STEVE SABOL’S DEFINING NFL experience took place at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park in October 1951. Attending a Philadelphia Eagles–Washington Redskins game with his father, Ed, who would later become the founder of NFL Films, young Steve was captivated equally by the spectacle and by his dad’s terse narration.
“He pointed to No. 33 and he said, ‘That’s Sammy Baugh,’ ” Sabol recalls, referencing the Redskins quarterback and eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer. “The way he said it, it was like if you went to Washington, D.C., and said, ‘There’s the Washington Monument.’ He didn’t need to say anything else. I knew.”
This some-things-are-better-left-unsaid moment helped shape Sabol’s approach to chronicling the game — and thus the simultaneously languid and legend-shaping approach of NFL Films, currently in its 48th year of capturing and celebrating all things NFL. “When we started, the league had a growing tradition. But what NFL Films did was give it a mythology: America’s Team, the Catch, the Music City Miracle,” says Sabol, president and face of the company. “[Film director] John Ford once said that the best movies are those you watch not just with your heart and mind, but with your gut. Well, NFL Films is for the gut.”
Of course, Sabol has lived his entire adult life at NFL Films. He left college to join his father in the fledgling family business. (“He said, ‘I can see by your grades that all you’re doing is playing football and going to the movies, and that makes you uniquely qualified for this job,’ ” Sabol remembers.) So when he’s asked to identify the top-five standout moments captured by NFL Films cameras, Sabol momentarily hushes. After half-seriously likening the task to “picking my favorite noodle in a spaghetti dinner,” his easy garrulousness kicks right back in: “Well, how long is your article?”