Ed Sabol, a onetime coat salesman who talked his way into a job as the official motion-picture chronicler of National Football League action and whose dramatic action films played a crucial role in making pro football America’s most popular spectator sport, died Feb. 9 at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 98 .
The NFL announced the death but did not disclose the cause.
Mr. Sabol founded NFL Films in 1962 and ran the company for decades with his son, Steve Sabol, who died in 2012. Their slow-motion style of documentary filmmaking, with a tight focus on spiraling passes in flight, close-ups of the anxiety on players’ faces and vivid footage of the hard-hitting game at ground level, captured the sweaty drama, violence — and beauty — of pro football in a fresh and provocative way.
Mr. Sabol deliberately modeled his football films after Hollywood epics, with symphonic film scores, dramatic conflict and bone-crunching collisions shown in slow motion from multiple angles. Film was edited into short moments of action, intensifying the excitement in ways that previous sports highlights had never done.
With scripts that echoed the cadences of epic poetry, Mr. Sabol and his son created an aura of mythic heroism in their films, helping propel the NFL into a national obsession.
“When you talk about the popularity of the NFL, Ed Sabol is one of the seminal figures in the history of the league,” Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday night NFL telecast, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “NFL Films created this mythology and aura about the game that hooked the whole country. They took people who were somewhat faceless and made them larger than life. They could make a three-yard run look like Armaggedon.”
Since the 1960s, NFL Films has won more than 100 Emmy Awards, including a lifetime achievement Emmy for Mr. Sabol and his son in 2004. Mr. Sabol was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 — as one of the few people who neither played nor coached the game. The Sporting News named Ed and Steve Sabol as two of the 100 most influential people in sports in the 20th century.
Mr. Sabol’s first film for the NFL was the 1962 championship game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, but he found his signature style in 1966 with “They Call It Pro Football,” which is now included in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
“It was our ‘Citizen Kane,’ ” Steve Sabol once said.
The script, which became the model for countless later films, was a blend of sideline cheerleading and an invocation of heroes. The musical score by composer Sam Spence, who wrote the equivalent of 70 symphonies for NFL Films, added a rhythmic pulse and cinematic impact.
John Facenda, a Philadelphia newscaster hired by Mr. Sabol, became so recognizable as the narrator of NFL Films that he was known as “the voice of God.”
“It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun,” he said in “They Call It Pro Football,” reciting lines written by Steve Sabol. “The drama begins with a slap of leather and the song of men in motion.”
Mr. Sabol realized that the final score of the game was not as important as the ritual of football, the loyalty of the crowd, the grace of the players and the unfolding of an all-American spectacle.
“I wanted pictures of faces and hands,” Mr. Sabol told Sports Illustrated in 1984. “I wanted better music. I wanted to copy Hollywood. I wanted to be enterprising and exciting. Even though the people saw the game on television, I wanted them to have a reason to watch the game again.”
When a quarterback throws a pass downfield in one of the Sabols’ films, he is not merely trying to make a first down at the 35-yard-line. Each spiral is lovingly captured on film, and the ball’s progress is described with Jovian authority: “The forward pass in the hands of the pro quarterback is a bolt of lightning that can strike anytime, anywhere.”
In time, the Sabols’ innovations began to have a reverse influence on the Hollywood movies that had been their inspiration. A long slow-motion shootout sequence in Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western “The Wild Bunch” reputedly was the first of many mainstream movies influenced by NFL Films.
“NFL highlight reels had a real impact on how movies get made, particulary montages,” director Ron Howard told the New York Times in 2000. “Lots of different images. Images on images. Using the slow-motion, combined with the live action. The hard-hitting sound effects, juxtaposed against incredible music, powerful music, creating a really emotional experience for the viewer.”
Early in his filmmaking career, Mr. Sabol noticed that a football field was the same shape as a movie screen, creating unlimited possibilities for storytelling.
“Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn,” he often said. “Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.”
He and his son presented football in a way that had never been seen or heard before, whether it was a close-up of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert’s toothless grimace, the bulging eyes of Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary or Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi on the sidelines, screaming, “What the hell is going on out there?”
The microphones of NFL Films often captured comic moments, as when Kansas City Chiefs Coach Hank Stram exhorted his players during Super Bowl IV, “Just keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys.”
