Steve Sabol died this morning
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Steve Sabol, who was the creative force behind NFL Films, his father’s innovative enterprise that melded cinematic ingenuity, martial metaphors and symphonic music to lend professional football the aura of myth and help fuel its rise in popularity, died on Tuesday in Moorestown, N.J. He was 69.
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Steve Sabol, as a producer, writer, director and cameraman for NFL Films, created the images and sounds it became famous for.
The cause was brain cancer, said Dan Masonson, the National Football League said in a statement. Mr. Sabol learned of the cancer in March 2011.
In 1960, pro football the nation’s fourth most popular spectator sport after baseball, college football and boxing. But over the next decade, it rocketed to first place in polls, television ratings and revenue, and NFL Films, begun in 1962, helped propel it. Sports Illustrated called the enterprise “perhaps the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America.”
Although his father, Ed, founded NFL Films, Steve Sabol — the producer, writer, director and cameraman — created the images and sounds it became famous for: a kicked football floating end-over-end or a pigskin bullet spiraling in slow motion; a row of bruised and dirtied gladiators hunkering on the sideline; the crunch of bodies brawling at the line of scrimmage or colliding in the open field.
And overlaying all of it was stirring orchestral music and, for many years, the ringing narration of John Facenda, a former television news anchor in Philadelphia whose rolling bass was called “the voice of God.”
Art Modell, who owned the Cleveland Browns and then the Baltimore Ravens (and who died on Sept. 6), said NFL Films “sold the beauty of the game.” Chris Berman, the ESPN sportscaster, said the Sabols could make a 49-14 game “seem like some kind of epic Greek tragedy.”
Ed Sabol, who at 96 survives his son, founded the company in 1962 after giving up selling overcoats, a job he hated, to take on the movie game. An early venture, a film about whales, went under after he failed to find any whales.
Soon, perhaps over a legendary four-martini lunch, Ed persuaded Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the N.F.L., to hire him to film the 1962 N.F.L. championship game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers, even though he had no experience beyond filming Steve’s high school football games. It did not hurt that Ed made the lowest bid: $12,000, split evenly between him and a partner.
Three years later, after the Sabols had established a brisk business selling the league films of itself, Ed Sabol persuaded it to buy his company, originally named Blair Motion Pictures, after his daughter and Steve’s sister. The deal called for him and Steve to run it. Ed was the president until 1987, when Steve, who had the titles of creative director and co-founder, succeeded him.
“I may have started it, but he has been the engineer behind it,” Ed Sabol said of his son in a 2008 interview. “He comes up with these great ideas and is a great student of the game.”
Of the sports Emmy Awards won by NFL Films, 107, including two this year, Steve Sabol was cited on more than a third.
The films have impressed Hollywood. The director Ron Howard said in an interview with The New York Times in 2000 that NFL Films highlight reels had an effect on how movies are made, “particularly montages.” The director Sam Peckinpah once told Steve Sabol that he got the idea for the classic slow-motion gunfight scene in the 1969 movie “The Wild Bunch” after watching a Super Bowl highlights film Mr. Sabol had made.
NFL Films was not the first company to make game films, but its innovations are widely considered to have elevated the genre. Mr. Sabol put more cameras on the field than others had and used them to provide new perspectives. One, called the mole, was a hand-held camera that roamed the sideline in search of spectacular close-ups. He used different speeds in different cameras.
He used film, not tape, for greater clarity. (This year, NFL Films made its first all-digital feature, on the Miami Dolphins’ training camp). He interspersed the smacks and whistles with the sounds of a 60-piece orchestra playing Tchaikovsky. He highlighted emotional themes like comebacks and underdogs. He persuaded players and coaches to wear microphones. He made some of the first funny films of players’ “bloopers.” And he wrote scripts, often rhyming ones.
In a film review of the Oakland Raiders’ 1974 season, he wrote: “The autumn wind is a Raider, pillaging just for fun. He’ll knock you around and upside down and laugh when he’s conquered and won.”
After Mr. Facenda’s death in 1984, Mr. Sabol often narrated.
NFL Films followed a step-by-step path to success. Ed Sabol showed his first football film to Kiwanis Clubs and Boy Scout troops. Highlight films began popping up on late-night television. Before long, ABC’s “Monday Night Football” used the company’s material at halftime. When ESPN began in September 1979, it regularly showed NFL Films clips. HBO followed suit.
