SBJ/March 26-April 1, 2012/Champions

Champions: Steve Sabol, NFL Films' driving force

Sports and art collide in beautiful fashion for Sabol, the personification of NFL Films

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Photo by: PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
On a Saturday morning last March, when the usually frenetic corridors at NFL Films were quiet and dark, Bill Driber sat across the desk from his boss and friend of 28 years, Steve Sabol, answering questions that troubled them both.

Two weeks earlier, at an awards dinner in Kansas City, Sabol blacked out, awakening in a hospital bed. When he returned home to suburban Philadelphia five days later, it was aboard a specially equipped medical plane.

Testing revealed a brain tumor that cannot be removed.

As he was coming to grips with what that meant — and whether he could still function as president of the company his father founded and he built — Sabol thought of Driber, who began at NFL Films as an intern in the lab in 1984. Sixteen years ago, after working his way up to a supervisory slot and a role as a cameraman, Driber was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his back that, bit by bit, has choked off his mobility. For the last five years, he has been in a wheelchair.

Yet Driber has maintained his duties in charge of operations, with responsibility for a staff of about 65. Sabol asked his wife, Penny, to arrange a meeting with him on a Saturday, when they would be alone.

The Sabols arrived first, followed by Driber. They hugged. Then they talked. Sabol had questions. Many were about the treatments, about radiation and chemotherapy and what might spawn from each. Some were deeper. He wanted to know how Driber managed to remain so engaged with his work even as the disease took chunks of him. He wanted to know why he persevered.

Finally, he wanted to know what, if any, role Driber thought he still might play at NFL Films.

“You have to come back,” Driber told him instantly.

Sabol said he didn’t see the point.

The most pronounced of Sabol’s symptoms is aphasia, a disorder that at times makes it difficult for him to find the words to make his point. On his better days, he can converse for 15 or even 30 minutes with barely a hitch. But in darker times, when he’s fatigued from the chemo or emotionally taxed, Sabol struggles to make it cleanly past five words. His frustration only makes it worse.

The aphasia was most pronounced in those first few months after the diagnosis. After a career spent telling stories, not only through his movies, but also as the face of NFL Films on TV, Sabol wasn’t sure what purpose he could serve at the company if he couldn’t find the simplest of words.

To make that point to Driber, he reached for a pair of scissors on his desk.

“I know what these are,” Sabol said. “And I know what they do.

“But I don’t know what the f--- to call them!” he shouted, slamming them to the desk.

“Well, they’re scissors,” Driber answered calmly.

“Scissors,” Sabol said. “Right.”

He stared at the them.

“Steve?” Driber said, summoning his friend back to their conversation. “Who cares?”

THE ROAD ‘TRAVELED’

Early this year, with the Super Bowl 11 days away, Sabol perched at the edge of a chair in the office of one of his producers, screening the latest cuts from a project that is one of his pets.

Photos by: GETTY IMAGES; PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
For the last 42 years, NFL Films has produced a one-hour retrospective called “Road to the Super Bowl” that now airs on the day of the game. It starts with a dramatic six-minute montage that epitomizes everything that Sabol, 69, has created and nurtured through his 45 years as a filmmaker.

There is stirring orchestral music, penned by an NFL Films composer and recorded in-house in a studio that can accommodate an 80-piece symphony. There is arresting cinematography, always captured from the field. And, of course, there is the sound — voices, grunts, and the clash of helmets and pads — that has emerged as NFL Films’ secret sauce. High-definition cameras and digital technology have allowed the television networks to catch up visually, but only NFL Films can wire players and coaches for sound.

“This is usually the highlight of my day,” said Sabol, angling his chair to square up with a monitor. “I love coming back here to see what he’s got.

“OK. Let’s go.”

Sabol watched the six-minute stretch intently, even though he’d seen most of it before. He made a suggestion. He answered a question. But, mostly, he watched and listened. This is what Driber envisioned when he encouraged Sabol to return to work a year ago.

