to zoom in on Manning fielding the snap at the New England 14 yard line (roughly 40 yards from the camera), hold his focus on the football leaving Manning’s hand, gradually zoom out and adjust the focus as the ball spiraled toward him, and complete the shot with a wide-angle view of Burress torching cornerback Ellis Hobbs on a fade route and catching the pass in the end zone, maybe 15 yards in front of Marx.
By comparison, a brief aside: In his memoir Making Movies, the late, honorary Oscar-winning filmmaker Sidney Lumet recounts all that went into one shot of the train leaving the station in Murder on the Orient Express—the logistical contortions contrived by himself, his cinematographer, his camera operator, his focus puller, his lighting crew and the gang of professionals who took all day just to figure out how to zoom in on a passenger car’s logo as it came and went. Thirty-four years later on a sideline in Glendale, Arizona, Marx had less than a minute to set up and six seconds—720 frames—to shoot using essentially the same filmmaking principles. By himself. In slow motion.
On the one hand, he’d had years of practice: It is Marx’s shot, the “OH GOD!” Special that Sabol so heartily encouraged and which he, the entire NFL Films crew and, perhaps more subconsciously, their millions of viewers came to expect, Super Bowl after Super Bowl. He honed the shot from experience as a high-school football player himself, a defensive end who got the jump on plays by learning to read a quarterback’s eyes. Still, on the other hand, the shot becomes only so much easier even with practice, if only because the plays and those undertaking them don’t get any slower or more predictable. They, too, are moving parts for which NFL Films has refined ways to infuse and amplify drama and pathos and gladiator brutality but who have yet to betray their secrets for the convenience of film crews chasing them up and down the field. The cameras may not freeze indoors, and the film stock may whir by unimpeded, but every shot remains its own challenge—an instinctive exponent of some would-be masterstroke that some coach and his team have conjured to win a championship.
Thus this and every shot is a cool commitment to the NFL fever dream. This is Donnie Marx finishing strong.
“The minute the ball left his hand, the first thing that went through my mind was, ‘OK, I don’t know where any of the players are on the field,'” Marx recalled to me when we spoke in 2008, a few months after the Super Bowl. I had been working on a project that would eventually take me to the sidelines at Giants Stadium with Marx and his wife Bea, who swapped exposed film for new stock at her makeshift workstation near the tunnel. It was opening night of the regular season, and there, I would see how deceptively easy Marx and two other Films crews made their jobs look.
“The first thing in my mind was, ‘Hang in there,'” Marx said. “Because sometimes those passes go right to the corner, and that’s where I could get clobbered. But because I shoot the ball so tight,7 I really have no relationship with where the ball is and players are. So I pulled out a little earlier than I normally would on a ball like that, and I saw I had plenty of room, and Plaxico Burress just settled in under it. But the first thing that went through my mind was, ‘Release, how far is that ball going, and is there a defensive back charging to break it up and he’s going to run right into me.’ I had no idea he was that wide open. I was just on the ball. And that’s kind of the good and the bad, because there are fans who don’t like to see that ball in the air because you don’t see the guy fall down. But in our case, in telling the story, we have other cameras that show that somebody slipped. So again, it’s weaving together not just my vision of the story, but the top camera or the iso camera.8
“There were complaints of, ‘Why do you always show such a tight shot of the spiral? We can’t see what happened.’ Well, we have the other angles, and we do show them once in a while depending on the enormity of the game. It’s just my style.”
Nobody knows what shots or angles or coverage or anything anyone has, though, until the film arrives back in Mt. Laurel, where it is processed and digitized and where generations of shooters have spent bleary-eyed Mondays looking over editors’ shoulders at their harvest.
