He made football more than just a game. Steve Sabol made football important to me, to my family, and to fans all over the world. Asked to define his job at NFL Films, the production company’s President responded “…to bring a new understanding to something that’s already been seen. To give a creative treatment to reality.” He and his father, Ed, achieved that by turning the NFL game into a never ending story. Every game, season, individual player and franchise serve as separate chapters to this story enhanced by cinematography, editing, writing, directing, and producing thanks to NFL Films (Steve Sabol earned over 40 Emmys alone in those specific categories). My father growing up in the 1960s and 70s fell in love with football, thanks to the TV programs, films, and documentaries produced by NFL Films, and he shared that passion with me.
I was a young grade school kid when I first became interested in sports. I played rec-league soccer and YMCA basketball because my friends did. The Michael Jordan Bulls were the only team I really paid attention to on TV. I mean who didn’t? I didn’t really know much about football before registering for the local youth league team in the 4th grade. But it was around that time when my dad introduced me to the 1985 Chicago Bears. He broke out this old VHS tape that chronicled the season of the Super Bowl XX Champions. There were game by game highlights and stories showcasing all the greats from that team back dropped by custom musical scores from Sam Spence. This is how I was introduced to Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, Steve McMichael, Otis Wilson, Kevin Butler, and Walter Payton. This era was well before my time but I felt like I was actually living it thanks to my dad and this VHS tape that was produced by Steve Sabol.
After what felt like the thousandth time watching that, I wanted to see more and learn more about the NFL. There was the documentary of the very first Super Bowl featuring Vince Lombardi’s Packers against the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967. There was Hank Stram calling for the 65-toss power trap nonstop in Super Bowl IV. There was the blooper reel featuring comedian Jonathan Winters called “Football Follies.” And of course several taped programs and documentaries narrated by “the voice of God,” John Facenda. I was hooked to the slow motion replays, the in-game sound bytes, and all the drama and suspense manufactured by Sabol’s vision. That’s how I learned that I didn’t necessarily have to play the game in order to contribute to it for a living.
Steve Sabol was a football player majoring in Art History at Colorado College. His father called him one day and told him, “Judging by your grades, I can see you like to spend your time playing football and going to the movies.” That assessment was perfect criteria to join the family business after Ed won the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship between the Giants and the Packers at Yankee Stadium. Steve was a cameraman at that game. He did every job possible at NFL Films, and even as President could do it all as well as anyone. Sabol’s artistic gift for sports film birthed revolutionary innovations such as super slow motion, wireless microphones on players, and reverse angle replays. These innovations didn’t just recap a game for you, but thoroughly told a story. Evolved and improved, the same ideas originated at NFL Films are used in every aspect of film today whether it’s a highlight program like ESPN’s Sportcenter, a television series like HBO’s “Hard Knocks”, or any full-length feature film.
"Steve was the creative genius behind NFL Films' remarkable work," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Tuesday in an email to NFL personnel. "Steve's passion for football was matched only by his talent and energy. He was a major contributor to the success of the NFL, a man who changed the way we looked at football and sports, and a great friend. His legacy is assured.” That legacy is present every time we watch a perfect Aaron Rodgers spiral being thrown on the run from our HD TVs, when we listen to an uplifting sideline speech from Ray Lewis, and when we recount the “Immaculate Reception” at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 23, 1972. "My dad has a great expression," Sabol said when his father's induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was announced. "Tell me a fact, and I'll learn. Tell me a truth, and I'll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.”
To one of the greatest story tellers to ever live, your stories will live on in our hearts forever. May you rest in peace, Steve Sabol.
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