August 06, 2011
Sabol Was The Master Of Masterpieces
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
For many years, the NFL forbade rebroadcasts of their games, and for a very good reason.
The ban has since been lifted, thanks in part to the existence of the NFL Network. Games can now be seen on the league's eponymous network, sometimes in completeness, and sometimes in edited down form with only the plays being shown and the commentary and replays between plays omitted. Especially interesting to see are the various Super Bowls shown in their original format, going as far back as Super Bowl III on NBC.
For quite a long time, the NFL wanted you to watch their games as preserved on NFL Films. This entity, founded in 1962 and currently based in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, helped establish pro football as the national sport of the USA, overtaking baseball in the process. To this day, no other pro sport or sports league has this sort of filmed coverage, archive or library. NFL Films was groundbreaking from the start and cutting edge in all its years of existence.
The founding father of NFL Films, Ed Sabol, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday in Canton, Ohio. Sabol was introduced by his son and successor at NFL Films, Steve. It was a particularly poignant moment, as both men are battling serious illnesses simultaneously. Ed is wheelchair bound and was unable to take the podium on Saturday, and Steve is battling a brain tumor. But Ed did make it to Canton, weak at 94, but able to address the crowd and inject his trademark humour in his brief but heartfelt speech.
Sabol brought NFL Films into being after being allowed to cover the 1962 NFL Championship Game for a small filming company he founded. According to Wikipedia, then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle liked Sabol's work so much that he persuaded the NFL to buy out his company and re-brand it NFL Films. It took two years, but NFL Films was soon up and running full tilt.
The usage of slow motion photography, stirring music and God-like narration all combined to help define NFL Films and shape it into what it is today. Sabol pioneered the sideline shot, showing field-level action which was ahead of its time and is still compelling to this day. He had several cameramen at each game, both AFL and NFL, and took the art of film editing to a new level.
Many people think that the most beautiful element of NFL Films was the music. Stan Spence, a name you perhaps might not have heard of, composed many of the timeless musical classics from the 1960s and 1970s, which helped to bring out a more dramatic look and feel in the football footage. Aside from the aesthetic beauty of the fusion of music and football, the music itself is stirring and very recognizable. It is music that you could perhaps sing or hum as you please. For background incidental music, having that recognizability is a rare quality in music. It took ordinary football footage and transformed it into an inspired creation. It is almost unthinkable to have football footage without that music, and even though other composers have come up with more contemporary music these days, it follows Spence's blueprint and still works wonderfully.
And then there's The Voice. William Conrad and Harry Kalas deserve their place in recorded football history, as they have provided brilliant voiceover work in their own right for many years. But there is always the presence of the original voice, that of the great John Facenda. Like Kalas, Facenda called Philadelphia home and was a news anchor in that city. Facenda, also like Kalas, became a Philly institution up to and beyond his 1984 passing.
But to listen to Facenda is an experience not to be missed. Possessing perhaps the most dramatic and demonstrative voice of anyone of his kind ever, Facenda became the personification of NFL Films with his narratives that could literally shake you right down to your soul. The phrase "frozen tundra", which in and of itself is redundant, is constantly mocked by ESPN's Chris Berman, but belongs next to Cary Grant's "Judy, Judy, Judy!" in that it is attributed to him but he never actually said it. But because Berman continues to mock Facenda with those two words, they became associated with Facenda and seem to embody the powerful nature of his delivery.
Something Facenda did actually recite was a poem called The Autumn Wind. This doesn't play well in these parts because of its association with the Oakland Raiders. But it is a very stirring recitation, set to the familiar Raiders music. Beginning with the timeless "The Autumn wind is a pirate…", you find yourself compelled to listen to the rest of the poem, even if you hate the Raiders. Facenda's cadence and rhythm fit the football action perfectly, and only those in Philadelphia can adequately judge by which medium Facenda is more famous for, news or football film.
For many years, Patriot Nation felt disenfranchised from NFL Films. All these years, Sabol and his minions would come up with this film and that film about the Green Bay Packers, the Dallas Cowboys, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Oakland Raiders, the Miami Dolphins. Films of the Patriots did exist, but most of it stayed in the library, as few people outside of New England cared much for the careers of Gino Cappelletti, Babe Parilli, Jim Plunkett or Steve Grogan.
Things changed in 2002. With son Steve at the helm, NFL Films latched onto what was becoming the great years in Patriot history. On the Super Bowl XXXVI DVD, it begins with a Facenda narration which includes this marvelous stanza: "The palms of your hands will thicken, the skin of your cheek will tan, you'll grow ragged and weary and wet, but you must do the best you can." Then Kalas takes you through the historic 2001 Patriot season, culminating with the first Super Bowl win in team history. The DVD climaxes with Bob Kraft's famous declaration: "We are all Patriots! And tonight, the Patriots are World Champions!"
A few weeks after Super Bowl XXXVI, a new offering from NFL Films came about. Steve Sabol and Kraft came up with the idea of Three Games To Glory, with Sabol trying to capitalize on the fanatic Boston area fan base dealing with their first-ever Super Bowl win, and perhaps trying to make some more hay on one of the playoff games leading up to that Super Bowl, the famous Snow Bowl win over Oakland. The DVDs were a mega-hit, and the concept was added on to with the two subsequent Super Bowl wins by the Patriots. Items like "Belichick Breakdowns", "Patriots All-Access" and postgame footage were added to the Three Games To Glory package, and now these keepsakes will be forever a part of any future Patriot Super Bowl win.
By the time the Patriots won their second Super Bowl, NFL Films came up with a retooled Game of the Week concept. The film was an hour-long capsule of the Patriot win over Carolina, with new music and terrific narration by Scott Graham, who like Kalas and Facenda also hails from Philadelphia. This concept branched out into regular season and other postseason games, and provides a great presentation of the great Patriot games of the last decade.
NFL Films struck gold again with America's Game, which consists mainly (but not exclusively) of hour-long features on all the Super Bowl champions in history. They are presented in high definition and feature three key members of the winning team looking directly into the camera with a white background in a tight closeup, with a film or television star providing background narration. All three Patriot Super Bowl winning teams are so honored, and NFL Films chose the 2004 champs as the number nine top Super Bowl team in history.
Patriot Nation owes a great debt of gratitude to the Sabols for developing this incredible compendium of Patriot highlights and features over the past decade. You cannot fault the Sabols for not featuring the Patriots much in film highlights in their down years, and they certainly came through when prosperity finally came to Foxborough. In anticipation of the Patriots possibly going 19-0 in 2007, Sabol produced this round table discussion on how a team can be that perfect, which provided some terrific thought-provoking commentary from the featured commentators and experts. The Patriots didn't fulfill the 19-0 prophesy, but the film Sabol did in anticipation of such was wonderfully done and a nice record, even though the Patriots lost the Super Bowl.
Ed Sabol enters Canton with an awesome and incredible body of work. If orchestral composers had a handful of masterpieces, Sabol had lots of them. If Stars and Stripes Forever is the magnum opus of John Philip Sousa, or if the Mona Lisa is the same to da Vinci, or if Gone With The Wind is the same to Margaret Mitchell, one would have a lot of material to try and determine what Sabol's magnum opus was. Many people might pick the Autumn Wind piece, others might go for anything featuring Vince Lombardi.
Around here? The vote from this typewriter goes to the Super Bowl XXXVIII Game of the Week film. Listen to defensive coach Pepper Johnson: "There's no more practices! There's no more games! This is it, guys! This is the season!" Let the goose bumps begin.
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