Ed Sabol, 98, the passionate Philadelphian whose obsession with home movies developed into a business that helped transform professional football into America's preeminent sport, died Monday at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The man everyone called "Big Ed" founded NFL Films in 1964, just two years after he bought the rights to the 1962 NFL championship for $5,000.
He headed that company, now headquartered in Mount Laurel, from 1964 to 1995, during which time NFL Films won 52 Emmy Awards.
Mr. Sabol changed the way football was filmed and how it was viewed. In his enormous hands, the previously mundane task of filming sporting events became an art form as he layered on music, dramatic and literate narration, and a romantic point of view.
"He decided," his son, Steve, now deceased, said in 2009, "that we'd make a film and not an instant replay."
He was elected to Pro Football's Hall of Fame in 2011.
Mr. Sabol was born in Atlantic City on Sept. 11, 1916, but his family moved to Philadelphia shortly afterward.
Except for the fact that it provided him with a great vantage point for Mummers Parades, he had little interest in the tire store his father operated on South Broad Street.
Mr. Sabol loved sports and was just as fanatical about anything he took up. He made himself a nationally known swimmer, earning an alternate's spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team. But he dreamed of something else, a career in show business.
A natural ham, he worked briefly with the comic Ritz Brothers - cut-rate Marx Brothers clones - and had a role in an Oscar Hammerstein-produced Broadway play.
"I went to Broadway to try to get on stage," Sabol recalled in 2006. "I never attended any dramatic school, but I always enjoyed appearing in front of groups of people and trying to be funny. I was lucky enough to get a part. . . . It lasted all of three weeks and closed. That was the extent of my theatrical career."
The play was titled Where Do We Go From Here? The answer, for him, was marriage and the Army during World War II, the latter something he seldom discussed.
Mr. Sabol's father-in-law, Jacob Siegel, ran an overcoat business. For 15 years, the younger man was a successful but uninspired apprentice.
"We made men's topcoats and overcoats," he said mockingly, "of the finest woolen fabrics available."
A hobby and an obsession
Mr. Sabol immersed himself in his hobbies. He bought horses, learned to play tennis, became a pilot and eventually developed the passion that would rule the rest of his life, photography.
"He has such an overwhelming joy of life," Steve Sabol, his NFL Films partner, said in 2011. "He would have one hobby after another and would pursue them all with fervor. . . . It all goes back to living your dreams and following bliss. Don't hold back."
He found his bliss in 1941. That year, as a wedding gift, Mr. Sabol received a 16-millimeter, windup Bell & Howell camera from his mother-in-law, Fritzy Siegel.
Fascinated with the device, he took it with him wherever he went, filming parties, graduations, Sunday dinners, all of his two children's activities, and, especially, his own cornball comic shtick.
"My father's hobby was himself on film," his daughter, Blair, noted in an NFL Films documentary on his career, Ed Sabol: The King of Football Films.
Steve Sabol said, "It seemed like all we ever saw was that camera sitting on his shoulders. I didn't know my father had a head. . . . We have the greatest collection of home movies. Dad filmed every graduation, every birthday, every vacation, every pony ride."
Eventually, the hobby became an obsession. He learned the rudiments of filming football by shooting Steve's games at Haverford School. That school's field, since 2009, has borne Mr. Sabol's name.
The overcoat business was sold in the 1950s and with the windfall Mr. Sabol bought a Mercedes-Benz and a Main Line house with a pool. But he used part of the money to start a film company.
Blair Films was named for his daughter, who had been named for the New Jersey school he had attended, Blair Academy. The business nearly foundered immediately, surviving on industrial work and birthday parties.
But in 1962, after learning that another Philadelphia-area company, TelRa Productions, had bought the rights to the 1961 NFL championship for $2,500, he bid $5,000 and was awarded that year's title game.
Mr. Sabol said the price kept doubling every year afterward, so in 1964 he went to Pete Rozelle. Not revealing that the higher rights fees were becoming a financial burden, he convinced the NFL commissioner that the growing league needed its own film company.
"I told him I even had a name," he said. "NFL Films."
Rozelle, who had succeeded Bert Bell as commissioner in 1959, agreed. League headquarters soon moved from Bala Cynwyd to Manhattan, and Rozelle sensed that in NFL Films, he had a potential marketing bonanza worthy of New York City.
