“A Football Life” Producer’s Notes: One Master and One Genius

A Football Life, Ken Rodgers, Sabol Files

I’ve been lucky enough to have worked for some great men in my career.

My first college internship was with director Martin Scorsese; my second was with Oliver Stone.  I followed those up with low-paying jobs with actor George Clooney and composer Hans Zimmer.  I once even spent a day delivering scripts across Hollywood on behalf of Clint Eastwood.

But it wasn’t until I joined NFL Films that I met the two greatest men I’ve worked for yet – Ed and Steve Sabol.

For ten years, I’ve studied the style and substance of their creation firsthand.  As a young producer, I would stay at work late every night and watch at least one film from our archives.  Eventually, I became somewhat of a company historian and was honored to co-produce (with fellow producer Steve “Doc” Seidman) a documentary on Ed Sabol called The King of Football Movies, which has now been updated with footage from Sabol’s entire Hall of Fame weekend as the most recent episode of A Football Life.

It was around the same time Doc and I were making our film that I read a book called Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity.  In it, author David Galenson examines the careers of famous artists in every field and shows how all of them fall into one of two categories:

– The “Old Master” is one who spends a lifetime perfecting his or her craft.  They experiment within their discipline for years until they arrive at a breakthrough moment late in life.  These types of artists include Michelangelo, Robert Frost and Alfred Hitchcock.

– The “Young Genius” is one who innovates at a relatively young age, creating breakthrough concepts not out of trial and error, but out of pure inspiration and revolutionary thinking.  Examples include Picasso, James Joyce and Orson Welles.

Although they aren’t covered in the book, I’ve come to realize that Ed Sabol and Steve Sabol are the perfect example of what happens when an Old Master (Ed) teams up with a Young Genius (Steve.)

Spoiler: it turns out pretty good.

Ed Sabol

For those who don’t know the story, Ed Sabol was in his mid-forties when he launched the company that would become NFL Films.  He had already done more in 45 years than most people do in a lifetime; he had set a world record as a high school swimmer, performed on Broadway, served under General Patton in WWII, started a close-knit family and held the post of Vice President at his father-in-law’s overcoat manufacturing company.

But in secret, he had always been working toward his masterpiece.  Combining his ability to sell, his sense of showmanship and his obsession with home movies, he bid on, and won, the film rights to the 1962 NFL Championship.  Three years later, he convinced the NFL owners to start an in-house film company with the express aim of glorifying and romanticizing the National Football League.  Although he never consciously planned it, this was something he had spent a lifetime working towards.  NFL Films was his masterwork.

But here’s a secret:  Ed Sabol wasn’t much of a filmmaker.  He was more like a studio mogul who knew exactly what he wanted to see on screen and how to make it happen.  Ed was the substance of NFL Films.  What he needed was a Young Genius to create the style of NFL Films.

That’s where his son, Steve, entered the picture.  A lot of people think he takes after his father.  But the truth is, Steve takes after his mother, Audrey, the lynchpin figure that makes the whole Sabol story possible.

Ed Sabol

Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, Mrs. Sabol became deeply involved in the arts.  As the owner of a Philadelphia art gallery, she was known nationwide as a patron to the burgeoning Modern Art movement and she knew a Young Genius when she saw one.  Steve likes to tell stories about coming home from school and finding young artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg hanging out in his living room.

The experience obviously affected young Steve.  From all accounts, he didn’t spend much time studying in college, but when he did pay attention, it was in his Art classes, which he had chosen as his major.   He loved the art, he just didn’t like going to class; so it was no surprise when he left college in his 5th year to join his father’s new company.

The Old Master knew what he wanted – Hollywood movies about the NFL.  And the Young Genius delivered by creating a new form of sports filmmaking that revolutionized the industry.

Ed demanded that all games be shot in slow motion; Steve edited the footage into ballets of brute force.

Ed found narrator John Facenda; Steve wrote the classic lines to our early work, including “The Autumn Wind is a Raider.”

Ed hired composer Sam Spence; Steve married that music to footage in a way that still gives fans goose bumps 40 years later.

Ed needed an artist like Steve.  And Steve needed a patriarch like Ed.

In the best of times, that same spirit exists today at NFL Films.  We are at once a very old company (with dozens of employees having been here 30+ years) and a very young company (with dozens having under 5 years experience.)

As one of the lucky few in the middle (age 37, neither a master nor a genius), I like to think I’m surrounded by the best of both worlds.  I learn from the Old Masters who literally helped create the entire world of sports television as we see it today.  And I’m inspired by the Young Geniuses who constantly push the envelope with new ideas and boundless energy.

NFL Films cameramen

Too often, the two sides don’t see eye to eye, which I guess is natural.  But we should all remember that life moves quickly in the entertainment business.  The Old Masters must understand that it’s the natural order of things for a fresh crop of talent to bring their ideas to the table and see what they’re worth.  And those confident Young Geniuses should never forget that one day they too will be hurtling toward retirement, forced to answer to more energetic youngsters whose fresh ideas outweigh multiple Emmys and years of experience.

And if future generations of employees find themselves wondering how to maintain the integrity of NFL Films, they need only take a close look at the men who built the company – Ed and Steve Sabol, the perfect example of creative co-existence.  As Steve says in A Football Life, “Leadership in a film company is the liberation of talent.

In Ed, NFL Films had a true visionary and a master of salesmanship.  And in Steve, it was blessed with a creative genius who remains young at heart to this day.

Wherever life leads me, I doubt I’ll ever work for two better men.

Click here for our complete collection of posts on the biography series, “A Football Life.”

%d bloggers like this: