The New York Times
September 19, 2012
The death of Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films, leaves us with one less storyteller. Yes, he was a cameraman, cinematographer, producer, editor, writer and director — encompassing skills that he and his father, Ed, employed to build a mythmaking apparatus better than the propaganda machines of most nations.
But boy, he could talk, on the air, on the phone, in a restaurant, at a banquet. He brought passion, detail and humor to his storytelling, whether he was explaining how a shot was made, how the martial music in his programs was composed or how Coach Hank Stram was fitted for a microphone during Super Bowl IV, when he was heard exhorting his Kansas City Chiefs to “matriculate the ball down the field.”
“We offered him $500 and he said, ‘That wouldn’t even pay my dry-cleaning bill,’ ” Sabol told me during an interview in 2003 aboutStram, a stout, toupeed dandy. “He was so vain about his posture and stomach that when he wore a mike, we saw that under his shirt that he wore a scuba diving vest to keep his shoulders up and his gut in.”
Sabol was an eternal youth and an auteur. He stood always on the edge of childlike joy knowing that all he did in his adult life was shape the image of the sport he loved. He did it with his father in a way that rival sports leagues envied but could not imitate. With a staff that understood that he was turning games into Hollywood productions, Sabol created a separate reality that made fans consider whether an NFL Films production, and not a television set, was the best way to enjoy a game.
The Sabol vision was first articulated by Ed, but it was executed by Steve: tight close-ups (spirals spinning for 10, 20, 30, 40 yards); slow-motion photography (sweat dripping from a beard and vapor escaping a bald head); players and coaches wired for sound but never for embarrassment; scripts that teetered between macho and dramatically absurd; baritones like John Facenda and Harry Kalas to lend gravitas to over-the-top screenwriting; and bloopers that made Sabol’s cinematic gladiators more human.
The very act of turning live games into 16-millimeter film works inevitably glorified the violence of football — but simultaneously illuminated the skills and toil of players, in the trenches and the air, that television cannot.
And because N.F.L. television broadcasts were almost never replayed until NFL Network came along, the versions of the games made by Sabol survived as the moving-picture memory of the sport. The Sabols built on that powerful platform, expanding its programming and influence year after year.
Sabol had much in common with Bud Greenspan, the Olympic documentarian who died in 2010. Sabol, as an insider, and Greenspan, as an independent filmmaker hired to make official films every two or four years, emphasized a Panglossian view of sport that has all but disappeared. But both men knew that journalists would cover the sordid, seamy and financial doings they diverted their cameras from; they adored the athletes and the sports they filmed and saw no reason to carp when others eagerly would.
In 1999, NFL Films produced a valentine of a documentary about Al Davis, the cantankerous, litigious owner of the Oakland — or Los Angeles — Raiders, that did not mention his legal battles with the league or his feuds with commissioners. Greenspan preferred to be far from anyone but the athletes who overachieved, overcame or failed valiantly. “I’ve been criticized for having rose-colored glasses, he told me during the 1996 Summer Games. “I say if that’s true, what’s so bad? I’m not good at hurting people.”
The reality of a father outliving his 69-year-old son is most often poignant. Steve Sabol is gone. Ed, 96, survives him. The former overcoat salesman and his artist son had an effervescent and complementary relationship that manufactured something memorable. The younger Sabol rarely discussed NFL Films without mentioning Big Ed, as he was called.
“He taught me that it’s more important to make people feel than to make people think,” he said, days before he delivered a speech at his father’s induction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011. “Football is a sport of emotions, and we have to capture that in our films.”
As he said those words, a brain tumor was preventing him from speaking as well as he wanted; from saying everything that he was thinking, from summoning memories. Sabol, the storyteller, was frustrated.
“The words,” he said, apologetically, “just fizz out.”
But the work of 50 years, which lives on at NFL Films in Mount Laurel, N.J., and in our minds, will not.