Steve Sabol’s tales from the Super Bowl
Down . . . set . . . uncut!
The 44th Super Bowl is at hand, and NFL Films has been there for every one of them, documenting not just what happens on the field but many things that even the most ardent fans wouldn’t otherwise see.
NFL Films founder Ed Sabol started it all when, in 1962, he bid $3,000 for the film rights to the NFL championship game.
Since, the company has filmed more than 9,300 NFL games, and shoots enough 16-millimeter film per season to stretch from Indianapolis to New Orleans -- with almost 200 miles of celluloid to spare.
Steve Sabol, Ed’s son, started as an NFL Films cameraman and eventually took over for his father as president of the company. He recently sat down with Times NFL writer Sam Farmer and told some of his many behind-the-scenes Super Bowl stories -- memories of Don Shula’s missing Rolex, the most unusual hotel in New Orleans, the necktie that got Vince Lombardi in trouble with his wife, and that mystery man -- the naked one -- in the Steelers’ locker room.
Some of the stuff from the cutting-room floor:
Odd man in
In Super Bowl XIII, Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw threw four touchdown passes to lead the Steelers to a 35-31 win over Dallas at the Orange Bowl in Miami.
But there was one Steelers fan who had an even better day.
First, let me say that it was my job to be the first cameraman in the Steelers’ locker room after the game. When I got there, I saw somebody I didn’t recognize. A pasty-white little bald guy -- turns out it was a Pittsburgh fan -- had gotten into the locker room, taken off all his clothes, and was in there showering with the players.
Somehow, he had gotten past all the Super Bowl security, police, guard dogs, everything, and had sneaked in. It was really steamy in the locker room, and I remember having to continually wipe the lens of my camera. Every time I’d look up, I’d see this little bald guy in the shower with Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, Dwight White.
I’d been around the Steelers long enough to know this guy wasn’t a trainer or an equipment guy. Who the hell was he? It was obvious he wasn’t a player. So I went over to talk to Joe Greene at his locker, and during the course of the interview, this guy comes out of the shower and starts getting dressed in front of a locker near Joe’s. I said, “Joe, who is this guy?” And Joe’s exact words were, “I don’t know who . . . he is.”
Now, some guys are sheepish about walking around naked in those situations. That wasn’t this guy. No modesty at all.
So he goes and parks himself in front of Larry Brown’s locker. And I think this is the best part: Suddenly, three reporters come over and start interviewing him about the game! First of all, Larry Brown was a 6-foot-4, 260-pound, big, muscular African American guy. This was a little white guy. Not only that, but Larry Brown didn’t even suit up for the game.
Well, this guy was going along with the interview for a while. But the reporters figured out pretty quickly that this wasn’t Larry Brown. Ever since then, I’ve always been kind of leery about any kind of locker-room quote from the Super Bowl.
Anyway, this fan got dressed and walked out of the locker room. And I’m sure wherever he is today, he’s got a great Super Bowl story that nobody believes.
The tie that binds
Everybody always said Green Bay Packers Coach Vince Lombardi was so confident before the first Super Bowl. That wasn’t the case at all. It’s not that he was unsure about his team, but he realized that if he lost, everything he stood for -- the legacy of the Packers and all those championships -- would be diminished because he lost to this upstart league.
That whole week he had been getting calls from NFL owners telling him that the prestige of the league was on his shoulders. It was an enormous amount of pressure. If he lost, it would be humiliating.
Frank Gifford was going to interview him before the game, and I was the cameraman. You could see that Lombardi was very tense. Gifford had his arm around him and asked him a few questions, and the coach was giving very perfunctory answers. When Lombardi walked away, Frank said, “Look at my hand.” The arm of his sports jacket was soaking wet because Lombardi was sweating so profusely.
Coaches wore a coat and tie in those days, and Lombardi was so tense before the game that he tied his Windsor knot as small as a marble. It was one of those things that as a cameraman you notice.
The Packers won the game, and we followed Lombardi off the field as he headed for the locker room. After he accepted the championship trophy, he began to get undressed. He tried to loosen his tie, but he couldn’t get it off.
The trainer, Dad Brashier, came over with a tape cutter and said, “Coach, just a minute . . . " He just cut the tie off. Nobody thought much of it at the time.
We went back to Green Bay about a month later to show Lombardi the film. He had a game room and a bar in his basement, and he set up the projector and movie screen down there. That’s where he liked to show his coaches the highlight films. He liked to tend bar down there, and he served drinks called White Cadillacs, which were basically vodka.
Lombardi loved jokes too. He’d laugh at them, but he could never tell them. He’d always screw up the punch lines. Everybody was so nervous, they’d just laugh when they thought they should.
The coach was running the projector. It was one of those old threaded ones, and he liked to thread it and fiddle with the focus. At the end of the film you could see he was struggling with his tie. We didn’t show the trainer cutting it off.
When the film was over, we could hear it slapping on the reel. Usually, Lombardi would stop it, but the slapping kept going. There was a discussion going on. We looked back and found out it was all about the tie.
It was Lombardi’s wife, Marie. She had had a lot to drink and she was angry. She had given him that tie as a Christmas present. Apparently, it was a Hermes tie she had picked out in New York and it was very expensive. She couldn’t believe that he had the audacity to have someone cut that tie.
“How could you do that!” she screamed. “How could you be so stupid! You should have left it on! That tie was silk! Do you know that cost $40!”
The whole evening just went downhill after that. Lombardi was sort of subdued, and Marie was in a bad mood.
Who could have guessed Super Bowl I would have ended with a tie?
(New Orleans) Saint Elsewhere
There have been nine Super Bowls in New Orleans, and not all of them have brought the best of luck to NFL Films.
We got robbed twice there, got food poisoning, and my hotel room was broken into on the day the Bears played the Patriots in January 1986.
We had a little sign on the room that said NFL Films, and that obviously caught someone’s eye. I had a suite with a big TV in there because I was showing “Road to the Super Bowl” to the media.
On game day, somebody broke into the room, and although they didn’t really steal anything, they sure made a mess.
The garbage pail was stuffed with pizza boxes and Cokes, and there was a bill for $600 in room service. They just sat and watched the game on the big screen. When the game was over, they left.
But our most memorable story came at one of the earlier Super Bowls in New Orleans.
We were staying at a place called the Bienville House. It’s still there, on Decatur Street. We had a group of about 40 people then, and a lot of equipment.
When we went to check in, the concierge said, “Oh, N-F-L, does that stand for National Football League? We have 20 rooms for you.” And my father told him we needed more rooms. We needed storage for our equipment, and we had booked more than 20 rooms.
And the concierge said, “We had to re-sell your rooms. There’s a dry cleaners convention here, and they’re paying more money.”
We had 10 people who had no place to stay. Everything in town was booked. Luckily, one of our assistant cameramen -- actually, he was an amateur photographer and he knew how to load the cameras -- was a doctor at a local hospital. He said he could arrange a place for us to stay, a place we might not expect: the hospital where he worked.
So we drew straws, and 10 guys went to the hospital, where they were admitted under the designation “unconfining observation.” That meant they could come and go as they pleased. I’d never heard of that, but it was really resourceful.
Our head cameraman was named Moe Kellman, and he got one of the hospital rooms. He didn’t have a private room, though; he shared it with a guy hooked up to some kind of defibrillator, with tubes coming out of him and everything. This guy was legitimately sick. But he could talk.
The next night we had a meeting, and Moe comes in looking sick. He was our oldest cameraman, in his 60s, and he was white as a sheet. He comes in and says, “The guy next to me died last night. I was talking to him and went to bed. The next thing I know, that machine showed a flat line and was buzzing. They were pounding on his chest. I’ve never been in a situation like that. I don’t know if I can work today. I’m really upset.”
