Bill Lyon: Remembering NFL Films' Steve Sabol

Lights, cameras, plenty of action: Steve Sabol helped the NFL become the preeminent pro league in America. AP
Lights, cameras, plenty of action: Steve Sabol helped the NFL become the preeminent pro league in America. AP
Posted: September 23, 2012

The spiral is perfect, the ball launched by a buggy-whip arm, and it arcs in majestic slow motion across a cobalt sky. Two are in lockstep pursuit of it, receiver and defender, each calculating where their thunderous intersection will be reached, and you see them rising and grasping as one, and it is all so real that you swear that you are, well, there. Right there!

And Steve Sabol would smile a smile of modesty and satisfaction and lean back and thank you. On behalf of NFL Films and its gazillion Emmys, we thank you. To quote the song: Nobody does it better.

On Tuesday, after a valorous, 18-month battle, Steve Sabol succumbed to brain cancer. He was 69. His work will last 10 times that. Or longer.

"We are," he liked to say, "in the romance business."

He didn't mean romance in the bodice-tearing sense, but rather in the visceral sense - specifically the business of professional football. And oh my has business been good, due in no small part to the efforts of Steve Sabol and his Hall of Fame father, Ed, who turned a cramped little shop above a Chinese laundry near 13th and Vine into a wildly successful, critically acclaimed cinematic empire headquartered in a sprawling New Jersey complex that looks like a gothic fortress. The interior is such a convoluted maze you think maybe you should leave a trail of cookie crumbs to find your way back.

And what's that, over there, that imposing room?

Steve Sabol smiled and told me: "Our music hall. It can accommodate a 72-piece orchestra."

He noticed I gaped.

"We want to be first-class all the way," he said.

The premise was, and remains, as simple as a forearm shiver: to make you feel the game.

Steve Sabol knew exactly how to do that. You use small details to tell big stories. You station cameras where they've never been before. And mini-mikes, too. You cue the kettle drums and trumpet flourishes. You hire John Facenda (The Voice of God) to narrate.

And into this mix Steve Sabol would pour himself - with words to stir and rouse, editing sharp, cinematography crisp, the brutal turned into ballet, the savage celebrated and made to seem, well, in Steve Sabol's words from his screenplay They Call It Pro Football: "It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun."

The result of all this has been a remarkable, apparently unending string of successes - the Emmy count is past 100. Even more impressive is how NFL Films has reshaped how people watch sports.

And it all began innocently enough when Ed Sabol took his motion picture camera to Haverford fourth-grade football (70-pound weight limit) games and aimed it at his son. Who was even then a show-off.

Steve Sabol demonstrated his creative adroitness and self-promotion skills at Colorado College, where he was a fullback rooted to the bench. Lack of playing time did not dissuade him from singing his own praises in program advertisements and weekly updates, introducing himself as a resident of Possum Trot, Miss., The Fearless Tot from Possum Trot.

In an effort to transform himself from a 170-pounder, he spent an offseason eating and lifting and was such an impressive success that he entered a bodybuilding contest - and won.

"Did you know," he asked, "that I'm a former Mr. Philadelphia?"

His father, who had expanded his motion picture photography into a full-time company, was unimpressed and hired his son, explaining: "From your grades I'm guessing all you do is watch movies and play football, anyway."

Over a three-martini lunch, Ed Sabol persuaded NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to accept his bid for the rights to the 1962 championship game. Seeing as how there were no other bidders . . .

"Our presentation," said Steve, "was going to the local Kiwanis Clubs and using a bed sheet for the screen."

Initially there was suspicion by the owners, especially George Halas. Pappa Bear was convinced the NFL cameras were spying on him. He sent his brother, Frank, who was elderly, had a bad hip, and used a cane, after the cameras.

"I'd go to one side of the Bears bench and shoot close-ups," Steve Sabol recalled, "and I'd have about a minute before I had to run back to the other side while Frank is waving his cane like a sword at me."

Redemption came years later when Halas had been converted and wrote Steve Sabol: "You're going to be the keepers of the flame. Your pictures and sounds will keep alive the traditions and the spirit of the game."

Steve Sabol unabashedly, and without apology, acknowledged that they were creating heroes, making myths. He himself borrowed heavily from the movies - High Noon, Duel in the Sun, Ben-Hur, the Magnificent Seven, with deeds of daring, music to rouse the bloodlust.

"When I was playing," Steve Sabol said, "I remember how I was struck by the bulging eyes, the steam coming from the players' mouths, dirt being pawed up . . . and the sounds, the yells, and the collisions . . . and I thought that is what we want to show."

Not surprisingly, Steve Sabol's favorite player was the carnivorous middle linebacker Dick Butkus, whom they had miked one Sunday for the pregame coin flip. The captains and officials were shaking hands and wishing each other good fortune . . . be safe . . . be careful out there . . . all except Butkus, who said:

"Ah, [expletive] all you guys."

And then he walked away.

"That," said Steve Sabol, "was Dick Butkus. He came to play, not to shake hands. And that's the essence of pro football. That's what draws us."

When the NFL bought the Sabols' business in the early 1960s, Pete Rozelle told them: "You're going to make the NFL the biggest spectator sport in America."

Even he may not have known how prophetic that was.

Steve Sabol said he always carried with him this saying given him by his father:

"Tell me a fact and I'll learn.

Tell me a truth and I'll believe.

But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever."

That sounds like a most fitting legacy.

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