The sheer mass of the Sabols’ work is almost numbing. Each year, NFL Films processes around 1,000 miles of film into weekly football shows, webcasts, highlight packages and more. Its film vault holds 100 million feet of game film, going back to Thomas Edison’s film of the 1894 Princeton-Rutgers game. It has ventured into commercials, rock videos and movies about men landing on the moon and the killings at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Published estimates of the annual revenue of NFL Films exceed $50 million. In a statement Tuesday, the league commissioner, Roger Goodell, called Mr. Sabol “a major contributor to the success of the N.F.L., a man who changed the way we looked at football and sports.”
Stephen Douglas Sabol was born in Moorestown on Oct. 2, 1942. By fifth grade, when his classmates seemed more interested in the origins of rock ’n’ roll, he was rushing home to see “Victory at Sea,” a documentary series about naval warfare in World War II. He liked the “grand military stuff,” The Times quoted him saying. His mother, Audrey, was just as influential in his artistic development as his ebullient father. She was a sculptor and collector of avant-garde art. Artists like Jasper Johns came to dinner.
Besides his father, Mr. Sabol’s survivors include his mother, Audrey Sabol; his wife, Penny; a sister, Blair; and a son, Casey.
Steve burst into public view as a football phenomenon at Colorado College. The reason was not so much his play as it was his spirited advertisements for himself in newspapers, postcards, brochures, T-shirts, lapel buttons and pencils — all to persuade his coach to let him play.
He described himself as the “Prince of Pigskin Pageantry at the Pinnacle of His Power.” (Alliteration would become a hallmark of NFL Films.) His self-anointed nickname was Sudden Death. He claimed to be from Possum Trot, Miss.
Sports Illustrated documented his Barnumesque behavior in a tongue-in-cheek article in 1965, saying he not only succeeded in getting on the field, but also used the body he enlarged and honed to become an all-conference fullback and team captain.
While in college, he came down with hepatitis and studied football game films while recuperating at his home in Villanova, Pa. Afterward, he threw himself into a fitness regimen that more than recovered the weight and strength his sickness had cost him: in a bodybuilding contest, he was named Mr. Philadelphia.
After Ed Sabol won the rights to film the 1962 N.F.L. championship game, the first thing he did was call Steve. “All you’ve done all your life is play football and go to the movies,” Steve Sabol recalled his father saying. “You ought to be able to make some contribution.”
From the beginning, Steve Sabol brought a fresh perspective: that of a player. He said he wanted viewers to see “the sweat spraying and the muscles bulging and the cursing and the passion.”
The Sabols had their critics. Some saw their work as unabashed boosterism; others found them reluctant to delve into the pernicious effects of football violence. Their occasional willingness to pay players for access drew complaints. But accolades were more common. In 2011, Ed Sabol was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Steve Sabol’s many awards included a lifetime achievement Emmy.
Initially, Steve Sabol did not impress one important moviegoer. In 1965, Vince Lombardi, the famed Packers coach, viewed Steve’s first highlights film of his team and disliked its arty close-ups of eyeballs and feet.
“How old is your son?” Lombardi demanded of Ed Sabol. “Seven?”
He was 23. Two years later, Steve Sabol was proud to come up with the now often-heard phrase “frozen tundra” to describe Lambeau Field, the home of the Packers. The club had just spent $200,000 on an underground heating system that had failed to work, and Lombardi strongly preferred that shareholders not know. Lombardi left the Packers that year, and only afterward was the phrase “frozen tundra” heard in NFL Films.
R.I.P thanks for making football what it is today!
Re: Steve Sabol died this morning
Steve Sabol revolutionized the way that the story of sports are told.
Re: Steve Sabol died this morning
Thanks Rambos for placing this here.
I'm sorry it's taken me this long to pay my respects to the legendary Steve Sabol, son of another NFL legend, Ed Sabol (still alive at 96).
I was very saddened by the passing of Steve Sabol -- always liked his professional and personal charisma, his dedication to NFL Films (synonimous with the Sabols) and the many memorable productions he achieved.
Sincere condolences to his family and friends, for the NFL has indeed lost a great friend. :disapointed:
"Steve Sabol was the creative genius behind the remarkable work of NFL Films," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "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."