The last time we talked, Steve Sabol was telling me about his father. Steve’s voice had a storyteller’s rhythm, always. That was part of what was beautiful about him. It did not matter what he was talking about. Everything was a story. If he were simply telling you where to meet him in a hotel, for instance, he would never just say to meet him by the painting next to the elevator. No, he would tell you to meet him by the painting of an old couple sitting on a park bench, and he would tell you that the couple in the painting was probably married for 45 years, maybe longer, and that they had been mostly happy, that maybe they suffered some tragedy in their young life but they worked through it, love got them through it, and he worked as a beat cop, and she wrote poetry, and they had three children, and one went on to become an internationally famous heart surgeon and another trained in Paris to become a chef, and …
And when you met Steve Sabol by the painting, two things would happen. One, you would be happy because just being around Steve made you happy. Two, you would look at that painting on the wall, the one you never noticed before, and regard it with wonder.
In any case, the last time we spoke, Steve was talking about his father, which meant that the story began when his father was selling overcoats in Philadelphia. In truth, it began even earlier. Ed Sabol was a dreamer from the day he was born. He was a great swimmer as a young man – he was a candidate for the 1936 Olympics, but he was Jewish and would say he had no interest to compete in Nazi Germany -- and he fought at Normandy. He performed on and off Broadway with vaudeville acts such as the Ritz Brothers. None of it stuck, though, and so Ed Sabol found himself selling overcoats in Philadelphia. He wasn’t too happy about it. Ed Sabol had dreams.
Steve had told me this story before … but this wasn’t THE story. This was the pre-story. This was the story just to get us to the story. He told me again how Ed had been given a windup movie camera when he married Audrey, and that camera sparked his ambitions. He loved making movies. He did not know how to make movies, and for a long time he did not even know what kind of movies he wanted to make. Steve loved to talk about his father’s first attempt to make a movie about whales, a movie that was somewhat hindered by Ed Sabol’s inability to actually find any whales.
In the meantime, Ed Sabol would film his son doing everyday things -- birthday parties, bicycle rides, haircuts, pee-wee football games -- and then he would find the most inspirational music he could find (usually a John Phillip Sousa march) and put that in the background of the little film. Then, he would invite friends over and put on a show.
Two things happened. One, the first glimmer of NFL Films came into view. Film, music, narration … Steve could not help but notice that what had once seemed bland and common, a mere haircut or rag-tag football game featuring kids in the neighborhood, was now something larger, something dramatic, something memorable.
But the second thing has more to do with Steve than his father. Steve said that when those films were on, he found that he wasn’t watching them. He was, instead, watching his father’s face. The story of the film was one thing, but Steve saw in his father’s face a different story, a human story, of a man who was in love with movies -- making them, not just chronicling the everyday, but celebrating it with music and angles and a point of view.
“My father,” Steve told me, “wanted to make the memories even better than the moments themselves.”
This is no doubt true of Ed Sabol. If a single sentence could sum up the life of his son -- and a single sentence cannot -- it would be that one.
* * *
Before Steve Sabol, mud was mostly a nuisance for a pro football game. Players slipped in it, slogged in it; mud covered their bodies so you could not even tell which player was on which team. After Steve Sabol, mud became something ennobling; it became the canvas to paint Gale Sayers’ grace, Jerry Rice’s precision, Jack Lambert’s force of will, Johnny Unitas’ high-tops.
Before Steve Sabol, snow and ice made football boring and miserable to watch. Nobody could complete passes in that stuff, nobody could gain traction. Heck, you couldn’t even see the yard markers. After Steve Sabol, football in the snow and freezing cold separated meek from mighty; you could not forget seeing Dallas’ Bullet Bob Hayes trying to shove his hands inside his pants just to warm them, and you could not forget seeing Bart Starr push his way into the frozen end zone.
Before Steve Sabol, pro football was a game without mythology. It was a good game, one gaining popularity all the time, but it lacked the poetry of baseball, and it lacked the history of boxing, and it lacked the soul of college football. What was pro football anyway? What did it even mean to be a pro football fan?
I suspect nobody on earth thought more about these questions than Steve Sabol. Ed Sabol might have been a full-fledged dreamer, but his oldest son was something more. He was a whirlwind. He was a football fanatic. He was an artist. He was possessed by the game.
He thought about being a painter, first. He tried to get into the Ivy League, he could not. He traveled Europe for a while in one of those efforts to find himself. He was offered a chance to play football for not-too-mighty Colorado College.
And that’s when he pulled off his first bit of promotional magic: He somehow talked his way into a full-length feature story in Sports Illustrated. “I’m more talented than Jimmy Brown,” he told the writer Tom C. Brody, who kept calling him “Sudden Death Sabol” because, well, that was the name Steve had come up with for himself. Steve invented a whole life for himself, first saying that he was from “Coaltown Township, Pennsylvania,” because it sounded like the sort of place Mike Ditka would be from. There is no Coaltown Township, of course. And that’s when Steve Sabol figured, heck, if he was inventing his hometown anyway, he might as well go for it. And that’s how he ended up being from Possum Trot, Mississippi.
It was at this time that Ed Sabol was trying to make it as a filmmaker for his new company, Blair Motion Pictures. Ed, in his last and boldest effort to escape a life of schlepping around overcoats, had bid $5,000 for the rights to the 1962 NFL Championship Game. Five grand. Sounds ridiculous. But it was actually a huge amount of money then, double what was paid in 1961. One of Steve’s favorite stories is the one where commissioner Pete Rozelle asks Ed Sabol what experience he had filming football.
“I filmed the games of my 14-year-old son,” Ed Sabol said.
Well, it tells you all you need to know about pro football at the time that Ed Sabol got the rights anyway, and Blair Motion Pictures soon changed its name to NFL Films. Ed had many good ideas about how to make football movies, and the man could sell just about anything. The energy, the creative madness, the football fascination, the artist’s flair, the obsessive focus … that came from the son. Steve wrote. He worked the camera. He got to know the players and coaches. And as much as anyone in NFL history, Steve Sabol believed in the sport. He believed that if he could get people to see football through his eyes -- with his encyclopedic knowledge of the game's history, his insider knowledge of the characters, and most of all his innate sense for a great story -- it would be the biggest thing going. People would love football the way he loved it.
Steve's first big moment was writing the screenplay for “They Call it Pro Football.” The Sabols asked a Philadelphia newscaster named John Facenda if he would narrate. Facenda knew almost nothing about football. But his voice was football, and when he read the first sentence of Steve’s script -- “It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun” -- father and son looked at each other and thought the same thing: Holy cow.
They were off. And they essentially created a new mythology for professional football, right there, right from scratch.
“Lombardi,” Steve wrote (and Facenda intoned). “A certain magic lingers in the very name.”
Did it? Was Lombardi a magical name? A great baseball player named Ernie Lombardi had played in the 1930s, but his name seemed so uninspired that people called him Schnozz. Then, well, when you heard Facenda say it in his Voice of God baritone, and when you saw the coach in that trench coat walking the icy sidelines of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and when you saw the precision with which his team played from angles you had never seen before … well, yes, maybe there was a certain magic.
There was also a certain magic in watching Jim Brown run through tacklers, pulling them through the Cleveland mud, dragging them for four or five or six more yards than anyone thought possible. There was a certain magic in seeing Terry Bradshaw unleash that long pass and then watching, in super slow motion, the ball slowly turn and turn as it rose and rose and then crested, and then slowly began to descend. There was a certain magic in seeing the cold breath of Dick Butkus the instant before the ball was snapped and then hearing spirited and inconsistent music as he rushed toward the running back, stood him up, drove him hard into the turf. The images were stark, the music was bold, the narration was big and sweeping. Football, through the cameras of NFL Films, was larger than life.