“Just go around and sprinkle that magic dust on people every day,” Driber told him on that Saturday. “That’s what they need.”

And so that is what Sabol decided to do. For the last year, he has been in his office most mornings and early afternoons, staying for as long as his body will allow. He takes days off during chemo treatments. But, mostly, he is at work at NFL Films.

Sabol still churns with frustration when the proper word evades him, or when he has to jot it on a note card because he can’t get it out. But he encourages others to fill in his blanks. With time, conversation has become more comfortable for him, at least on most days.

“It turns out most of the people here know what I’m thinking before I even say it, so we get through it,” Sabol said, chuckling. “That’s important for me, because this has been my life. I’d like to still be part of it.”

Sabol’s connection to the 100-plus hours of original programming produced from the 200,000-square-foot facility in Mount Laurel, N.J., each year is evident throughout his vast, corner office, which he, in a parlance befitting a filmmaker, prefers to call his “room.”

On a corkboard to the right of his desk are ideas that have percolated lately, some more refined than others, all lying in wait for a home.

One index card is headlined: “COMPARING TEAMS,” scrawled in red marker. Beneath it are two quotes, also written in Sabol’s hand. “History is an argument without end,” and “Nostalgia is a seductive liar.” There’s also a passing reference to Monet.

To this, Sabol has glued a paragraph from a yellowed newspaper article, examining the shortcomings of comparing the Packers or Steelers dynasties to the more recent vintage Patriots.

Nearby, another pin holds a sheet of Sabol’s NFL Films letterhead. “Ravens-Texans” is written at the top, underlined. Then “3rd piece of music.” There are more notes beneath that, but they’re hidden, because at some point Sabol put a small square from a notepad on top of it — “Return to Win” 2097. (Strings only) — and skewered both back to the board.

At the back of the office is a row of tables, lined side by side. Here, Sabol keeps a catalog of note cards, compiled over the years.

Kennie Smith, who now oversees scheduling and logistics for NFL Films, was Sabol’s assistant in her early days at the company. She remembers pasting some of the now-yellowed newspaper clips on the cards, taking care to make sure they were neatly aligned.

The clips and notes never stopped coming. At the start of a cross-country flight, Sabol would unzip a large duffel bag, stocked with books and magazines. He’d read each for a bit, highlighting paragraphs on some pages and slapping sticky notes to others.

“Been that way for as long as I’ve known him,” Smith said. “He’ll have 10 things with him wherever we go. A Sports Illustrated. A book about Lombardi. A book about some swimmer. He’ll read one for 10 minutes and then put it down and move on to the next.

“Anything Steve sees can end up in a film.”

Explaining the process behind a project like “Road to the Super Bowl,” Sabol opened a vast binder with hundreds of pages listing compelling clips from throughout the season, bits and pieces of stories he thought they might want to tell. Those shots, culled based on which themes fit the season best, provide the guts of the show. But it starts with the music, with a score written by in-house composers who work with Sabol to match the varied moods he intends to set at different segments of the film.

He edits the film to fit the score.

“It’s a strange way to work,” Sabol said. “But I’ve always done it this way.”

As a result, so do many of the Emmy-winning producers who have come up through NFL Films.

“We work for an artist,” said Keith Cossrow, a supervising producer whose work includes the recent HBO biopic “Namath.” “How many presidents of companies are actually artists? Steve doesn’t come to work in the morning thinking about ‘How can I make money for my company today?’ The only thing he cares about is ‘How do I make a great film today — or make sure my people are making great films?’”

ARTISTIC THERAPY

On the wall of Smith’s office hangs a pop-art collage that marries football with the long-lost romance of air travel. In the foreground is an illustration of a leather-helmeted player, trotting to daylight. The background is a mix of vintage airline stickers, the sort that travelers once affixed to their bags.