As the decades passed, Mr. Sabol’s filmmaking style became inseparable from pro football itself.
“Our game lends itself to the majestic,” former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann told Atlantic magazine in 2012. “Ed Sabol figured that out early.”
Edwin Milton Sabol was born in Atlantic City on Sept. 11, 1916. He was a competitive swimmer from an early age and received a swimming scholarship to Ohio State University, where he also was active in the drama society.
He dropped out of school, moved to New York and had small parts in theater before World War II cut short his show business aspirations. One of Mr. Sabol’s indelible wartime memories, while serving as an Army rifleman in Europe, was of sitting on his helmet in a field in France, listening to a speech by his commanding general, George S. Patton.
“He was magnificent, a real showman,” Mr. Sabol told the Atlantic in 2012. “He knew how important the theatrical things are at the brutal moments. As long as he was talking, we were not afraid.”
After the war, he began working for his father-in-law’s clothing business in Philadelphia, selling overcoats.
“I used to tell my wife all the time that it was like going to the dentist every morning,” he told CBSSports.com in 2004. “I was doing quite well, and it wasn’t the money. I was not happy doing what I was doing.”
Because Mr. Sabol enjoyed making home movies, he started to film his son’s high school football games with a 16-mm Bell & Howell camera, adding music and editing the results for dramatic impact.
After forming a film company, Blair Productions, named for his daughter, Mr. Sabol paid $3,000 for the rights to film the 1962 NFL title game, outbidding several other bidders.
It was so cold at the game that he started a bonfire in one of the dugouts at Yankee Stadium to help thaw out cameras and cameramen. The raw film was dumped into what he once described as “a laundry hamper full of frozen spaghetti.”
After the footage was edited, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle pronounced it “the best football film I ever saw.”
In 1964, the NFL bought Mr. Sabol’s company, which is now based in Mount Laurel, N.J., and left the filmmakers alone to do what they did best. In the years since, NFL Films has helped make pro football the most popular sport on television.
At first, crusty coaches were reluctant to allow cameras anywhere near their teams or the field of play. But Mr. Sabol was “a salesman pure and simple,” his son told the Atlantic.
“He was the only one who could talk the old coaches into letting us on the sidelines and into the locker rooms, letting us mic them up for sound,” Steve Sabol said. “They would say, ‘Absolutely not.’ Then he would sit them down and say, ‘We’re going to make you bigger than John Wayne.’ ”
As the Sabols’ enterprise began to grow, every NFL game was filmed with multiple cameras. Dozens of documentaries appeared, including one about each Super Bowl championship, and projects of NFL Films are shown on virtually every major TV network.
“Anybody who has ever produced a football game at any level,” NBC’s Gaudelli said, “you always thought about how NFL Films presented the game, from camera angles, sound, music, even in their storytelling. They’re the gold standard.”
In addition to Facenda, who died in 1984, narrators for NFL Films have included Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, Orson Welles, Vincent Price, Laurence Fishburne, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis, Gene Hackman and Donald Sutherland.
NFL Films has been criticized for ignoring the dark side of football, including injuries and long-term brain damage to players, but its role has always been that of mythmaker, not investigator.
In addition to pro football, the company is a repository of historic sports footage, dating back to a football game between Princeton and Rutgers, filmed by Thomas Edison in 1894. NFL Films also covers other major sporting events, from tennis championships and horse racing to golf tournaments, the NBA Finals, World Series and Stanley Cup.
Mr. Sabol retired from the day-to-day running of NFL Films in 1995 and settled in Arizona. His son was the face of the company until his death three years ago from brain cancer at age 69.
Mr. Sabol is survived by his wife of 74 years, Audrey, his daughter, Blair, and grandson, Casey.
Pro football may have come to dominate autumn in America even without the filmmaking of Mr. Sabol and his son, but no one denies it was their vision that gave the game its sense of drama, action and everlasting appeal.
“Special men in a special game,” narrator Facenda said in “They Call It Pro Football.” “A uniquely American game with a history as rich and as rugged as the country in which it was born.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that NFL Films is located in Mount Holly, N.J. It is in Mount Laurel, N.J.