September 19, 2012

Steve Sabol, R.I.P.

Mike Greenberg of ESPN said it best this morning: everyone who loves professional football owes Steve Sabol a big debt of gratitude.

When I was a kid, I thought football was the greatest thing since sliced bread. And my favorite TV show was probably NFL Action – even more than Alvin. In Minneapolis, it aired on Sundays in the summer, after the late local news, and it was one of the supreme treats that came from being able to stay up late when school was out. NFL Action – and the other shows produced by NFL Films, such as This Week in Pro Football – created a mythology about the game. It turned players into noble soldiers and simple grass fields became muddied scenes of pitched battle – all accompanied by Sturm und Drang soundtracks and narration by The Voice of God, aka John Facenda.

It was great, great stuff, absolutely mesmerizing for a kid like me. Whereas in past years kids might have grown up idolizing King Arthur or Red Ryder or Dick Tracy, the heroes of my imagination were the Green Bay Packers. They were the best team in the NFL, and the NFL was the best sport there was. And while those kids had sat in front of the radio listening to their heroes in the serials of their day, I sat in front of the television watching my heroes as portrayed by NFL Films, the company founded by Ed Sabol as Blair Motion Pictures, and eventually run by his son Steve. Together the two of them understood that football was more than just a game determining a winner and loser – it was an elemental story of human drama that begged to be told.

Without Ed Sabol, there would have been no NFL Films. But as Joe Posnanski wrote, “the vision [came] from Steve. When it came to football, he heard John Facenda's voice of God narrating in his head long before he knew John Facenda. In his mind, even as a kid playing sixth grade football, the games were epic struggles. The players were gladiators. The uniforms transformed mortals into gods. The autumn wind was a Raider. No, Steve Sabol never thought small.” I never played organized football, but in every other respect I was that sixth grader who understood that football wasn’t life or death – it was more important than that, a validation of one’s entire code of life.

How important to the NFL was the work of Steve Sabol? Brett Farve said, "He changed the face of the NFL without ever playing a down in it.'' “NFL Films,” SI.com's Richard Rothschld wrote, “became a fan’s ticket to the entire league.” It was that dream of the NFL, probably even more than the game itself, that attracted me. It’s hard for me to describe – here, Posnanski puts into words the feelings with which I grew up:
Before the Sabols and NFL Films, mud on the football field was just mud on the football field. NFL Films turned that mud into something holy, something that reflected guts and manhood and courage. Mud proved a Herculean test for the players' souls. NFL Films showed cleats sloshing in mud, mud dripping off taped hands, mud caked on arms, the way mud turned linebackers into heroic and dangerous figures. We take that for granted now because NFL Films has created this image of pro football, but there's nothing intrinsically romantic about mud.


Chuck Klosterman sums up the talent that Steve Sabol had, in talking about a poem that Sabol wrote for an Oakland Raiders film. It’s not, Klosterman says, the best poem ever,

It might not be the 100th-best poem about autumn. But Sabol knew how those words would sound when John Facenda recited them, and he understood the kind of person who would hear them, and he could instantly visualize which images should fall behind them. NFL Films is a rare example of cinematographers placing style over substance and actually making the product infinitely more substantial. Sabol did this effortlessly, for 50 years. It was his natural state of filmmaking.

Steve never lacked for recognition; over the years he earned 35 Emmys for writing, cinematography, editing, directing and producing, and with Ed received the Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Ed was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year, and hopefully Steve will follow him there in the not-to-distant future.  So you see, it wasn’t just the fans who recognized how special that work was.

As the years progress you can see the game change through the lens of NFL Films: the muddy grass replaced by plastic turf, the shadows of old ballparks replaced by the light of flying-saucer type creations, the players change from long-sleeved athletes to hulkish giants in stretched-out jerseys, the game itself change into a multi-billion dollar business. In fact, as I go through my collection of shows from NFL Films, I can see my love for the NFL falling away, bit by bit, as time passes, until there is nothing left.

But my admiration for NFL Films and the work they did never left me. And as I learned more about Steve Sabol, I began to appreciate him in a completely different way. A couple of years ago I wrote about how I thought it would have been my dream job to work at NFL Films. "My Dad hated his job," Steve once said. "He sold overcoats, but he wanted to make movies. He had a failed career working with the Ritz Brothers -- they were like the Marx Brothers, only a tier below. I always had a picture in my mind of him in a straw hat.”


You got the impression that Steve also had a picture in his mind of how Ed hated his job, and was determined that would never happen to him. He knew that football was not the most important thing in the world, but it was something he loved, and so it was important to do it right. And so he created a place where people who shared that love could not only get to do it for a living, but have fun doing it. He would give them an incredible amount of freedom with that job, because he knew that people who loved their work, who saw it as more than just punching a clock at a job, would bring to that work a skill and devotion that made it special. Trust and humor – words that keep popping up in descriptions of him. As Klosterman writes, “I never met Steve Sabol, but I wish I could have worked for him.”

He was dedicated to his job, and to his father. When Ed was finally voted into the Hall of Fame last year – after Steve had been diagnosed with the brain tumor that would kill him yesterday, at the much-too-young age of 69 – Steve had the chance to put things into perspective.

"For a company that prides itself on telling good stories,'' he said, "this is one hell of a story. Dad makes the Hall of Fame. Son's going to be his presenter. Son gets a brain tumor. Now the story is, Is the son going to be there? Will the son make it? Who knows? I could be around until the Super Bowl in New York [2014]. But I've had a lot of time to think ...

"So they talk about heaven, and I don't know what is waiting for me up there. But I can tell you this: Nothing will happen up there that can duplicate my life down here. That life cannot be better than the one I've lived down here, the football life. It's been perfect."

Steve Sabol was, by all accounts, an extraordinary man; one NFL GM told Peter King that he “was the most ethical person I knew.” And I think it shows in the way he lived his life. He saw it as a gift: not to be wasted, as some do, nor simply to be endured, as others feel. It was meant to be lived.

And so he did that, for 69 years. He loved what he did and how he did it; he had a passion, and figured out a way to transmit that passion to others, to share it with them so that it would become their passion as well. He loved his work and made a career out of it, and it wasn’t just a career that he somehow fit into; it was a career he created.

As I said, an extraordinary man.

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