The walls of NFL Films are covered with thematic photos, artwork and frames all selected by Sabol.
Photo by: PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
Smith found the piece hanging in her office when she came to work one Sunday night, a fitting decoration for someone who coordinates travel for NFL Films crews as they crisscross the country each week to shoot games.

“I came in to work and it was there,” said Smith, who oversees a web of project logistics for the company. “I may come in on Tuesday, and there will be a yellow note stuck in its place [on the wall], and then on Wednesday it will be a different picture. Steve likes to keep things fresh.”

The walls of NFL Films are covered with artwork; photographs of great plays and players, a theme recurrent everywhere except the green room next to the studios — which is decorated with movie posters and stills, many from old westerns. Each of the hundreds of pieces was selected by Sabol, who decides which hangs where and in what frame.

When Howard Katz, the former ABC Sports president, began working with Sabol in 2003 to align NFL Films with the soon-to-be-launched NFL Network, he made the mistake of using the photos as road signs around the labyrinthine offices. Each day, he’d find Jerry Rice and make a right. Then, one weekend before NFL owners were scheduled to visit, Sabol decided it would be better if all 32 teams were represented on the walls. So he swapped out some photos.

“I got lost,” Katz said.

Outside Katz’s office hangs a black and white photo of John F. Kennedy at the Army-Navy game. It appeared there one morning, a few days after an offhand chat with Sabol. They were talking about the connection football forges between fathers and sons. Katz told Sabol that one of his greatest memories was of his father taking him to the Army-Navy game and seeing President Kennedy there. Two days later, the photo hung on his wall.

“If you walk around these halls, this is Steve Sabol,” Katz said. “Everything about this place is Steve Sabol.”

While action photos dominate, Sabol has sprinkled in others. There are pictures of NFL Films camera crews. Here and there, there are pop-art collages, like the one in Smith’s office.

Sabol began making them 20 years ago. He estimates that he has produced about 200, showing and selling them at galleries and online. At their core is the juxtaposition of characters and themes. One, titled “Pluck and Luck,” features William Randolph Hearst, the bullfighter Manolete, Kit Carson, Bronko Nagurski, Garibaldi, Cochise, Gen. Kazi Dworak and Vivian Leigh.

Sabol likes to talk about his art but says it is difficult for him to convey its meaning these days. Instead, he points to a blurb he wrote for a calendar he produced earlier this year: “I combine the arcane with the commonplace, the ephemeral with the everlasting.”

Explaining his process is easier. For the last 20 years, he has spent the weekends that aren’t occupied by football trolling flea markets, gathering stuff that catches his eye. Old tobacco cards. Game pieces. Doorknobs. Faucets. Nails. Hammers. Boxes and boxes of old magazines. All of it is organized, neatly, in a studio at his home, where he makes his collages using varied types of glues.

In the last year, his art has proved therapeutic.

“With this, you don’t have to worry about your vocabulary and finding the right word,” Sabol said. “It’s all images. You put them together and you tell a story. But not with words.

“It’s good for me to be able to do that in my situation now.”

Sabol is certain that this would have been his vocation, rather than his avocation, had his father not famously landed the rights to film the NFL championship game for $4,000 in 1962 and then parlayed it into the company that became NFL Films, opening the door to the only full-time job he’s ever held. He would have been an artist. Football might have played a peripheral role as his subject matter, but it wouldn’t pervade it.

He’d be drawn more to history.

‘HE EARNED EVERYTHING’

Steve Sabol accompanied his father and NFL Films creator Ed Sabol at the enshrinement ceremony for the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
On the day he was to record the video that would present his father for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, last summer, Steve Sabol took his seat in a familiar studio.

From behind the camera, Hank McElwee, the man who set the aperture on Sabol’s camera and loaded his film when they were blazing trails together on NFL sidelines 40 years ago, asked if he was ready to go.

“Yeah,” Sabol said.

And he started talking.

“Let me tell you about my dad,” Sabol said, smoothly. “He was a loving father. He was a generous boss. He was a leader. He was a dreamer. But most of all, he was the funniest man I’ve ever known.”