In 1964, the commissioner asked owners to purchase the business from Sabol. They rejected that initial proposal but a year later agreed to do so, providing the filmmaker with $12,000 and orders for highlight reels for each of the 14 teams.
"That's when it became NFL Films," said Steve Sabol. "Right away, we needed more space. Jerry Wolman, who owned the Eagles then, knew my father and told him he had this old telephone company building on 13th Street. He said we could use it and pay him whatever rent we could. . . . Jerry Wolman's a real unsung hero of NFL Films."
The staff and the workload grew quickly. Mr. Sabol encouraged innovation. Cameramen and sound technicians pushed the envelope when they fanned out around the country each Sunday. And, on 13th Street, so did the editors and producers.
"There was no satellite," said Stan Leshner, a retired producer. "We had to put film cans on planes and get them back here quick as possible. Security was lax back then, and sometimes we'd just hand it to a pilot to get it here."
Through it all, Mr. Sabol resisted the urge to move his booming enterprise from the Philadelphia area.
"Rozelle said, 'No, you guys are the romanticists, the storytellers. You don't need to be in New York, where it's about contracts and lawyers and litigation. Stay where you are. Keep your distance,' " Steve Sabol recalled in 2009.
"This was a perfect place for us. Philadelphia was known for its passionate sports fans, and my dad and I were two. There were announcers like John Facenda here. And before us there was a [sports film production] company called TelRa here. We weren't far from New York, Washington, and Pittsburgh, and we were close to the airport."
But by 1981, it had outgrown the space and relocated to its current location in Mount Laurel.
Vision and perseverance
Its evolution into an iconic cultural institution, his children insisted, owed as much to Mr. Sabol's vision as his perseverance. And the NFL can thank those same qualities.
The owners loved NFL Films, former Eagles general manager Jim Murray noted, because it could make bad teams look good.
"We had some bad teams when I was there," Murray said, "but NFL Films could take our two highlights, get John Facenda to announce them, and make us look like Super Bowl contenders."
Mr. Sabol spiced up mundane game films with a showman's flair - adding stirring scores, dramatic voice-overs by Philadelphia newsman Facenda, and a storyteller's sensibilities.
"My father wanted to portray football the way Hollywood portrayed fiction," Steve Sabol said.
It didn't come naturally to someone who, despite his passion, was a relative film novice.
"The only camera work I saw was on the newsreels in the theaters," Mr. Sabol said. "Those pictures were shown at 24 frames per second, which is normal camera speed. I always felt that it appeared much too fast on the screen and had to be slowed down, which I did right away. I started out shooting at 64 frames per second, which dramatically improved the appearance of the film. The thing that I was most concerned with in those days was that the pictures be properly exposed and in focus."
Mr. Sabol liked to point to This Is Pro Football, released in 1967, as NFL Films' turning point. An impressed Rozelle told the filmmaker he had created "a real movie."
It was at that time that Mr. Sabol had begun using what would become NFL Films' signature trait - slow-motion footage. Earlier sports producers had avoided the technique because at slow speeds, the expensive film stock ran through the camera, Mr. Sabol noted, "like water through a spigot."
"All people talked about was the slow motion," he recalled, "so I thought, if that's what people talk about and that's what they want, then, hell, I'm going to give them the whole game that way."
Football Follies, a blooper reel that was seen by more people than Gone With the Wind, debuted in 1968. Weekly TV shows and packaged videos followed, and NFL Films provided the content for the growing number of pregame shows.
Mr. Sabol's growth as a filmmaker coincided with the NFL's becoming America's most popular sport. The company's carefully crafted products were soon among the most recognizable, successful, and imitated products in sports.
Mr. Sabol "made the NFL a better league," said current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, "and that's quite a legacy."
In the 1990s, he retired to Arizona but maintained a hand in his company even after ceding control to his equally creative son, who died of brain cancer in 2012.
"I'm lucky. I really am," Mr. Sabol said. "I did something."
Through it all, he remained sanguine about the company and the phenomenon he created.
"NFL Films will silently fade away into the western sun, narrated by John Facenda, with music by Sam Spence," Mr. Sabol predicted. "We may be remembered for a few days, but then I'm sure someone will pick up the reins and continue to idolize the game of football."
In addition to his daughter, Mr. Sabol is survived by his wife of 74 years, Audrey, and a grandson.
Funeral arrangements were pending.