Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

Today gives the start of the NFL season. What better place to start than Rich Cohen's excellent portrait of Ed and Steve Sabol? The league as we know it is hard to imagine without them. Published last October in the Atlantic, here's "They Taught America How to Watch Football":

Ed had become increasingly interested in football as a subject, particularly Steve’s games at the Haverford School, outside Philadelphia—the color, the violence, the story lines that seemed to emerge naturally from the game. Ed started on the sideline but, always in search of the God’s-eye view, eventually built a rickety wooden tower beside the field. The school tolerated him for the same reason NFL owners would years later: the film was invaluable, allowing the coach to study team strengths and weaknesses that could be recognized only from above. Ed began editing the footage into high-school epics, with slow motion and music. Some of these sepia beauties survive. In one, you see young Steve carrying the ball behind his blockers, finding a hole, then wandering through as if in a dream, as if rolling downhill, as if following a kind of logic.

The footage, the movies, the reaction of Steve and his teammates—all of it gave Ed ideas. Simply put, he looked at the films then being made about pro football and thought, I can do better. Each year, the film rights to the NFL Championship Game were sold at auction to the sort of companies that made black-and-white indus­trial shorts with titles likeZinc: It Makes the Body Strong. Many of the football films were made by TelRa Productions, which compiled highlight reels, the field seen through a single, static camera high in the stands. The music was marching bands, the B-roll was pennant-­waving crowds, the narration was Eisenhower-­era corn, such as: “Milt Plum pegged a peach of a pass to become the apple of coach George Wilson’s eye.”

Ed wanted to shoot in color, roll many cameras, record everything in slow motion, set the action to dramatic music. TelRa wrote news; Ed wanted to create myths. “Our game lends itself to the majestic,” Joe Theismann, the All‑Pro quarter­back, told me. “The way you can slow it down, isolate the spin on the ball, the different emotions you can show—Ed Sabol figured all that out early.”

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