Behind the camera McElwee stood, stunned.

“Freaking nailed it,” McElwee thought.

Seated in the adjacent sound studio, behind glass, Vince Caputo quickly checked to make sure everything was running. He was the one Sabol came to see soon after he returned to work, asking whether there was a way to cobble his words together into a narration of a film that they could show at the induction. Sabol knew he could not get through a traditional speech from a stage.

“You understand how I’m talking,” Sabol said to Caputo. “I can’t get more than six or seven words together. But if I write something and I try to say it a little bit at a time, can you put it together?

“When I make a mistake, can you fix it?”

Caputo has known Sabol since he was a boy and Sabol was a young man. The son of Ed Sabol’s longtime driver, Caputo grew up around the old NFL Films offices, washing cars out back for extra money. He worked summers in the film vault. When Caputo was in college, studying engineering, he floundered. Sabol came to him with the offer of an internship in the NFL Films sound department. Turned out, he was good at it. A couple of months later, Sabol offered him a job.

“He trusted me 27 years ago by putting me into a position to succeed,” Caputo said. “And I think I’ve spent the last 20 years trying not to disappoint him.

“Whatever it took,” he said, “we were going to get him through.”

McElwee was one of the company’s first employees — No. 21, it said on his pay stub. Today, he is head of cinematography. But McElwee’s first job was as an assistant to Sabol, who was learning his way as a producer, editor and cameraman.

“Here’s this rich kid whose father owns the company,” McElwee said. “I’m from the other side of the tracks. I watched him work and said, ‘God, I’m struggling to keep up with this guy.’ I knew he was the boss’ son, but he earned everything he got.

“We all realized pretty quickly that Steve was the force behind what we were doing here. The sound. The pictures. Big Ed had the idea and he sold the owners on it, but when it came to the actual vision of this company, without a doubt it was Steve. Steve saw things in a unique way that every network is copying right now.”

In the afternoon, after they’d shot the rest of the 10-minute narration in fits and starts that took up much of the day, McElwee put an arm around his old friend.

“Sudden, how long did it take you to memorize that first part?” McElwee asked, using the nickname that Sabol gave himself when he played small-college football — Sudden Death Sabol.

“Hank,” Sabol said, “I’ve been working on it for three months. I had to get it right.”

At the induction in Canton, McElwee was one of four NFL Films cameramen following the Sabols for the day. As he has so many times after a game, he came away from the ceremony with a shot that he knew captured the moment. As McElwee filmed Big Ed Sabol sliding an arm through his new, yellow jacket, he panned up and caught Steve Sabol in the background, smiling with pride.

“I call that a tingle shot,” McElwee said, “where the hair on the back of your neck stands up.”

STICKING TO A PLAN

Cossrow and Ken Rodgers, the two 30-something producers responsible for the NFL Films’ bell cow “Hard Knocks,” sat in Rodgers’ office sharing stories about their mentor.

When the topic turned to Sabol’s creative process and his affinity for the yellow sticky notes that dotted his scripts, his desk, his walls and even the dashboard of his car, Rodgers reached into a drawer and produced a large, manila folder.

He opened it gently, revealing a mound of stickies. There had to be a hundred of them, most of them yellow, the top ones sliding ever so gently toward the fringe as the folder settled on the desk.

“Wowwww,” Cossrow said, jaw agape. “Look at that.”

“I’ve saved every sticky note he’s ever given me,” Rodgers said, leveling the pile with a careful swipe. “Because, to me, this is him. When he leaves stuff for me about my scripts or my films, this, to me, represents Steve. I thought maybe one day I’d make a collage out of these and put it on my wall, because they seem to me to be the closest I can come to Steve’s essence.

“It’s in his little notes to all of us.”

