Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Steve Sabol: 1942-2012

In February 2011, Steve Sabol, the President of NFL Films, was ecstatic upon the announcement that his 94-year old Dad (and NFL Films founder) Ed Sabol would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A month later, Steve would be diagnosed with a brain tumor. It's hard to imagine the myriad of emotions in that time frame. One day you're celebrating the joyous news of a loved one reaching the ultimate validation of success in his field. A matter of days later, you're looking death in the face.

On Tuesday, Steve Sabol succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 69.

To think, Steve spent nearly his entire adult life around what is now the most popular professional sport in America, a distinction which NFL Films itself played a major role.

Together (Ed & Steve) organized the filming of every National Football League game for nearly 50 years.

After resisting the project, NFL founder George Halas said, "The history of pro football will forever be preserved on film and not by the written word a la baseball."

Thanks to Mr. Sabol, the history was not just preserved but enhanced by innovations including reverse-angle replays, on-field microphones and high-powered zoom lenses that captured what Mr. Sabol described as "the raw intensity of the NFL—the bloody hands, the eyes bulging, the snot spraying and the sweat flying."

The footage was accented with triumphal orchestra scores (Mr. Sabol favored French horns) and narration supplied by John Facenda, a Philadelphia anchorman often likened to "the voice of God." Mr. Sabol filled the scripts with purple prose: "If the bitter will to win could be wrapped up and set on legs, it would look like the man you see before us."

As a football fan since the late 70s, I always felt the NFL was a lot more than just Noon to 6:00 every Sunday. If there was an NFL Films presentation, it could be mid-May for all I care.

There was such featured programming as Football Follies, which focused on the lighter side of the game, including player blunders and crazy commentary offered up by coaches and players via wireless mics.

Of course, everyone is familiar with aforementioned triumphal orchestra scores which added a gladiator-esque feel to NFL highlights.

"I like to think of it as the 'Citizen Kane' of football films," Mr. Sabol told The Wall Street Journal in 2006.

Soon Mr. Sabol was helping produce weekly league highlight and magazine shows. He estimated that the company shot 1,000 miles of film annually.

Ed Sabol, who survives his son, retired in 1974 and Steve Sabol stayed on as president. NFL Films has won more than 100 Emmys, 35 of them for Mr. Sabol.

"Football had a history," Mr. Sabol told the Journal. "We made it into mythology."

As such, the game has been forever revolutionized in a way no other sport could possibly attain.

Condolences to the Sabol family.


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