So we had to switch our main guy to an isolation camera, he was so emotionally overwrought. He said, “I’ve never been next to a man who died in the middle of the night. Plus, I knew his name. He was a World War II veteran. We’d talked about our children.”
That was a strange trip.
Kansas City’s Hank Stram was the first coach to wear a microphone in the Super Bowl. Getting him to do it wasn’t easy.
It was January 1970, when the Chiefs were playing the Vikings in Super Bowl IV at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.
Hank had the whole top floor of the Sonesta Hotel, with one bedroom just for his clothes. I always said he was the only man to win the Super Bowl wearing a toupee and a sports jacket made out of the same material -- beautiful jacket, bad toupee.
He was a very vain guy, and underneath his suit he wore a vest made out of scuba material just to keep his stomach in. That’s what he was wearing when my dad and I went up to see him in his hotel suite on Saturday before the game.
When we got up to his room, he was wearing that scuba vest and these little tight shorts. He was watching college football, and he had this incredible spread of food and crudités -- Crab Remick, Shrimp Louie, pralines . . .
My dad said, ‘Hank, we’ve miked you once for a game, and we think it would be great for history if you could wear a mike for the Super Bowl.’ Hank had this vocabulary where he’d use funny words. [He called my father and me “Big Schmush” and “Little Schmush” for some reason.] He’d also refer to himself in the third person as “The Mentor.”
So Hank said, “The Mentor will consider that, but there’s going to have to be some coin of the realm that changes hands if The Mentor were to wear a microphone in the World Championship Game of Professional Football.”
Well, we didn’t know what that meant. We didn’t pay anybody in those days. And Hank said, “Schmush, some dead presidents. Something I can fold up and put in my wallet. That’s what I want.”
My dad thought about it and said, “How about $250?”
Hank said, “That won’t even pay for The Mentor’s dry cleaning! Schmush, you’re going to have to do better than that.”
We eventually got up to $750, and that was a big deal back then. Hank agreed to do it, but only if we would bring it in cash right into the locker room. Can you imagine doing that in this day and age? Bringing a wad of cash into the locker room to pay the coach?
Anyway, Hank wore the mike, and he was terrific. He was so confident that the Chiefs were going to win, it was like having Henny Youngman on the sidelines. Everything was a one-liner. He was so funny, I couldn’t keep the camera steady. It was jiggling because I was laughing so hard.
“Keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys!”
“65 toss power trap. What’d I tell ya, boys? 65 toss power trap!”
He understood that he was on the biggest stage possible, and he was an entertainer. This was going to be his greatest moment.
Hank was the kind of coach where, if he were a card player with a great hand, he’d clean the table. And he did that day. That was a butt-whipping -- and he told us all about it.
Of handshakes and handguns
Some of the strangest and most memorable Super Bowl stories are the ones that happen just after the game has ended.
Think back to the Miami Dolphins’ “perfect” season in 1972. Remember when Don Shula was carried off the field after his team beat the Redskins? Well, most people have a very different memory about what happened than Shula does.
We showed the film of that game to Shula, and we were looking at that shot. He said, “You know, I never said anything to anybody, but when I was being lifted out, somebody stole my watch. I could feel somebody grabbed my hand, and I wasn’t sure why they were trying to grab my hand. When I got back to the locker room, I realized my watch was gone. Somebody ripped it off!”
We could see the watch on the film, but we couldn’t see who it was that took it. That shot of Shula is from a low angle, but you can see hands reaching up and a whole sequence of people grabbing at him and trying to shake his hand. We couldn’t pinpoint who it was.
That’s something that could show up on EBay someday: Don Shula’s perfect Rolex.
A few years earlier, Shula coached the Baltimore Colts against the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. At the end of that game, my job was to go in the locker room. The memory there I have is going into the locker room, and for some reason the Jets -- who had just pulled off this big upset -- had closed the locker room for about 10 minutes. Nobody could get in.
