Ed Sabol founded NFL Films but his son Steve was the creative genius behind the enterprise.
Ed put NFL games on tape. Steve transformed those tapes from sport to art form.
Ed now has a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His son Steve deserves one as well.
“Steve’s passion for football was matched by his incredible talent and energy,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell upon Sabol’s passing of cancer in 2012. “Steve’s legacy will be part of the NFL forever. He was a major contributor to the success of the NFL, a man who changed the way we look at football and sports.”
Sabol, who took over from his father at NFL Films in 1976, invited football fans inside the helmet, inside the huddle, inside the lockerroom and inside of the game. In 2003, the Sabols were awarded a Lifetime Achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for “revolutionizing the way America watches football and setting the standard in sports filmmaking.”
Steve Sabol was an innovator. Ground level cameras displayed the physicality and violence of the sport. The use of slow motion displayed the beauty and grace of the sport. NFL Films also was the first to wire coaches and players for sound, which brought fans from the stands onto the field.
“Look at the football field,” Sabol once said. “It looks like a big movie screen. This is theater. Football combines the strategy of chess. It’s part ballet. It’s part battleground, part playground. We clarify, amplify and glorify the game with our footage, the narration and that music and, in the end, create an inspirational piece of footage.”
Sports Illustrated once labeled NFL Films “the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America.” Atlantic Magazine wrote the Sabols “taught the average fan how to consume football – where to look, what to notice, when to exult.”
Football was in Sabol’s genes. He was an all-conference running back at Colorado College who went to work for his father as a cameraman upon graduation. When Ed landed the NFL contract in 1962, Steve found himself on the sidelines filming the Jim Browns, Frank Giffords and Paul Hornungs. NFL Films has since won in excess of 100 Emmys and Steve himself won 35 for cinematography, directing, editing, producing and writing.
Sabol also married football footage with the majestic sound of a full orchestra. In 1974 he wrote “The Autumn Wind,” which has become the anthem of the Oakland Raiders.
Click link below to hear "The Autumn Wind:"
Bill Parcells knew Sabol long before NFL Films stuck a camera in his face on a New Jersey sideline.
“I was coaching defense at Hastings College when he was a fullback at Colorado College and his own publicity man,” Parcells said. “He called himself ‘Sudden Death Sabol’ and rounded his rushing average off from 4.2 to 5.0 (yards per carry). I used to bust his balls about that.”
That became the root of their decades-old friendship.
“I visited him when he was close to death,” Parcells said. “I loved the guy. He was an extremely dedicated professional who cultivated relationships with league personnel, which gained their trust and, as a result, gave him access. He was a true pioneer for his industry and the league itself.”
That unique sideline-to-sideline, field-to-lockerroom access brought football from the stadiums into homes. Viewers saw the players strain, sweat and bleed. The images were vivid. In 2011, NFL Films received the Lamar Hunt Award for its “positive impact on the game.”
“Steve was never looking for adulation,” said Carl Peterson, the former president and general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs and a long-time friend of Sabol. “Steve was always looking for the next aspect of the cinematography that would enhance the filming of our great game. Steve was like a coach because he was always looking for perfection in every film.
“Each of the other amateur and professional sports – the NCAA, Olympics, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS – has tried to duplicate NFL Films, but they cannot do it. That’s because of the creative genius of Steve Sabol.”
Sabol has been an annual candidate under consideration by the Hall’s sub-committee for a “contributor” nomination in the five-year history of the category.
“Who else – and I’m including players, coaches, owners and executives who are already in the Hall of Fame or will be entering the Hall in years to come – has contributed more to the growth and popularity of the NFL and the game of football than Steve Sabol?” Peterson asked.
That’s a question that needs to be addressed -- and answered -- by the Hall of Fame.
Click these two clips that define Sabol's legacy: