Steve Sabol, the way I remember him

BY Peter Schrager • September 18, 2012

After an 18-month battle with brain cancer, NFL Films president Steve Sabol died on Tuesday. He was 69.

Sabol will be remembered for his incredible body of work at NFL Films, his wonderful sense of humor and his remarkable ability to match the perfect music, voice and cinematic touches to the game he loved.

Sabol made football — a brutal, grisly and dangerous sport — look, sound and feel like a pristine artistic masterpiece. That wasn’t by accident. Above being a football fan, Sabol was an artist. If Yankee Stadium is the House that Ruth Built, NFL Films' headquarters in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, is a true reflection of Steve Sabol’s many passions. It’s a treasure trove of NFL history, sure, but it's also a museum of the rich art and cinema that influenced the man and his life’s work. Alongside beautifully shot poster-sized images of Sterling Sharpe and John Riggins are vintage John Wayne movie posters and many of Sabol’s own handmade collages.

I first met Steve Sabol more than a decade ago, back when I was a clueless college student at Emory University in Atlanta. He was in town for a Falcons game and was speaking to a film class as a guest lecturer. I’d never taken a film course at Emory, but I snuck into the lecture hall to hear the man I’d grown up watching on Sunday mornings speak. After he told the amazing story of NFL Films and encouraged the students to take creative risks, I took one of my own, approaching him afterwards and asking for a job.

Alas, there were no spots at NFL Films available at the time (nor was I even close to qualified to apply for one), but we agreed to keep in touch. Sabol never owned a cell phone. He didn’t have Facebook or Twitter. He had a personal email, though, and he was always incredibly prompt, thorough and inquisitive in our email exchanges. He didn’t have to respond. But he always did.

About 10 years after that initial meeting, I pitched my editor at Esquire a story on Steve Sabol. His father was being discussed as a potential candidate the Pro Football Hall of Fame and I thought an exhaustive piece on Ed, Steve and the NFL Films story would be a great long form article for the magazine.

Sabol was flattered, but had another idea for the piece. “That’s been done a million times, right? Let’s have some fun with it, Peter,” he said, in his high-energy voice over the phone. “Everyone’s putting their kids on YouTube these days. How about I offer filmmaking tips to young parents filming their kids’ football games in the YouTube era? That’d be a blast.”

It was perfect.

My editor loved it, Sabol was thrilled and he dove into the article headfirst like he did with every other creative form he’d ever touched.

"During Super Bowl IV, [Chiefs coach Hank Stram] was like Henny Youngman, delivering one-liners on the sidelines," Sabol told me. "His famous quotes — 'They're flat as hell', 'Looks like a Chinese fire drill out there' — almost never made the light of day because I was laughing hysterically, my camera shook and killed the shot. We're very fortunate that our second cameraman didn't find Stram nearly as funny as I did. I almost ruined NFL history. The lesson I learned? Stay focused! You've always got to stay focused!"

Sabol offered 10 tips like that and the article was a hit. My editor was thrilled. I had nothing to do with it. It was all Steve Sabol. His creative impulses worked differently — his creative impulses worked better — than the rest of ours.

Sabol did an interview two years ago with the website, in which he said, “All this technology has not changed the way NFL Films does business and our process. Yes, with one touch of a button now you reach millions of people but it is still the same approach that my father and I started out with. It is still a group of young people who love to make movies, love pro football and want to share it with our audience. NFL Films has had one continuous, creative vision for 47 years. These are timeless things; timeless stories that we capture just like people go back and read Greek mythology.”

Football is timeless. The game’s stories — Lombardi drawing out the power sweep on a chalkboard, Namath pointing his finger to the sky after beating the Colts in Super Bowl III, Joe Montana spotting John Candy in the crowd before his game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII — will be told and passed along for generations to come. That wouldn’t be the case without Steve Sabol’s vision, talent, and creative touch.

Sabol’s father Ed was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the Saturday before Super Bowl XLV. That afternoon, his son Steve wasn’t biting his fingernails in some hotel room or schmoozing with sports writers, lobbying for his dad.

He was curating an art exhibition at the Milan Gallery in Dallas.

We’d spoken over email earlier that week and I told him I’d come by if I had the chance to sneak away from my reporting duties. I never got the chance.

Sure enough, later that evening, it was announced that Ed Sabol had been voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

To my amazement, I returned to my hotel room around midnight and had an email awaiting me.

It was from Steve Sabol.

“Hey Peter — did you get a chance to come by the exhibition today? It was incredible! If you came and I missed you, I apologize. I would have loved the opportunity to catch up. There was some truly wonderful art on display. Hope you're doing well and enjoying Dallas! —Steve”

And that was Steve Sabol. The night that his father was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was emailing me to make sure he didn’t miss me earlier in the day.

One of my favorite passages about Sabol comes from Michael MacCambridge’s tome to the sport, “America’s Game”. On page 283, MacCambridge writes of Sabol’s thoughts on the original voice of the NFL, John Facenda:

“The voice, the deep, stentorian tones that to Steve Sabol sounded like ‘the fall of Dunkirk,’ belonged to a veteran Philadelphia newsman named John Facenda. ‘He was an old, craggy-faced weather-beaten guy,’ recalled Steve Sabol, ‘who had this great, oaken delivery. I had grown up with that voice as a kid, I remembered him doing the local news. Whenever he spoke, anybody that was watching the news just listened. He was an opera fan. When we’d get to portions of the script that we really wanted to sound dramatic, he would write the word ‘profundo.’”

Sabol, like Facenda, simply had a flair for the dramatic.

His loss is a crushing blow to the game and NFL Films. He’ll be forever missed.

Fortunately, through Lombardi’s chalkboard, Namath’s pointed finger, the stories about Montana's game-winning drives and the millions of lives he’s touched through his art and his grace as a man — his legacy will live on forever.

"We are not journalists but romanticists,” Sabol once said in an interview. “Renoir would never have painted an execution. He left that to Goya."

Steve Sabol truly was one of a kind.