Remembering Steve Sabol: NFL Films Storyteller

Let me be clear. If there’s one thing that you read today, let it be this:

Steve Sabol is the reason why you watch the NFL.

Steve Sabol

Steve Sabol, co-founder of NFL Films passed away Tuesday, aged 69.

You may argue that it was your dad who introduced you to the game, maybe you fell in love with the game through playing it in school or heck it may have even been Madden 2003 with Marshall Faulk gracing the cover.

Ultimately though, it was Steve Sabol who reached out through that TV and pulled you into the game, where you stood for the first time with wide eyes, unable to take your eyes off the poetry in motion that was unfolding before you.

Steve Sabol wanted people to “See the reality, not as an instant replay but rather as a motion film.” It was this kind of vision and creative genius that along with his father, helped revolutionise sports broadcasting and the way that we saw the game.

Today we mourn the loss of Steve Sabol, who passed away at the age of 69; 2 weeks shy of his 70th birthday after an 18 month battle with brain cancer.

However, although we mourn the loss of the loss we should also celebrate the life of the long-time president and mastermind of NFL Films. And what a life it has been for the brilliant cinematic mind of Sabol, who was undoubtedly the heart beat of NFL Films.

In an interview (as seen in Peter King’s SI column on Sabol here) Sabol spoke of his life and legacy.

“So they talk about heaven, and I don’t know what is waiting for me up there. But I can tell you this: Nothing will happen up there that can duplicate my life down here. That life cannot be better than the one I’ve lived down here, the football life. It’s been perfect.”

Perfect indeed. Just like the product he produced on film. There wasn’t a detail Steve would miss. A lineman’s taped up hands covered in mud, blood dripping from a broken nose. The smallest detail, helped paint the picture for the story he wanted to tell and we’ll never see someone like Sabol again; that much is certain.

His genius, his artistry and vision with the camera, his talent with the sound, writing, directing, editing.. it all helped transform what we see before us on Sunday. For more than half a century, he put his heart, his soul into NFL Films and he created a legacy that will always be remembered.

To better paint the picture of the man, here is a perfect clip from the very network that wouldn’t be possible without Steve’s decades of countless work.

Steve, as an art history major at Colorado College and an All-American running back, was able to entwine the 2 seamlessly, as if it was something that had always gone together. But up until NFL Films, America had not known such storytelling, especially in relation to sports.

It was the 1962 Championship Game, Packers vs. Giants at Yankee Stadium. Steve’s father Ed, who had founded Blair Motion Pictures, had won the rights to film the game, at a cost of $3,000.

Steve recalled the moment he received a call from his father, after winning the bid. “I see from your grades that you’ve been doing nothing but playing football and watching movies,” Sabol told his son. “But that makes you uniquely qualified for this new position I have in mind.”

Steve took the field on that blistery, cold day as a cameraman. The elements were so strong, team benches blew over during the game and cameramen from TV networks had to defrost their lenses with bonfires in the dugouts. One cameraman suffered frostbite. It was truly a horrid day, but a beautiful beginning as the birth of NFL Films. It was the game that impressed then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozell, who asked the owners of the NFL to purchase Ed Sabol’s company. It was then, that NFL Films was born, co-founded by Ed and Steve.

Jim Taylor

From there the Sabol’s brought in Sam Spence to compose the iconic NFL Films soundtracks that would play over the clips of legendary running backs charging towards the camera in slow motion or players standing on the sidelines, the cold air visible through their facemask. On top of Spence, the team added John Facenda – the man with the voice of silk. As Ed Sabol said, he could make reading a shopping list sound like the Declaration of Independence. To NFL fans, he is known as “The Voice of God.” Facenda’s soothing baritone voice was the perfect match for the dramatic nature of the footage he narrated.

And it was Facenda himself who famously read a poem written by Steve Sabol. Titled, “The Autumn Wind” which described the Autumn weather of the football season, it’s also known as the “Battle Hymn of the Raider Nation.”

(If watching those clips I’ve linked above doesn’t give you goose bumps, nothing in the NFL on Sunday will.)

The way in which Ed and Steve worked together as a team, was remarkable. But it was Steve, who helped innovate and orchestrate the footage. He would chronicle characters, deftly describe a play with slow motion, convey emotion with a composition as well as humour, just like a Hollywood film; just like a storyteller would.

“We see the game as art as much as sport,” Steve Sabol told The Associated Press when his father was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.

People were only watching football. Then Steve came along with his eye for detail, his love of film, football, art and with a work ethic and passion that no one could match, he moulded a product that helped teach us about the game, more so than anyone else ever could.

He introduced slow motion and reverse angle replays, close up shots of players. There was the close up shot of the pigskin in the air (labelled “Tight as a Spiral” shot.) There were microphones on players, coaches, along the sidelines to pickup the sounds of the game as well as sideline chatter. NFL Films also featured the home team’s radio broadcast dubbed over the film, as the radio commentators tended to convey more passion.

With the dramatic orchestra soundtrack by Spence, the deep voice of Facenda (and later Harry Kalas) it was like combining ballet and football onto the small screen.

Sabol also helped us take the game less seriously and help show it for what it was.. a game. We were able to laugh at football (and at first, made coaches scorn as the footage made them “look like chumps”) with the Follies series, which debuted in the late 60s and was proven to be a popular staple of the NFL Films product.

No doubt, Sabol leaves behind a legacy.

Commissioner of the NFL Roger Goodell released this statement on the passing of Sabol:

“Steve Sabol was the creative genius behind the remarkable work of NFL Films. Steve’s passion for football was matched by his incredible talent and energy. Steve’s legacy will be part of the NFL forever. He was a major contributor to the success of the NFL, a man who changed the way we look at football and sports, and a great friend.”

 A true icon, Steve wanted to be the best. Master his art. In his own words, he wanted to “bring an understanding, to something that has already been seen; to bring creative treatment, to reality.”

What started as a father’s dream, became a reality because of his son. I for one am thankful for Steve, Ed and the NFL Films team that pioneered the way we see football. Without their hard work, their talent, leadership and brilliance, I believe the NFL would not be as popular as it is in 2012.

Throughout his career, Steve has won over 40 Emmy awards himself for writing cinematography, editing, directing and producing. NFL Films as a company, has won over 100 Emmys since its 1962 establishment.

Steve and Ed both received the Lifetime Achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2003 & Ed Sabol, was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year as a contributor to the game.

I  would love to see Steve in there posthumously, as he is above any other player in deserving such an honour and should be right there with his father. I believe the NFL would put him there in a heartbeat, but that will be up to the Pro Hall of Fame committee to decide what’s best for the man who embodied exactly what ‘A Football Life’ is.

Steve is survived by his wife Penny, his son Casey, his parents Audrey and Ed, and his sister Blair. Rest in Peace.

If you love reading up on Steve or NFL Films and want to read some other fantastic articles on those very subjects, here’s a few links worth checking out: