Steve Sabol dies: An appreciation of NFL Films president

9:03 AM, Sep 19, 2012   |    comments
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Steve Sabol. (Getty Images)

by Michael Hiestand, USA TODAY

If you like stories, you liked Steve Sabol.

Sabol was a master storyteller, a quality that helped him see "frozen tundra" in stadium fields and epic battles in football games.

Sabol, NFL Films President and son of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, died Tuesday after an 18-month battle with brain cancer. He was 69.

"My dad has a great expression," Steve Sabol told USA TODAY Sports last year. "He always says, 'Tell me a fact, and I'll learn. Tell me the truth, and I believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.'"

Sabol will be remembered for innovative camerawork and setting highlights to dramatic music. But it was his eye for detail and his storytelling skills that helped him turn game highlights into timeless tales.

Talking with me about the 2010 HBO documentary Lombardi, he recalled when he first met Vince Lombardi. Sabol was 23 in 1965 when he showed up at the Green Bay Packers offices to film Lombardi. The coach came in bellowing about somebody having parked in his spot. It was Sabol, who said, "It was a terrible start."

But Sabol went on to work on 18 more NFL Films shows that included Lombardi footage. The last one, that 2010 film, included footage of Lombardi throwing a very 1960s party in his basement, complete with chain-smoking and highballs.

Sabol recalled the occasion: "He loved to hear a joke, but he couldn't tell one. It was awkward to be around him then because he'd butcher a joke. But no one would tell him it hadn't made sense."

Sabol also could find the dramatic essence of the subjects he filmed. On Lombardi, despite his inability to tell jokes, Sabol said he was "a symbol of human aspiration and honor without frills or phoniness."

The same could be said of Sabol and his father, who was a former overcoat salesman before founding NFL Films and turning it over to his son in 1985. Building their business from the ground up and finding stories between the sidelines, they forever changed how people would see the NFL.

"The NFL truly lost a piece of itself with the passing of Steve," former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said. The Sabols, he said, "captured the league in such a way no sport has ever been captured."

And it's not a stretch to suggest, as ESPN/ABC's Mike Tirico does, that Steve Sabol has attained a sort of immortality with his films: "Not many people leave a legacy that the world will enjoy for years."

That legacy is in the hands of the NFL, which bought NFL Films in 1964 after Ed Sabol had started it in 1962. NFL Films originally was named Blair Motion Pictures after Steve's sister Blair.

Ed Sabol, also a home movie enthusiast, started what would become NFL Films when he walked into Commissioner Pete Rozelle's office in 1962 and bid $3,000 for film rights to the NFL championship game.

"There's no way an overcoat salesman could get an appointment today with the commissioner, let alone write him a check and say, 'I'm going to film the game,' and have his only other experienced filmer be his son," Sabol told USA TODAY Sports in 2008.

In terms of the visions, Steve said, his father "wanted to show football the way Hollywood portrayed fiction -- with a dramatic flair." But Steve had a different take: He wanted "the eyeballs bulging and the veins sticking out and snot flying. We blended those two things together, and that's how NFL Films' style came about."

Sabol is survived by his wife Penny, his son Casey, his parents, Audrey and Ed (who is 96), and his sister, Blair.

USA TODAY

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