Categorized | Business, Family, Living, People, Spotlight

One-on-One with NFL Films’ Steve Sabol

By AML Publisher
Photos Courtesy of April Ziegler Photography

Haverford School Alum and Main Line native Steve Sabol “What I got at the Haverford School was a sense of competition and accomplishment. Many people are creative but they lack the skill to harness those ideas effectively. And, that’s what I learned from my education at The Haverford School.”

Haverford School Alum and Main Line native Steve Sabol “What I got at the Haverford School was a sense of competition and accomplishment. Many people are creative but they lack the skill to harness those ideas effectively. And, that’s what I learned from my education at The Haverford School.”

You would be hard pressed to find a Main Liner, even a Philadelphia sports fan, who does not recognize the name Steve Sabol. Sabol is the renowned alum of The Haverford School and, most notably, founder of NFL Films along with his father Ed. From second grade to his senior year in high school, Sabol roamed the halls of The Haverford School and hit the field every fall as part of the football team. The 1960 graduate, is, of course now the head of NFL Films, headquartered in Voorhees, New Jersey. Sabol Field was christened at The Haverford School this past September and, is, in essence where NFL Films was born.

Ed Sabol, a spry 93, according to his son, and retired in Arizona, began filming Steve playing football at his son’s prep school. He enjoyed it so much he parlayed the hobby into shooting pro football. As the well-known story goes, Ed Sabol paid then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle $4,000 for the rights to shoot the 1962 NFL Championship game. Sabol’s film, with its dramatic close-ups and stirring music, impressed Rozelle. Ed convinced the owners to kick in $20,000 apiece to create the company now known as NFL Films.

AroundMainLine.com: I know you love the Main Line and growing up there, the experience of Haverford. When I met you Mr. Sabol years back during my previous sports television career, I succinctly remember you telling me how much you wish you could live on the Main Line. But, you had to live in Jersey and be near your office. And, you seemed to bemoan the fact.

Sabol, who is on the board of The Bryn Mawr Film Institute, has won 30 Emmys. NFL Films boasts over 90.

Sabol, who is on the board of The Bryn Mawr Film Institute, has won 30 Emmys. NFL Films boasts over 90.

Steve Sabol: That is because New Jersey has no class.

AML: I guess I’ll handle the hate mail on that comment! In all seriousness, what is it that you so cherish about the Main Line and your days at The Haverford School.

SS: The teachers forced me to look at things differently. My homeroom teacher at Haverford had just as much influence on me, at the time, as my mother and father. He made learning fun. In the fourth grade, instead of just having a normal spelling bee for the class he had a huge treasure map with real Spanish coins as prizes. His energy and understanding of what we were going through as young boys was what I remember.

Back then at Haverford, it was a bit of a different time too. Everyone had three names, came from very wealthy families and it was so competitive. High school was my life and there was a lot of pressure to thrive and be at the top of the class. I think the description under my picture for my senior year in high school of my activities was two pages long-Spanish club, editor of the yearbook, football, speaking contest winner. And the feeling was, since I was third in my class that I would go to any college in the country. Neither of my parents were college graduates and I was encouraged to apply to Harvard. I did not get into Harvard and it was a huge mystery and a tremendous embarrassment to the school. Here I was magna cum laude, all Inter-Ac, part of every school activity, great athlete and nothing. All my classmates were receiving acceptance letters from Yale, Stanford, Penn. And for the first time, I was not successful. Steve Sabol-‘zero’.

AML: That’s interesting, you think the expectations are so strong on kids these days but that is quite a pressure cooker. How did Colorado College come about then—not exactly the same league as Harvard?

Ed Sabol, a Philadelphia clothing salesman by trade, with his young son. Ed used a 1940’s Bell and Howell movie camera to film Steve's football games at Haverford School starting in 1951. Photo published with the consent of Steve Sabol/NFL Films

Ed Sabol, a Philadelphia clothing salesman by trade, with his young son. Ed used a 1940’s Bell and Howell movie camera to film Steve's football games at Haverford School starting in 1951. Photo published with the consent of Steve Sabol/NFL Films

SS: My mother put me into a college admission center in the Northwest and we received a letter from Colorado College and there were the Rocky Mountains in the background. And, since I was a huge football fan, I knew that’s where Dutch Clark went, the Hall of Famer. As a kid, football was my life—which is really the other part of my story. I was totally immersed in this sport—I looked at football not only as competition but I looked at the game in dramaturgical terms. The uniform, the physical struggle, the sounds your cleats made on the concrete when you were walking to the field, the smell of the leather pads-all of that combined with the romantic appeal of Colorado College I told my mother to sign me up. And, of course, thanks to The Haverford School, when I got there I was so way ahead of everyone else scholastically. I walked onto the football team, spent six years at Colorado College, and came out of college with a major in art. I wanted to be an artist.

Sabol’s original artwork has been shown in New York and on the Main Line in Philadelphia, and has been nominated to be shown at the Smithsonian Museum of American Design in Washington DC.

Sabol’s original artwork has been shown in New York and on the Main Line in Philadelphia, and has been nominated to be shown at the Smithsonian Museum of American Design in Washington DC.

AML: Before we talk about how you have come full circle now with that passion for art, I want to talk about you and your dad and those early days. One thing I love about this conversation, the evolution of NFL Films and this journey of yours with your dad from your days at The Haverford School to now is, in its simplest terms, this is a story about the love between a father and a son.