“Every Monday morning was like Christmas morning for the editors at NFL Films,” Jonathan Hock, the documentary maker, said, “because you would get to look at pristine virgin footage that nobody had seen yet from an NFL Films cameraman. And you were the one who was going to go through it and find those ‘OH GOD!’ shots. And when you would find one—it was usually the slow-motion, incredible shot of a running back coming through the line and knocking a tackler down, or the trademark ball spiraling through the air, and Donnie Marx zooming out just in time to see the touchdown and the toe coming down just inside the sideline—those moments were so thrilling. You knew that this was this was how this moment was going to be remembered forever. This was the image that people would have for all time of this moment in time that happened—when this person did that amazingly great thing, and in an instant, we got it. We got it! That’s how you felt.”
Whatever sense of glee and propriety one ever “felt” over what one “got” is mitigated only somewhat by the reality that it was all “felt” and “got” for the glory of the NFL—that all the access and expertise applied in its procural translated to A) the property of a faceless $9 billion sports league and B) the achievement of predominantly anonymous craftsmen behind said faceless sports league’s cameras and editing desks. Even as weekly and annual deadlines loom for clip packages to air on “Inside the NFL,” “NFL Films Presents” (nèe “This is the NFL”), “Hard Knocks” and each team’s season “yearbook,” the commissioner’s office in New York routinely reviews Films footage for on- and off-field infractions and aberrations worthy of fines, warnings, follow-ups or other disciplinary attention. In 2003, the advent of the NFL Network in 2003 triggered year-round demand for both contemporary and historical pro football coverage—even more perennial promotion for the league. This had Sabol and his team off to the archives, where they mined material from the thousands of miles of Films logged in over the decades. The need for content was such that Films series like “NFL Top 10” broke new ground in snark, with episodes ranking the worst teams or worst free-agent signings ever, or the biggest pro-coaching failures who should have stayed college.9
Yet the collective effort and individual styles and concomitant history that grew out of Steve Sabol’s vision are no less complex or valuable just because they pad millionaire mythologies or conveniently fill time on the NFL’s namesake channel and other licensees’ airwaves. Their fundamental mission hasn’t changed since contemporary cable broadcasting (the all-inclusive NFL “Sunday Ticket” package in particular) has eliminated the wait for NFL fans to see formerly Films-exclusive highlights and recaps from outside their market, or since networks like FOX and ESPN endeavored to adapt the Films style in live games—tinkering with high-definition cameras and computer effects until they yielded, in instant replays and commercial cutaways, the same sweat-slick linebackers exulting in slow-motion over sacked quarterbacks, or those same quarterbacks skulking away from the scene, shaking their heads in close-up. The fact remains that these are postmodern exercises in American image worship, handmade and preserved the same way for 50 years by skilled workers under the auspices of a league for which every snap, every pass, every hit, every fumble wields sumptuous visual portent. And from the fetishized brutality of “NFL: Moment of Impact”10 right down to the ageless satire of “Football Follies”—Sudden Death’s reminder of the flaws rife within his beloved game’s glossy veneer—these workers uphold an equally ageless duty to make a viewer feel football. This is not broadcasting. This is filmmaking. This is art.
“Some people grew up watching NFL Films as kids,” cameraman Greg Kohs said. “I don’t remember watching it as a kid. I just remember watching a show late at night when I was working in South Bend after graduating. I was like, ‘Holy shit! Who made that? That’s where I wanna go.’ That’s kind of when I figured out what I wanted to do as a filmmaker: I wanted to make a goose bump. That’s what I told him when I reached out to Steve at NFL Films: ‘I want to learn to make a goose bump. I want to come to work for you.’ I feel like that’s what Steve did better than anyone. In Hollywood, anywhere. He didn’t need big lights and cranes and pyro and smoke and movie stars or whatever it is. He just needed a camera, a great piece of music and some really clever words, and he was able to craft amazing stories to make goose bumps. The goose bump is what I remember about Steve.”