This was how Steve Sabol saw football in his own mind. He was a big theme guy. Heroes and rogues and characters. Men who rose to the challenge, men who strived and failed. I asked him about glorifying violence, and he denied that; he said that he glorified football. He liked doing funny things with football -- he came up with the idea of the Football Follies, a film of nothing but football bloopers and blunders (and you should have seen how the owners fought that idea) -- but mostly he thought of pro football games as theater. He used many cameras, pushed the limits of slow motion, spent a lot of time coming up with precisely the right music. And when a great game ended, like when a great play ended, Steve Sabol wanted people to feel like their lives had been altered just a little bit.
* * *
Steve Sabol was a man of many interests. He painted. He loved all kinds of music -- NFL Films did more than one Bruce Springsteen video. He was a voracious reader. He was a filmmaker of note who was admired by many in Hollywood, and was a great influence on numerous documentarians.
And he never lost his great love of pro football. To the very end, he had a seemingly unquenchable thirst for the game. It did not matter how trivial the football topic, Steve Sabol loved it. Best left-handed quarterbacks? He’d talk about that for an hour, along the way offering great stories about Jim Zorn or Ken Stabler or Steve Young. Worst uniforms? He might point to Denver in the early days of the old AFL or he might remember those brown jerseys and orange pants of my childhood Cleveland Browns. He would talk freely about certain things in the NFL that troubled him … the concussions, the hype, the way some of the older players were treated. But his enthusiasm for football never waned or frayed, no matter how big or complicated the sport became.
He really did help create today’s NFL essence. Much of it was subtle. The brilliant coach. The intense linebacker. The audacious quarterback. The indomitable runner. These are NFL Films themes. And it’s likely when you think back to a favorite NFL moment, you are really thinking back to how NFL Films framed that moment. When you think of the Immaculate Reception, you probably think of that blurry film of Franco Harris jogging and the ball floating, in slow motion, into his arms, as if by fate. When you think of the fury of Vince Lombardi, you probably think of him yelling, “Grab, grab, grab! Everybody’s grabbing out there! Nobody’s tackling!” When you think of the genius of Barry Sanders, you probably think of one of those many films in which Sanders seems to disappear on one side of the tackler and reappear on the other. When you think of Joe Namath, you probably think of him running off the field, wagging his index finger, We’re No. 1.
And when you think of Steve Sabol, maybe you will think of something small. A tiny little shake of the camera that kept happening during Super Bowl IV. That was the game in which NFL Films mic’d Chiefs coach Hank Stram. Well, that was another way that Steve Sabol was ahead of his time. Sabol and NFL Films were pioneers in the behind-the-scenes stuff that is so prominent today.
In any case, Stram made the most of it. He knew he was mic’d, and he was a ham, and the Chiefs controlled the game. Stram put on a show. He kept calling for the “65 Toss Power Trap” and when the Chiefs ran it -- and it led to a touchdown -- he celebrated himself. He offered one-liners, one after another, like the time he told an official “You marked it good! You marked it good!” Another time, during a punt, he said the ball looked like it had helium in it. And then there was this classic exchange with an official.
Stram: “How can all of you miss a play like that?”
Official: “What play, coach?”
Stram: “The ball arrived before we made contact …”
Official: “Oh, I thought you meant the play where you were standing on the field illegally.”
Stram: “No. … What?”
It was gold. All of it. The NFL was about to get a lot bigger after that game. The NFL and AFL had merged. Monday Night Football -- with Howard Cosell -- was about to mesmerize the country. The NFL was about to go into a period of fascinating teams -- the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, the Steel Curtain Steelers, the America’s Team Cowboys, the rogue Oakland Raiders. The Super Bowl was about to become America’s biggest thing, and the NFL was about to surpass baseball as America’s true pastime, and Steve Sabol was just 27 years old and at the center of it all.
On Tuesday, Steve Sabol died after an extended fight with brain cancer. He was 69 years old. To the end, he talked about how lucky and wonderful his life had been.
And that little shake of the camera during the NFL Films movie of Super Bowl IV? That was Steve Sabol. He had headphones on and could hear everything that Hank Stram was saying. And the shake of the camera happened because he was laughing so hard.