Ed Sabol, the NFL Films founder who revolutionized sports broadcasting and reimagined pro football from an up-and-coming league to must-watch theater, has died. He was 98.
Sabol, who was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, died Monday at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, the NFL said.
Sabol was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011. During his tenure at NFL Films from 1964-1995, the organization won 52 Emmy Awards.
“Through his determination and innovative spirit, Ed Sabol transformed how America watched football and all sports,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “Ed ignited the fire at NFL Films and was the Keeper of the Flame with a remarkable vision and dedication to telling the stories of the people who played, coached and loved the game.”
Working with his son, Steve, Sabol introduced a series of innovations taken for granted today: super slow-motion replays, blooper reels, reverse angle shots. They stuck microphones on coaches and players, set highlights to pop music and recorded pregame locker room speeches.
And one of their most important decisions was hiring John Facenda to narrate all this. He became known as the “Voice of God,” reading lyrical descriptions in solemn tones.
“We began making the game personal for the fans, like a Hollywood movie,” Sabol told The Associated Press before his Hall of Fame induction. “Violent tackles, the long slow spiral of the ball, following alongside the players as they sidestepped and sprinted down the field. The movie camera was the perfect medium at the time to present the game the way the fans wanted to see it.”
A star swimmer at Ohio State who had a brief stage career, Sabol served with the 4th Infantry Division as a rifleman during World War II. He was in the overcoat business with his father-in-law in Philadelphia when the self-described “amateur moviemaker” formed Blair Productions, a film company named after his daughter. His only experience producing sports was recording the action at Steve’s high school football games.
Then he won the rights to chronicle the 1962 NFL championship for $3,000, changing the course of his film career and — very possibly — the league’s fortunes.
At his Hall of Fame enshrinement, Sabol, then 94, said from his wheelchair that he “dreamt the impossible dream, and I’m living it right at this minute.”
When Sabol founded NFL Films, his son was there working beside him as a cinematographer right from the start. The two were honored with the Lifetime Achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2003.
Steve Sabol, who succeeded his father as NFL Films’ president in 1985, died in 2012 at age 69 of brain cancer.
Ed Sabol is survived by his wife of 74 years, Audrey, his daughter, Blair, and grandson, Casey.