“It featured two superhuman efforts. You had Eli Manning getting out of the way of the pass rush and then David Tyree using his head, literally, to make the grab of a life-time,” he explains. “That play was the key to putting an end to the Patriots’ quest for an undefeated season. It will forever define that game in our national memory because of the athleticism, romance and relevance.”
When pressed for a fifth NFL Films moment, Sabol pauses. Over the course of our conversation, he’d revealed that he’d studied art extensively and that his influences ran more toward Picasso (“What he was doing with a woman’s face or a bowl of fruit was looking at a single image from multiple perspectives and at distinct moments in time. I thought: Why couldn’t I do that for football?”) than toward another filmmaker, much less a John Madden or an Edward R. Murrow. Surprisingly, then, he strays into visceral territory with his final selection.
Acknowledging that “maybe this is not so much a ‘moment,’ ” Sabol points to the collected crashes, clotheslines and concussive ambushes that was the career of one Dick Butkus. Using the descriptively blunt language long associated with NFL Films’ productions — think “frozen tundra” or “the Immaculate Reception” — Sabol refers to the Chicago Bears great as “a force of unmanageable proportions. His career as a middle linebacker with the Bears stands, in my mind, as the most sustained work of devastation ever committed on a football field by anyone, anywhere, anytime.”
But there was more to the Butkus legend, Sabol believes. “I think he stood for something just as important as victory. No one ever played harder or better than Dick Butkus; he gave everything he had on every play,” he says, with the same awe he had as a 9-year-old when he was first introduced to Sammy Baugh. “That, to me, is the essence of the NFL.”
LARRY DOBROW’s favorite NFL moment was Eli Manning’s arching pass to Plaxico Burress that won Super Bowl XLII for the New York Giants.