Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Steve Sabol truly lived 'a football life'

By Peter King
September 19, 2012

When I saw the NFL Films documentary Bill Belichick: A Football Life, and realized this intensely private character had allowed himself to be wired for an entire year by NFL Films, letting it invade his offseason sanctuary in Nantucket, sail with him on his boat and sit with him in a coaches' meeting while he chewed out the offense, my instantaneous thought was: Steve Sabol did this.

Think of the trust Bill Belichick had to have in Sabol's company to allow Films to live with him for a year. To do the things NFL Films has done over the years -- wiring coaches and players in Super Bowls, allowing cameras in meetings that coaches wouldn't allow their closest friends in the world to attend -- gave NFL Films a genuineness that was unsurpassed not just in sports, but also in the world.

Where else were the inner workings of a business so intimately documented by filmmakers and shown to an adoring public? That began with Steve Sabol's dad, Ed, a Hall of Fame filmmaker in his own right. But it flowered and became the institution it is today because of Steve's storytelling brilliance, and his ability to get people to let him into their world.

And trust. Lots of people are good at making movies, but Steve Sabol's greatness was about so much more. Some of the most insanely private people in the business -- Belichick, for instance -- allowed Sabol and his cameramen into their world, and they had to know Sabol was not only going to show them in a positive light, but also would keep the film that landed on the cutting room floor out of the public domain. His ethics were above reproach, and he was one of the most authentic football lovers ever born.

The phone keeps ringing as I write this, with people in the game who want to say something about Steve Sabol. One GM, distraught, went stream-of-consciousness on Sabol, covering so many correct facets I'll just list them for you: "He was the most ethical person I knew. No one, no one, did more for the game in NFL history than Steve Sabol. He made Lynn Swann a ballerina. Everything about the job, he loved. He loved the filming, he loved the story, he loved the edit room ... ''

The man got emotional, and was rambling, and said we'd talk in a couple of days. Then Brett Favre was on the phone a few minutes later. He'd been wired, he guessed, about 50 times in his career, and much of that was because of his relationship with, and trust for, Steve Sabol. Favre understood the myth-making qualities of NFL Films and attributes how big the game has gotten to Sabol as much as any single person.
"He changed the face of the NFL without ever playing a down in it,'' Favre said.

Everyone I knew loved being around Steve. He was relentlessly positive, and not in a sappy way. He was convinced every team had 10 good stories, and he knew deep down that filmmaking brilliance of those he hired would make the stories better than maybe they were. But that's why Pete Rozelle took the leap of faith and hired Ed Sabol's company in the '60s -- to put some sizzle in the NFL steak.

"For a company that prides itself on telling good stories,'' he said, "this is one hell of a story. Dad makes the Hall of Fame. Son's going to be his presenter. Son gets a brain tumor. Now the story is, Is the son going to be there? Will the son make it? Who knows? I could be around until the Super Bowl in New York [2014]. But I've had a lot of time to think ...

"So they talk about heaven, and I don't know what is waiting for me up there. But I can tell you this: Nothing will happen up there that can duplicate my life down here. That life cannot be better than the one I've lived down here, the football life. It's been perfect."

So wonderfully fitting that a few of his last public words -- those -- will live forever. After reading his quote, NFL Films decided to call its new series of inside stories on the stars of the game, beginning with the Belichick opus, "A Football Life." As in, "Bill Belichick: A Football Life." The best stories they'll tell, every year, will be in that series.

The next show I want to see? "Steve Sabol: A Football Life."

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