Rodgers isn’t the only one saving stickies. Caputo still has the note Sabol left for him after he got his first look at rough cuts from the 2010 season premiere of “Hard Knocks,” when the show followed the New York Jets and notoriously profane head coach Rex Ryan. Caputo was at work at 5 a.m. the next day to work on the final mix when he came upon the following directive, waiting on his chair:

“There’s too much cursing in ‘Hard Knocks,’” Sabol wrote. “Whenever possible delete the f---s and shits.”

“This is Steve,” Caputo said, laughing as he held up the note. “‘Whenever possible’ — there’s some leeway in that.”

Sabol’s brain tumor has brought to the surface a fear that has percolated at NFL Films for years. While nobody could have predicted his illness, they knew that, as he aged, he would become less engaged. It might have taken another decade, but it was going to happen.

“When you’ve been defined by someone for so long,” Rodgers said, “What are you when you’re no longer with that person?”

In the last year, Sabol has helped them find the answer.

It’s in the notes. And on the walls.

It’s in all of the good ideas that he nurtured. And the bad ones he tolerated.

It’s in the film vault. And on their hard drives.

It was there when Cossrow sat watching a rough cut of their recent biopic on Joe Namath, and heard a stretch of music — a “ratty f---ing guitar,” Sabol calls it — that they knew the boss would hate.

It was there a few weeks ago, when Rodgers hung a photo at home.

“It’s really impossible to create anything here without thinking, ‘What would Steve do?’” Rodgers said. “I could be in a coma for five years, and the first thing I would think when I wake up would be, ‘What would Steve think of this shot?’”

THE FORCE OF NFL FILMS

When they wheeled Sabol off the flight home aboard a gurney after he fell ill in Kansas City, Katz was among those waiting to meet him at the airport.

“He couldn’t really say much, but he grabbed my hand,” Katz said. “He just looked so frail.”

After he was released from the hospital, Sabol summoned Katz to come to his home to talk about what would come next. Working together for the last eight years, they have become not only colleagues, but friends.

NFL Films has changed dramatically since the launch of the NFL Network. What for 40 years was a gilded, documentary film company, with long lead times and production budgets that were made to be broken, now must feed the television beast, creating about 40 percent more hours of content and doing it in less time with fewer people.

Katz points out that, while the introduction of fiscal controls frustrated some at NFL Films, most came to accept them because Sabol did. While he always leads with his creative side — only acknowledging a familiarity with budgets and bottom lines when pressed — Sabol bought into Katz’s promise that they could continue making great films even as the NFL demanded television features and highlight packages in greater quantity.

“Steve is the unquestioned leader of NFL Films,” Katz said. “He is the creative driving force here. He is the inspirational driving force. He is the personification of NFL Films. You couldn’t make the changes we’ve made without Steve Sabol.”

Sabol had an important message for Katz when the two met to discuss the future. He said his illness had led him to take stock of his priorities. That only three things in his life “mattered.” There was his wife, Penny. His 26-year-old son, Casey.

And NFL Films.

“He said he was kind of entrusting NFL Films to me,” Katz said. “The good news is, he’s been here pretty much every day since, so it’s not time to think about that yet.”

Later in the week, again at his home, Sabol had a similar conversation with NFL Films’ creative leadership. They thanked him for his confidence, and then reminded him that his expression of it was premature.

That was a year ago.

“Even with everything that has happened to him, his juices still flow,” said Bob Ryan, one of the original NFL Films producers who still works on projects as a consultant. “He comes in every day and stays as long as he can. If he had to stay home all day and watch re-runs of ‘Justified,’ that wouldn’t be Steve.

“He has other interests. But this place is his life.”

In an alcove at the back of his office, Sabol keeps boxes filled with letters from and to his father, game credentials, photographs, newspaper clippings and magazine covers, all meticulously cataloged and filed. “Everything I ever did in my life,” he said.

On a shelf was the old splicer he used when editing his earliest films.

Sabol placed the heel of his hand on it, and pressed down.

“I love what I do,” he said. “I always have.”

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