Occasionally we all feel an extraordinary loss in the passing of someone we never knew. Such was the case for me last week.
Steve Sabol is a name that anyone remotely close to the NFL or the history of the NFL knows quite well. Even if an NFL fan has never heard of Steve Sabol, they’ve certainly heard of the company he ran for 30-plus years: NFL Films.
Steve Sabol, 69 years old, died of brain cancer on Sept. 18. It was a chop block that hit all in the NFL hard, and hit me as though I had lost a member of my family.
George Halas, the one time NFL owner-coach of the Chicago Bears, once described NFL Films as a “keepers of the flame”. Sabol and his film crews shot, edited and produced FOOTBALL HIGHLIGHTS that made the NFL what it is today. Part historic, part drama, part comedy, and all entertainment, the highlights produced by NFL films have moved NFL fans since their founding in 1962.
I’ve been involved in filmmaking and television for 32 years, and I have often credited my initial interest in movies, and my creative style over the years as having been heavily influenced by Steve Sabol and the producers of NFL Films. I went to USC in the mid 1980’s and was in the Cinema school for 3 years. Most of my peers would speak of the influences of the great directors who they credited as being inspirations to them and their journeys to filmmaking: Alfred Hitchcock, François Truffaut, Martin Scorsese, Author Penn, Francis Coppola or Steven Spielberg. I would often site my influence being Steve Sabol. (Not surprising, most of my colleagues had no idea who I was talking about.)
NFL Films and Steve Sabol have captured the sights and sounds of the NFL since the early 1960’s. The mic’ing up of a head coach on the sidelines, slow motion-close ups of a football sailing through the air, and grand inspirational movie-like music to NFL films were all staples of the growing popularity of the NFL and were all brainstorms of NFL films, which was headed by Steve and his father Ed Sabol.
I was 11 years old in 1970 when the (old) Mill Valley Rec Center offered free 49ers tickets through a sponsorship by Berkeley Farms milk. All we kids had to do to receive complementary tickets was to spend 60 minutes at the Mill Valley Rec Center, listen to a member of the 49ers talk to the kids, and then sit down on the floor as the Rec Center director would drag out an old 16mm projector and play a football film. The films I saw over the 4 months that followed became ingrained in my creative mind ever since. "The Football Follies" was one of the crowd favorites, features of Vince Lombardi, or the game were Hank Stram was mic’d up the 1970 Superbowl game vs. the Vikings.
From those football fall meetings in 1970 to the years the 49ers began their run to greatness in the 1980’s, to the most recent times as the NFL enters the millennium, Sabol and NFL Films brought fun, entertainment, and heart to a sport that became know as “American’s Game."
Steve Sabol, along with his Father Ed, truly were pioneers in the art of sports movies, and Steve’s mark will forever been a part of American Sports Lore.