Steve Sabol, the man credited with elevating films about NFL football to near-mythic proportions, died recently of brain cancer at age 69.
Together with his father, Ed, 96, who survives him, Sabol created a style of film that featured slow motion replays, monumental musical backdrops and narrations that gave the Sunday games a gravitas akin to Shakespearean dramas or Greek tragedies.
Sports Illustrated called the films, “perhaps the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America.”
The launch of the Sabols’ NFL Films corresponded with the sport’s rapid growth, beginning in the 1960s.
According to Joe Posnanski, writing in SportsonEarth.com, Ed Sabol was a talented amateur who bid $5,000 – a vast sum at the time – for the rights to film the 1962 NFL championship game. His main experience at the time was filming 14-year-old Steve’s high school games.
According to Posnanski, “the energy, the creative madness, the football fascination, the artist’s flair, the obsessive focus… came from [Steve].”
Sabol’s first script for They Call it Pro Football opened with the line, “It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun.” That film, and many subsequent ones, was narrated by John Facenda, a former Philadelphia TV news anchor who possessed “the voice of God” according to some critics.
Steve Sabol is credited with numerous innovations in producing game films. He used film, not tape, for greater resolution and tone. He employed many cameras to be sure all perspectives were recorded and used a hand-held camera to roam the sideline to capture unusual images. He often shot in slow motion.
As a college player at Colorado College he produced advertisements for himself in newspapers, postcards, brochures, T-shirts, lapel buttons and pencils to persuade his coach to let him play, according to the New York Times. He went on to be an all-conference fullback and team captain.
He described himself as the “Prince of Pigskin Pageantry now at the Pinnacle of his Power,” and his scripts continued to use alliteration in NFL films. He gave himself the nickname Sudden Death Sabol, and the New Jersey native claimed to be from Possum Trot, Miss.
Sabol personally received 35 of NFL Film’s 107 Emmys for writing, cinematography, editing, directing and producing.
Sabol is survived by his father; his mother, Audrey; his wife, Penny; a sister, Blair; and a son, Casey.