NFL Films marks 25 years of greatest hits


Steve Sabol is a guy who knows a local angle.

Sabol, president of NFL Films takes a call from a reporter, ascertains the voice on the other end is from Baltimore and immediately starts humming the Baltimore Colts' fight song.

After the musica1 interlude, Sabol immediately waxes poetic on the atmosphere for Colts games at Memorial Stadium, how it always seemed to be misty, how the lighting and weather always gave highlight films a kind of black-and-white, surreal quality.

And then Sabol is off extolling the wonderful characters who made up the Colts of the 1950s and '60s. "I think we've done more features on that team than any other," Sabol said, adding that Colts Hall of Famer-turned-raconteur Art Donovan is "the Boswell of the NFL."

If such sobriquets are going to be tossed around, why not say Sabol is the Homer of the NFL, for NFL Films has done as much to celebrate the heroes and develop the mythology of the league as any other single source. In fact, the late patriarch of the Chicago Bears, George Halas, called NFL Films "the keepers of the flame."

That flame officially was lighted in the 1965 season, when NFL Films moved from producing films of championship games to all regular--season games. So, to celebrate, "This is the NFL," one of NFL Films' syndicated television shows, is featuring a best-of package for three programs, the second and third of which air today and next Sunday at noon on Channel 2.

"We started in the summer (gathering materials)," said Sabol, who started as a cameraman and has succeeded his father, Ed, as head of the company. "It was going to be a half-hour show, but we saw we had so much stuff."

And what stuff NFL Films always has had. Though network television eventually came to adopt many of NFL Films' innovations - the ground-level camera, the bench close-ups - no one presents football the same.

"So many things done live are things that we pioneered," said Sabol, who also is host of "This Is the NFL." But television can't duplicate the sound the way we can."

For one thing, television surely couldn't risk broadcasting live, uncensored sounds from a pro football field all game long. But, beyond the opportunity to edit, NFL Films does capture those marvelous, primal grunts of football players in action and the bleep-dotted ravings of the head coaches on the sidelines.

Then there are the pictures them-selves - close-ups that fairly jump off the screen, action shots that put the viewer on the 50-yard line. All this is done with two cameras, one high above the field, one on ground level. So, why are NFL Films' images so arresting? In large part, Sabol said, it's the film itself.

"Film has a sense of history. Tape is flat," he said. "If you saw 'Indiana Jones' on tape, it would have no sense of wonder."

Putting film up against videotape, Sabol said, is "like comparing wood to Formica."

And Sabol is no Formica man.

"We're romantics. We're myth-makers," he said.

But it's also the game that makes NFL Films' work so compelling, Sabol said.

"Other sports don't have the gladiatorial atmosphere. . . . How many times can you look at a dunk?" he said.

For all the mythmaking, Sabol said, "One of the things I am proudest of is that we can make fun of ourselves."

Ah, yes, the "Football Follies," those reels of fumbles, flops and other folderol that make a serious sport seem funny indeed.

Sabol said NFL Films wasn't sure what to make of its first "Funnies" - done in 1967 - until the lowlights were screened for the Philadelphia Eagles at training camp. The Eagles thought the show was hilarious, and another NFL Films star was born.

Today's "This is the NFL" will focus on pro football's great personalities, something Sabol said today's NFL is lacking.

"They're more homogenized," he said. "The players all watch television, and they copy each other (in how they act)."

In the 1960s, Sabol said, "Interviews were more genuine. They didn't have that veneer."

That isn't the only change Sabol has noticed over 25 years.

"The game has been sanitized. If the rules in effect today were around then, most of the guys in the Hall of Fame would've been fined more than they made in salary," he said, mentioning Herb Adderley, Bob Lilly and Deacon Jones as among those whose styles would have been severely cramped. "The hitting is more intense (now), but it's less violent."

Maybe so, but, in selecting its all-time greatest hit for last week's show, NFL Films picked one of recent vintage -- the knockout blow by the New York Giants' Jim Burt against the San Francisco 49ers' Joe Montana in the 1986 playoff game that led to the National Football Conference title game against the Washington Redskins.

As I watched that hit, maybe I got the message behind the real appeal of NFL Films, and it had nothing to do with Boswell, Homer or gladiatorial atmosphere. Seeing Montana get decked, a 1 1/2-year-old who lives at my house stared wide-eyed and declared, "Uh-oh."

NFL Films has given us 25 years of pretty good "uh-ohs" so far.

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