Steve Sabol was heart and soul of NFL Films

Sep 25, 2012 3:05 AM

If you are reading this column, I imagine you love football. If you are around my age (56) your love of the game likely began and grew with the images created by NFL Films. The company that turned a brutal sport into high art lost its public face, Steve Sabol.

Where would the game be without NFL Films? Sabol brought us a perspective of the game where we got to see the ferociousness of the competition portrayed as beautifully as an opera. Make no mistake, Sabol wasn’t merely the face of NFL Films, he was its heart and soul, too.

Sabol majored in art history in college and his artist’s soul comes through in his work. He found the right pictures of the right story and brought them to us in a way that stamped them in the recesses of our memory. Images that can never be forgotten.

Who can forget Jerry Kramer digging his foot in Lambeau Field’s frozen tundra (which was never said in NFL Films, by the way) before clearing the path for Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak into the end zone to win the NFL championship for the Green Bay Packers?

Think of Joe Namath running off the field in Super Bowl III, finger waving to the world reminding us of the one and only guarantee that has ever meant a thing.

NFL Films framed the iconic silhouette of Tom Landry against a backdrop of out-of-focus Cowboys fans, which still warms the cockles of a Texan’s heart.

The greatest and most dramatic touchdown in NFL history was caught almost as miraculously as the catch Franco Harris made on Terry Bradshaw’s batted pass to enhance the legend of the Immaculate Reception. (God, I hope Phil Villapiano is reading this).

None of these things are automatic, you know. Sabol himself wasn’t there to film each of these images, but his direction had his cameramen in the perfect spot.

Sabol didn’t write the music that enhanced the narrative either. However, again it was in his artist’s soul to tell this story with glorious orchestration.

The music stirred our emotions to see his vision of the events on the field as poetry, dance or war. Often times we saw all those and more in a film clip.

The slow motion spiral of a pass had one sitting wide-eyed in anticipation of its destination. Which heart would it break or victory would it snatch away? The camera’s view of the dramatic descent of simple confetti upon someone’s arms raised in victory will let us know. 

Sabol also gave us the personalities of the sport, too. His love of the game carried through to the love he had for the individuals on the field.

If Vince Lombardi is remembered a thousand years from now it will not only be due to the force of his personality but how it was portrayed by NFL Films as well.

Ray Lewis, once accused of murder, is now seen as a loved and inspirational figure. His image was not only rescued by his own persona but its presentation to the public showing us there was more to the man than just a thug’s reputation.

The best story tellers can also find comedy in the drama. Sabol did that with a talent any director would envy. Fumbles in the mud might be slapstick humor but NFL Films did it so it was the Three Stooges and not some Catskills hack with a spray bottle.

Is there one among us who hasn’t quoted Lou Saban’s “They’re killing me, Whitey, they’re killing me”? How many of us have asked our winning teams to “keep matriculating that clock” like Hank Stram? Those moments weren’t funny to the people involved at the time but framed properly they are some of the most comedic moments of our lives.

Sabol’s love of football gave us a beautiful art form he created to stir the emotions of every football fan. His vision touched that part of us that the loved game, too, but didn’t have the ability to identify it like he did.

There are many people who have made football America’s number one sport. When you start ticking off the names of those who created it like Pete Rozelle, Jim Brown, Art Rooney and Johnny Unitas don’t go too far down that list before you get to Steve Sabol.

Chris Andrews has over 30 years of experience as a bookmaker in Nevada. You can follow him on Twitter@AndrewsSports. Chris has a dedicated thread in the Pregame.com forums, answering your questions and more. Contact Chris at [email protected].

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