When you hear the name Steve Sabol…do you even know who he was?
There are a few people out there that you can instantly pinpoint the moment they came into your life. They leave a lasting impact on the direction of your life even though they are, truthfully, surprisingly meaningless to the story of your life. Now, what do you think when I say the name Steve Sabol? Do you get chills and see things in slow motion? Oh, you don’t even know the name? On the day of his death, it’s time to pay your homage to a man that changed not only sports, but the entertainment business forever.
I’ll bet you still haven’t figured out who Sabol is. Ever heard of NFL Films? That little production company that gave us, pretty much, every significant NFL highlight ever. Ed Sabol started the company in 1962 (Blair Motion Pictures) and filmed the 1962 NFL Championship game. The NFL loved the film and in 1964 helped Sabol found the company and renamed the company NFL Films.
But what Ed bore, Steve raised. He was the architect as the company exploded into prominence and for just about every major moment that the NFL has created and cultivated in our minds. Steve was there as the NFL and AFL merged. He was there as the Super Bowl became the biggest sporting event in the world. He was there as the league expanded and relocated. He was there when the biggest moments became bigger.
It was more than about just being there for Sabol. He was the league’s voice, our window into the game. It was NFL Films who dedicated themselves to giving us mic’d players and coaches. It’s Sabol’s vision as we now know it. The league that can suck you in for hours while making it feel like time has stopped. He was the Beethoven of the gridiron. He wasn’t the most important piece and would certainly never be the one you gave credit to for a masterful performance…but he wrote the script and directed the piece.
Like any master CEO, Sabol understood how to put the right people in the right places. He knew to give the kind of power to his films, he needed a strong voice. Enter…John Facena. The voice of God. And when Facenda passed, he found Harry Kalas to continue the tradition. He knew the narraror had to be part of the narrative, not just an after effect. He found Sam Spence to add a third narration alongside Facenda and the film.
Sabol made NFL Films bigger than the game. Remember that company ESPN? Maybe you’ve heard of them. Well, when they were just getting started 30ish years ago, it was Sabol that helped them get off the ground. He gave them what they needed to be able to function and it’s paid off ten-fold for both companies. When the NFL Network was getting off the ground, it was Sabol and NFL Films that gave them programming until they had their feet on the ground. He gave in ways few sports, industries, or companies have ever known how.
His reach was beyond sports, though. Movies, TV, internet videos…it’s all from what Sabol and NFL films did. They changed the way we decided to look at how we watch. We wanted to be immersed, we wanted to feel every blade of grass, every gust of the wind, the ins and outs of the soul of the game/show/mystery….whatever. Reality TV ring a bell? You notice how much people like getting immersed in their world? You can thank Sabol and NFL Films for creating that desire, that want, that NEED to be alongside every moment of action from inside the walls.
No one questions it was Ed who founded the company, but he was a director. He said action and let things happen. Steve though, He was the conductor. Whether it was Lombardi breathing like a bull on the sidelines or Hank Stram guffawing heartily after a play. Maybe it was watching Willie Brown chug in slow motion down the field in Super Bowl XI or John Riggins charging around the end against the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVIII. I don’t even have to show you those plays. Thanks to Sabol, you know them well.
Want to know how innovative Sabol was? Consider technology today. LED TV’s, HD programming, Dolby sound. Screens large as some movie theaters. As we’ve discussed, it’s actually better to watch a game at home than to go to games (it’s certainly cheaper in the long run). But all that technology that makes you feel like you’re part of the game? Sabol and NFL films have been doing that for 50 years now. It took the best and the brightest five decades to figure out how to catch up to what Sabol was doing.
I could go on and on about Sabol and the influence he had on the NFL and other areas of our media lives, but why? Sabol was never one to toot his own horn. He just wanted to continuously make his product better and better. Few have ever captivated our attention so flawlessly, so totally, so centrally. He could take 30 minutes of your TV and turn it into 4 hours of your life. He could make you laugh and he could make you cringe. But more than anything, Sabol knew when to be quiet and let the images speak for themselves.