In strictly scientific terms, the concepts of “before” and “after” are immune to hyperbole. The most emphatic characterization we can even muster for the origins of our universe is that of a “big” bang. Likewise, when parsing Big Ed’s entrepreneurial vision or Steve’s technical genius or some hybrid ratio of father and son as the league’s original force of creative nature, the psychic impact of the Sabol Way on forming, structuring and reinforcing the $9 billion NFL cosmos we know today cannot really be overstated. There was the primordial, ground-pawing sports media of the long era preceding NFL Films, and then there was a juggernaut: Steve Sabol’s color, assayed in images worthy of movie theaters, bringing the sport to life.
At the same time, amid the cascade of encomia and flashbacks, the success of NFL Films’ more diverse stylistic heirs—ESPN’s terrific “30 For 30” documentaries, for starters, or Major League Baseball’s “Hard Knocks” knockoff “The Franchise”—prove that the elements of football do not necessarily lend themselves to dramatic storytelling more than any other sport. It has characters and toil and drama and humor, but it’s no more intrinsically engrossing than what happens on a baseball diamond, soccer pitch or in a hockey rink.11 Live games were often slow and plodding even before the NFL struck deals with broadcasters that stuffed games full of blaring, vaguely watchable commercials for beer, automobiles, fast food, and insurance. There is also a case to be made against the abject theatricality that Films helped make safe for the likes of Hank Williams Jr., whose tuneless intro to ABC’s “Monday Night Football” squeal-queried for years, “Are you ready for some football?” before giving way to Faith Hill’s even baser “I’ve been waitin’ all day for Sunday night!” lead-in for “Sunday Night Football.” If the goal in 1962 was to minimize the amount of shit that football fans had to eat en route to seeing and tasting what was at the heart of this vastly commercialized and commodified game, then the unabated, bustling CGI steampunk robot tailgate hoo-ha that pervades today’s network telecasts only seems to obstruct that pursuit. Instead of ingesting and luxuriating in Sabol’s artfulness, we reel glassy-eyed within the heightened technobombast of Planet NFL, a hermetically sealed, self-contained television world with all the elegance and class of the Death Star.
Moreover, as long as Steve Sabol had a creative stake in the perception of pro football, he imbued the proceedings with an artistic vision and passion that compensated for the league’s compulsive boorishness and dysfunction. If you really want to see the industrial influence of NFL Films, look no further than this season’s newly resolved contract impasse between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL Referees Association. The league had locked the referees out of officiating games until their dispute was settled, replacing the veteran officials with interim referees whose month-long succession of missed calls culminated this week in their awarding a win to a team that actually lost. Even President Obama spoke out, calling it “terrible.” Still, for at least 24 hours, Goodell and the NFL defended the indefensible until they simply couldn’t—until they encountered an objective truth that they could not just hype away or ignore. They settled with the referees union when they could no longer hold fast to the only leverage they ever had: the league’s ubiquity and resiliency under even the most appalling conditions. Cardinal among these conditions is that we NFL fans will watch the games regardless of how boring or lopsided or larded with Corona commercials they get. We will watch virtually despite ourselves, gathering our families and friends around the television no matter how many elite players rape women or electrocute dogs or drive drunk or shoot themselves in the leg at nightclubs or pool their money to reward the most devastating hits on opponents or end their days concussed and broken and suicidal. Bad, even dangerous officiating seems quite the peccadillo against this kind of spiritual corrosion—a mere economic formality beyond our limited understanding.
But what Goodell banked on throughout the referee debacle is precisely what his front-office forefather Pete Rozelle banked on 50 years ago when, at the apex of media combat with the rival American Football League, he convinced the NFL’s franchise owners to pony up $20,000 apiece to turn Big Ed Sabol’s production company into NFL Films: The entire phenomenon is beyond our understanding. It just needs to be contextualized as such.