I was under the stands standing next to Pat Summerall and the commissioner, Pete Rozelle. This just shows you how PR-conscious Pete was: because he was caught off guard to the Jets had won. And he was quizzing Pat Summerall, “Who are the leading receivers for the Jets?”
And Pat would say, “Well it’s Don Maynard, and it’s George Sauer.” And Pete said, “Who are the names on the defense?” So Pete was getting like a prep from Pat, so when Pete went in to present and talk to the players he knew their numbers and everything. He wasn’t aware of that until the very end when he realized, “I’m going to have to present this trophy. I’m going to have to shake their hands.”
You could see Pete’s mind registering all these names so when he went in there he didn’t want to call the player by the wrong name, he wanted to seem gracious and knowledgeable. I always thought that showed a lot about Rozelle that he really cared, he really wanted to know everybody’s name, where they went to college.
Then, there was Super Bowl XXI at the Rose Bowl between Denver and the New York Giants. One of the guys we were profiling was Giants receiver Phil McConkey. He had a great story: coming from the Naval Academy, not being drafted, making the team, Bill Parcells cuts him and then he comes back. We isolated a camera on him throughout the game.
McConkey was the guy that Parcells told before the game to run out of the tunnel ahead of everybody and wave the towel when they were playing “New York, New York.” It was his job to get the crowd fired up. And he did.
He could have fired things up in a different way after the Giants won the game. We have a shot of him running off the field during the celebration and all of a sudden he stops, reaches down and picks up something. We weren’t sure what it was at first. Turns out, it was a gun!
It must have fallen out of policeman’s holster, and it was loaded. McConkey just picked it up and handed it to a security guy. Later, McConkey told us, “What a great night. If I’d have had more presence of mind, I would have started firing that gun into the air like one of those old Westerns.”
Good thing he didn’t think of that at the time.
No ordinary Joe
There have been a lot of entertaining Super Bowl coaches. But there’s one coach I only wish could have reached the biggest stage, a coach who would have drawn reporters 20 deep at his podium: Joe Kuharich.
Kuharich coached the Philadelphia Eagles from 1964 through 1968, and he was one of the most challenging interviews I can remember. He was long-winded and bombastic, but in a very amusing way.
His sentences were like this long train that would be rolling along and then somehow fall off the tracks, where you weren’t sure where they were going. The train would be lying there on its side, and the wheels would still be spinning. The front half of his sentences would rarely match up with the back half.
He would come up with some of the greatest mixed metaphors. He would talk about a guy busting through the line “like a bat on a hill.” Or he’d talk about somebody being “a different kettle of fish.” Or somebody would have an idea and Joe would say, “Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if it floats.”
He had another great line once when someone was asking him about coaching. (The reason I remember these is I started writing them down.) Somebody was saying how complicated it was, and Joe said, “Wait a minute. This is not rocket surgery.”
That might have been the best one I’ve ever heard. You figure it was either going to be brain surgery or rocket science, but with him it ended up rocket surgery.
In 1966, he had three different starting quarterbacks: King Hill, Norm Snead and Jack Concannon. He would never tell you which one was going to start because he would make that determination on how far their kick returner would run back the opening kickoff.
If he had a short return, he would put in King Hill because he was the best ballhandler. If the return got to the 30, he’d put in Norm Snead because he was the best all-around quarterback. But if they got a really good return, Joe would put in Jack Concannon because he was a scrambler and he could run a lot of reverses and stuff.
Someone asked Joe if that was a really unusual strategy, and the coach’s response was, “It’s rare, but not unusual.” That answer just sort of hung in the air. Everybody just kind of sat there and looked at each other.
In 1968, the season started really bad, and fans were flying these banners that read “Joe Must Go.” Then, three games before the end of the season, the Eagles won two in a row. Joe had the perfect response.
“I think things are going to get better,” he said. “I can see the carrot at the end of the tunnel.”