SS: My dad theory’s in life has always been if you want something, you double it. If you buy a sport jacket, buy two. If a doctor tells you to take two, take four. Everything is doubled.

AML: Is that a good or bad philosophy?

SS: It’s a great way to look at life; it also applies to purchasing Mercedes and other things. And, he used that approach when he formed NFL Films and approached Pete Rozelle. He doubled the money on the table. My father also embraced the idea that every business plan is improved by two martinis.

AML: I like that. You are one of America’s most successful run family businesses in essence.

SS: I have a theory on that. The third generation ‘kills it’. The third generation is removed from the passion, vision and initial energy that made the business successful. My father was a business man and a visionary and he had a great ability to look at the bad ideas and weed them out. When we started NFL Films, my dad was there to champion my concepts-the good ones-and put them into place. My father was my role model, my boss, the funniest person I have ever met, and an incredible salesman. He was the kind of person who walked into a room and everyone liked him.

AML: How could you summarize what this business of filming football is all about?

Sabol’s “Art of Football” Exhibition is on display for Super Bowl week in Miami, through January 9th, at the Avant Gallery. To see more of his art, visit his website at stevesabolart.com.

Sabol’s “Art of Football” Exhibition is on display for Super Bowl week in Miami, through January 9th, at the Avant Gallery. To see more of his art, visit his website at stevesabolart.com.

SS: To me this is a love affair of the game of football, this is not about marketing. And, it was a love affair expressed as love often is—through art. And, that’s the art of film. I think of NFL Films as a style of movie making—just as you can watch two people in a movie falling in love and sitting across from each other in a coffee shop, with no script and just music playing. We are able to create the same effect with the way we approach the game of football.

If you think of what we do (here at NFL Films), there is a very definite process creatively. If you are a writer or a photographer, artistic ideas hit you like a bolt of lightning. It begins with a passion to create, to do something. Then, it’s what I call ‘research’, researching everything you are about to do. Then after that its organization-organizing thoughts on your film, on your work.And, after that, the most important part is concentration. Many people are creative but they lack the skill to harness those ideas effectively. And, that’s what I learned from my education at The Haverford School.

AML: One of the goals I had when I started my publishing company Mr. Sabol—on my wish list of people I wanted to sit down and interview—was a chance to speak with you. So, I am soaking in every part of this chat and am really learning so much about your creative process. You paint a picture with everything you say, I could sit here all day!

I wanted to ask you about the late, great Harry Kalas.

SS: I was very privileged to work with two of the greatest voice over talents in the history of sports television—Jon Facenda and Harry Kalas. If there was a speaker at the Last Supper, after dinner was over, it would be Jon Facenda. He was the voice of God whereas Harry Kalas was the voice of the people. With Harry, the warmth and friendliness of his voice was really a mirror of his personality. Harry had a sportscaster’s voice with an actor’s delivery—he just knew how to read a script really well. Harry touched all the bases.

AML: I am curious…are you on Facebook or Twitter?

SS: I don’t own a cell phone and I don’t have a Facebook or Twitter or what is the other thing called? My Space? I don’t mean to sound like an old fart. It just goes back to what I was saying before about concentration and maintaining your focus in business and those things are just distractions to me. All this technology has not changed the way NFL Films does business and our process. Yes, with one touch of a button now you reach millions of people but it is still the same approach that my father and I started out with. It is still a group of young people who love to make movies, love pro football and want to share it with our audience. NFL Films has had one continuous, creative vision for 47 years. These are timeless things; timeless stories that we capture just like people go back and read Greek mythology.

The ‘King of Football Movies’ reflects in his office.

The ‘King of Football Movies’ reflects in his office.

AML: Let’s talk about your second act here, your art work.

SS: It is funny because it is really my first act; my degree in art was my first love. So, I have these collages and they represent Americana. We have had shows here in New Jersey and the Main Line and interest from the Smithsonian. I’ll be exhibiting in Miami at The Super Bowl. It’s an exciting time for me.

AML: You are so inspiring; your life is an incredible story in itself. My final question here-for the young men who are at The Haverford School now and read this interview—what is your message to them? I know we have only scratched the surface to the full story of Ed and Steve Sabol and NFL Films. But in 20 seconds or less, can you give me one last gem to pass on.

SS: I hope they realize that this is really not about being good on the football field. Life is about having a dream and believing in that dream and following through with that dream. And, this is about a father and a son and the value of that relationship. That relationship can build and become a whole life’s work. That’s NFL Films.

Steve Sabol’s “The Art of Football” exhibition is on display at the Avant Gallery in Miami through February 9th. “The Art of Football,” an exhibition of Steve Sabol’s thought-provoking, very colorful football-themed art on display from January 19 to February 9. Steve has shown in New York and on the Main Line in Philadelphia, and has been nominated to be shown at the Smithsonian Museum of American Design in Washington DC. Steve will be making appearances during the week leading up to Super Bowl. For more information, call Vanessa Almerico/Avant Gallery at 305-573-8873 or email valmerico@avantgallery.com. The gallery is located at 3850 North Miami Avenue in the historic Miami Design District. To see more of Steve’s art go to his website at www.stevesabolart.com.

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