The narrative on the field—the ugly, halting, clumsy and occasionally breathtaking drama that more than a million total passive spectators will watch live in a stadium every week—has been made utterly secondary to the narrative that up to a billion total active viewers will seek elsewhere on various screens for days or years to come. Indeed, having perfected this latter narrative as the one that NFL fans, advertisers and even its players visualize in their ruminations on the game, the league could not blink its showdown with a cabal of wayward referees. Blinking would imply that the disagreement is about money—as opposed to the more recondite matter of the league’s Integrity, whose steadfastly mythologized genetic makeup must remain impervious to such déclassé considerations as “money” every time a major contract issue rolls around. If they gave in to the refs, then surely FOX and/or the NFL Players Association would be next, and then how imperturbable and bold would the NFL look?
A myth, though, is not the same thing as a lie. Perhaps the greatest irony, especially in a period so rich with genuflections for Steve Sabol and NFL Films, is that the ambivalence with which the league imposed such outmatched replacement referees on the game is anathema to Sabol’s ceaseless striving toward excellence and quality control. Maybe the controversy was all one of Sudden Death Sabol’s ruses from the start, a tongue-in-cheek summertime gambit set in motion when nobody was watching. In any case, NFL Films survives Sabol as the last remnant of a sports era when anything seemed possible—when an inherently flawed and paranoid corporate empire would invest millions of dollars in documentaries, when professional athletes’ performances carried as much weight as their personas, when the most influential and lucrative nonfiction storytelling coming out of New Jersey didn’t have to star Snooki to get a green light, when a kid who just wanted to play football and watch movies could recognize and exploit the perfectly imperfect nature of his favorite game to become one of the most accomplished filmmakers America ever produced. Talk about finishing strong.
“The guys who still work with him week-to-week at Films…” Hock said, emotion tripping up his breath. “The emptiness is going to be there a long time. For a guy to be the greatest ever at what he did, and to be such a kind and generous person in every way? There are not many of those among us, I think. What a loss that he’s not here any more.”
1 Before Sabol ever pushed the cinematographic envelope, he pushed that of chronic alliteration.
2 Sudden Death initially hailed from non-existent Coaltown Township, Pa., which soon gave way to the very much existent Possum Trot if only because, as Sabol later explained, “Now, who could ignore anyone from a place called Possum Trot?” (Somewhat deflatingly, the very much existent towns of Possum Trot are found only in Texas and Kentucky.)
3 Sabol’s New York Times obituary reports that he originated the famous term “frozen tundra,” now commonly used to describe the Packers’ home turf in winter, in 1967 after the field’s new, much-touted underground heating system failed.
4 Sabol’s admittedly hammy poem “The Autumn Wind” accompanied the Oakland Raiders’ yearbook film in 1974; it is notorious today as perhaps the only thing besides NFL officiating crews to ever make Raiders owner Al Davis cry.
5 During indoor and/or night games, because high-speed filmmaking requires higher volumes of light to maintain the continuity of its subjects’ motion, and because there’s only so much you can do with aperture alone, Marx must also suss out optimal angles and sources for illumination.
6 Footage of the Tyree catch actually showcased some of NFL Films’ other best-known hallmarks, such as reverse-angle coverage, sideline- and field-reaction shots, and radio-broadcast sound overdubs.
7 Among the most endearing and enduring (and possibly true) legends to orbit Steve Sabol’s NFL Films is Marx’s tendency, from a distance, to shoot so close-up on the football that you can read the commissioner’s signature.
8 “Top camera” = Field view, also known as the “Tree.” “Iso camera” = An isolated shot of one player or situation inside the field view, e.g. the one capturing the despondent Hobbs returning to the Patriots bench after surrendering the winning touchdown to Burress.
9 Incidentally, Sabol thought very highly of the act of failure—the bigger, the better—and dedicated an annual prize to the cameraman responsible for what he determined to be the season’s most valiant attempt at a shot that gave way to its most spectacular cinematographic failure. “I never did win that,” Kohs told me. “But I tried.”
11 Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have launched their own video production wings in recent years—also influenced by the NFL—but could you imagine what a Donnie Marx could do with guys like Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin? Before the NHL succumbs to labor armageddon, the least we all deserve is to see the Zoom deployed on Martin St. Louis.