Steve Sabol: Innovative titan of the NFL passes away at age 69

(Eileen Blass/USA Today)

To measure Steve Sabol’s impact on the NFL — look no further than the NFL Films vault.

When I heard yesterday afternoon that NFL Films co-founder Steve Sabol passed away from brain cancer my first thought was a huge piece of my childhood has died. Steve Sabol along with his father Ed founded NFL Films and brought a sport that trailed baseball, college football and boxing to the forefront of American culture.

I don’t know where the NFL would be without Steve Sabol, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be what we have today.

My father planted the seed of football in my heart at an early age. Steve Sabol and NFL Films watered and nurtured that seed into a maddening love for this great sport.

On Sunday mornings in the late 70’s and early 80’s Pop and I would tune into the NFL Game of the Week. It really didn’t matter who the two combatants were as long as there was rhythmic music to go with the super slow motion action I was satisfied. When Eagles games were blacked out, we were  treated to three hours of NFL Films. That’s where I received my education on the history of the game. The sometime grainy black and white films of Sam Huff, Chuck Bednarik, Johnny Unitas, Otto Graham  beat flipping pages in a book.

If it were not for NFL Films Jim Brown’s superhuman heroics would be reduced to folklore equal to Paul Bunyan. Thankfully I was able to see Brown in all of his bruising glory.

When came out to play ball the next day I was still hung over from yesterday’s games with plenty of Sam Spence’s music in my head. I took it to the schoolyard with me as we played through morning and lunch recess. We used to call out our guy — mine was always Lynn Swann on offense and Mel Blount on defense in later years it became Eric Dickerson and Ronnie Lott. Playing the role of Swanny came with a price — walking in the door with holes in your knees wasn’t met with much favor. Those patches Mom sewed into my pants were notches on my belt of the guys that I took down that day. While I was out there I had an NFL Films tune in my head from the day before. The only difference was that I was the choreographer of this video with the ability to play it back when I wanted to.

That was the beauty of NFL Films — it simplified the game so you could insert yourself into any situation. It was raw and emotional whether it was Lawrence Taylor beckoning his teammates to come out like a bunch of crazed dogs or George Allen describing the effects of a loss on a team. It either made you love the game or opened your curiosity to it.

The impact of NFL Films on the NFL and the American sports culture is immeasurable. I would dare say the Sabol’s contribution to the NFL is second only to the founders of the league who assembled in Canton, Ohio 92 years ago.

In 1962 NFL Films was awarded the rights to the NFL Championship. Sabol served as a cameraman, writer and editor for the company that was slowly bringing the NFL into homes across the country. NFL Films programming took us inside the huddle and so close to the action that you braced yourself for the high impact hits. There were features that took players like Deacon Jones, Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke from under the helmet — giving them a face that the American public could associate with their on and off the field personalities.

The NFL Films Company is based in Moorestown, NJ and the Sabol’s recruited locally. John Facenda was a Philadelphia radio and television personality whose divine voice became a staple for the first two decades of NFL Films. Facenda narrated the legendary “Autumn Wind” written by Steve Sabol as an ode to the Oakland Raiders. The legend of John Facenda can be summed up in one word — Lombardi. Facenda was the narrator of NFL Films until his death in 1984. Former Phillies broadcaster Harry Kalas took over for Facenda as the voice of NFL Films until his passing in 2009.

As the landscape of American sports changed and football surpassed baseball in popularity NFL Films was there. At the inception of ESPN they hired NFL Films as a production company and gave Steve Sabol an on air spot. The NFL Network became a groundbreaking station that is all football all the time.

Even as NFL Films continues to satisfy our appetites with assorted top tens and all-time lists it never lost its luster from the first time I heard Facenda’s voice. With NFL Films winning over 100 Emmy Awards (Steve Sabol has 35 to his credit) the Sabols didn’t need a trophy for us to know how nice they were. Ed Sabol’s induction into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011 was long overdue. And it means just a little more today that Steve was able to present him in Canton.

On that first brisk autumn morning when I pop that collar on my coat I’ll think of the sower and the tender of my football seed.

Thank you Mr. Sabol.

One Response to “Steve Sabol: Innovative titan of the NFL passes away at age 69”

  1. CDF says:

    I didn’t know he was sick and thought it was actually his dad who died (didn’t see first name on news crawl at first). Yeah, pre-Disney ESPN used to show a lot of various NFL Films productions (greatest teams, players, coaches, etc.), especially during Super Bowl week w/ marathons of highlights. While a lot of them became obsolete, they were pretty cool to watch. I liked highlights of the ’63 NFL title game, Mr. Brown (of course), and they even had an hour-long Lombardi documentary (taped before his death)…grainy, gritty, and grimy! RIP!