RIP: Steve Sabol, Poet Laureate Of The NFL, Dead At 69

Photo courtesy of NFL FILMS

INQUIRER: 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. 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.” […] In 1962 he was at Colorado College of Mines, 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. MORE

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Consider the spiral. There are miles upon miles of iconic imagery in the NFL Films archive—running backs ribboning through defensive lines; foggy exhales on icy sidelines; agitated coaches saved by well-timed bleeps—but I will always remember the way those films could capture a football pass and draw it down into super-slow motion, high above the field, descending calmly, rotating in a graceful way that only a football thrown by a trained professional rotates. The football passes I threw in the backyard did not resemble this. These were footballs thrown in another, distant sport, spinning so crisply you could see the commissioner’s signature. It was mesmerizing, impossible to look away. It was almost a shame to watch them land, yanked out of the dream by a wide receiver. Or worse, a cornerback. MORE

In the summer of 1968, Steve Sabol went on the road. He was driving a beat-up old car with the windows open. From Pennsylvania to Ohio to Indiana, the towns drifted by, the neon vacancy signs outside the motels, the taverns, the fields where the high-school football teams played. Steve was 26, strong as a horse, his hair too long for the Podunk provinces. He had a reel-to-reel projector in the backseat, the kind every randy best man used to drag to stag parties in the 1950s. Each night, he set up in another wood-paneled room where, after the Kiwanians or Rotarians or Boy Scouts had finished their business, he showed his movie. He was stumping like a politician, building an audience for a film he’d made guerrilla-style, with nothing but a few thousand dollars and a vision. He wanted to show football as it might have been shown by the old Hollywood directors: the game as directed by John Ford.

They Call It Pro Football was produced by NFL Films, a small company Steve’s father, Ed, had founded as Blair Productions in 1962. After Steve had first shown it in New York several months earlier, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle shook his hand and said, “That’s not a highlight film, it’s a real movie.” But none of the TV networks were interested, so Steve had to find his viewers, one screening at a time, amassing an audience that would eventually be among the most prized in the marketplace. But even in the beginning, when there was just this determined kid and a weird movie that could not find a distributor, all the elements were there: speed, color, narrative. The first line of They Call It Pro Football sets the tone: “It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.” MORE

THE ONION: Legendary sports broadcaster Harry Kalas narrated NFL Films co-founder Steve Sabol’s ascension to heaven Tuesday, providing a stirring play-by-play of the 69-year-old soul’s dramatic entry into the Kingdom of God. MORE