Steve Sabol, NFL Films president, dies at 69

Posted: September 19, 2012

Steve Sabol, an art history major and football star in college who combined those two passions to help transform the family business, NFL Films, into a modern mythmaking marvel, died Tuesday at 69.

Mr. Sabol had been battling brain cancer since 2011. An inoperable tumor had been discovered just days after his father, Ed, the NFL Films founder, was elected to Pro Football's Hall of Fame.

A lifelong Philadelphia-area resident who never lost his accent or his boyish idealism, Mr. Sabol forever changed the way Americans view their sports.

The theatrical instincts that grew out of his love of movies altered what had been a mundane business of filming sports highlights into an acclaimed art form, one that 50 years after NFL Films' birth is universally imitated.

"We all realized pretty quickly that Steve was the force behind what we were doing here," Hank McElwee, NFL Films' director of cinematography, said earlier this year.

"Big Ed had the idea and he sold the owners on it, but when it came to the actual vision of this company, without a doubt it was Steve. Steve saw things in a unique way that every network is copying right now."

Combining classical scores, poetic scripts, and the "Voice of God" narrations that John Facenda embodied with a variety of serious filmmaking techniques, NFL Films won critical praise, widespread popularity and scores of Emmy Awards.

Mr. Sabol, a kind of Renaissance man who brought those sensibilities to the brutish sport, was honored himself with 35 Emmys in a variety of disciplines - writing, editing, directing, cinematography and producing.

One of the poems Mr. Sabol wrote, "The Autumn Wind," accompanied a short 1974 film on the era's villainous Oakland Raiders that would become one of NFL Films signature pieces.

"The Autumn Wind is a Raider," Facenda says in a dramatic voice-over as slow-motion hits depict the team's ferocity, "pillaging just for fun. He'll knock you round and upside down and laugh when he's conquered and won."

"Steve Sabol was the creative genius behind the remarkable work of NFL Films," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "Steve's passion for football was matched by his incredible talent and energy. Steve's legacy will be part of the NFL forever."

Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said Mr. Sabol was one of the most "influential and innovative" people in the NFL.

"Football benefited so much from his unique vision and incredible ability to bring fans closer to the action," Lurie said. "He was also a joy to be around, an endless source of energy and ideas."

Mr. Sabol was associated with football as long as he could remember. As a youngster growing up on the Main Line, he tried out for and made the Little Quakers, a traveling all-star team. In fact, those games with the Little Quakers inadvertently inspired NFL Films.

"My father had been given a 16-millimeter camera by his mother-in-law," Mr. Sabol recalled in a 2009 interview with The Inquirer. "He took that thing everywhere. So when I started to play football he would come to the games and film them."

That practice continued when Mr. Sabol played for the Haverford School. In 1962 he was at Colorado College, where he was an all-conference fullback, when his father, who not long before had been an overcoat salesman, purchased the rights to that year's NFL championship game for $3,000.

"My father called me when I was out there and he said, 'I can tell by your grades that all you've been doing is playing football and going to the movies. That makes you uniquely qualified for this business I've started,' " Mr. Sabol said.

After graduation, Mr. Sabol went to work as a cinematographer for what by then was NFL Films. A year later, the rapidly growing company needed more space.

Even though the NFL's headquarters earlier had been moved from Philadelphia to New York, the young enterprise stayed in Philadelphia, occupying a building at 230 N. 13th Street that belonged to the Eagles' owner at the time, Jerry Wolman.

As the business grew, the Sabols assumed that Commissioner Pete Rozelle would want NFL Films, which had become a league subsidiary, to move as well.

"Rozelle said, 'No, you guys are the romanticists, the storytellers. You don't need to be in New York, where it's about contracts and lawyers and litigation. Stay where you are. Keep your distance,' " Mr. Sabol recalled.

The business remained on 13th Street until 1981 when it moved into to a new facility in Mount Laurel, its current home.

A devoted fan of Philadelphia and its sports teams, Mr. Sabol incorporated the rich baritones of such familiar local voices as Facenda and Harry Kalas in his work.

"Philadelphia was known for its passionate sports fans, and my dad and I were two," Mr. Sabol said. "There were announcers like John Facenda here. And before us there was a [sports film production] company called TelRa here. We weren't far from New York, Washington, and Pittsburgh, and we were close to the airport."

Mr. Sabol saw to it that NFL Films continued to evolve. He incorporated wireless microphones, slow-motion replays, and impossible camera angles into the films, all the while urging his camera and sound crews to take chances.

As a result, what had been football-highlight packages became productions the equal to anything Hollywood could muster.

"We were always trying something new," Mr. Sabol said. "These things are standard procedure now. But we had a hell of a time convincing people in the league when we first started using them."

Those initially reluctant owners would become some of the Sabols' biggest fans.

What they especially liked, according to Jim Murray, onetime Eagles general manager, was that the films were so good they could take the focus off a losing season.

"We had some bad teams when I was there," Murray said, "but NFL Films could take our two highlights, get John Facenda to announce them, and make us look like Super Bowl contenders."

NFL Films-produced documentaries soon followed and the company hired musical composers to create its inspirational scores. And Mr. Sabol had a talent for words as well. Several of the phrases he coined are now NFL catchphrases - "America's Team," "The Catch," "The Frozen Tundra."

"We see the game as art as much as sport," Mr. Sabol said in 2011. "That helped us nurture not only the game's traditions but to develop its mythology."

But for the gregarious Mr. Sabol the work wasn't all seriousness. He packaged pratfalls, fumbles and mistakes into the popular NFL Bloopers series.

Mr. Sabol assumed control of the company in the mid-1980s when his father semiretired and relocated to Arizona.

Throughout his long relationship with football, Mr. Sabol maintained his interest in painting and collages. His work has been exhibited in galleries in New York, Washington and Miami.

Mr. Sabol's last public appearance came at his father's enshrinement into the Hall of Fame in August 2011. Bald after exploratory surgery and tearful throughout the film he had created to honor his father's legacy, Mr. Sabol spent much of that weekend telling stories about his years in the sport, the characters he met, the challenges he overcame.

"Fun," Mr. Sabol once said when asked to briefly describe his career. "It's been nothing but fun."

He is survived by his wife, Penny, his son, Casey, his parents, Audrey and Ed, and his sister, Blair.

Funeral services are pending.


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter.

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