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April 29, 2002

NFL Films president speaks to full house at Goizueta

By Eric Rangus


Self-deprecating humor, along with insight into a company whose groundbreaking work helped create the mystique of the country’s most popular professional sports league, highlighted the appearance of NFL Films President Steve Sabol on campus, Thursday, April 18.

“Of all the people who have spoken here, I am without a doubt the least qualified to talk about business,” Sabol told an overflow crowd of more than 200 in the Goizueta Business School auditorium.

Perhaps, but Sabol was infinitely qualified to discuss success. NFL Films, which was founded by his father, Ed, has won 80 Emmys, and Sabol himself has 27 of the awards decorating his office. He has been honored for a variety of disciplines including producing, writing, directing, editing and cinematography.

Sabol discussed how his father parlayed a $3,000 bid by a tiny family-run company to film the 1962 NFL Championship game (a sum that doubled the amount the league received for film rights to the 1961 game) into a multimillion-dollar business that has influenced not just sports filmmaking but even Hollywood products for nearly four decades.

“Dad wanted to show football the way Hollywood showed fiction,” Sabol said. “I wanted to show how I experienced the game as it was played from the ground up.”

While the elder Sabol was responsible for getting the business off the ground, it was Steve who provided the artistic vision. As a 20-year-old college student, Steve ran one of the cameras at the 1962 championship between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.

He told a story about when he handed his resume to the late NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and related his response.

“‘I see that all you’ve done is play football and go to the movies,’” Sabol quoted Rozelle. “‘But that makes you uniquely qualified for this job.’”

An art major in college, Sabol actually was an academic all-American as well as an all-conference running back at Colorado College.

Sabol discussed several of NFL Films’ pioneering achievements, including the use of popular music to score the films, a reliance on a strong narration with minimal script for dramatic impact, and unique camerawork that seemed to lift viewers out of the stands and set them down on the field. All of these ideas were groundbreaking, but Sabol demonstrated little hubris in his lecture.

“To me, we were just a bunch of guys who loved to make movies and who loved football, and we wanted to translate that love to our viewers,” he said.

Sabol spoke for about 30 minutes and answered several audience questions. He also showed several film clips, one of them a five-minute retrospective on the 2001 NFL season. Another one, which Sabol said had never been shown publicly before, featured 1970s-era coaches Abe Gibron of the Chicago Bears and the Atlanta Falcons’ Norm Van Brocklin.

It showed how NFL Films handled some of its early projects, particularly in the area of sound, and it was uncensored. That meant the content was quite profane at times—and just as often hilarious. Some of the brief film’s salty language was drowned out by the laughter from the crowd.