Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films and one of its founding members alongside his father Ed, has passed away after an 18-month battle with brain cancer. He was 69.
Quantifying Sabol’s impact on the NFL is impossible, as his influence goes far beyond any number or statistic. The documentary style that he used to capture the essence of the game gave us reality television long before the so-called reality of putting people in a large house or on a deserted island.
He was a filmmaker who combined his love for his craft with his love for football. The result was an ongoing documentation of a game from a unique and vivid perspective. His work was moving, and always goosebump inducing. Try not to shiver while watching the depiction of his poem The Autumn Wind, narrated by John Facenda.
He continued to use the vault of archival footage accumulated by NFL Films to educate the current generation of fans, and induce instant nostalgia in those who lived through the events he depicted. That’s on full display in this piece about the history of the Cowboys-Eagles rivalry, and the root of the intense, bitter feelings on both sides.
He was a pioneer, and was honored as such in 2007 when the Pro Football Hall of Fame gave him the Dan Reeves pioneer award in recognition of his innovative techniques. He also won over 40 Emmy Awards, showing the widespread impact he had on sports film making beyond football.
His influence will live on, and it can be seen in Hard Knocks every summer, or in each installment of HBO’s 24/7 series. He made football seem like a movie, one that we watched in real-time, but re-lived again and again through his eye.
Roger Goodell issued a statement about the passing of the league’s storyteller:
“Steve was the creative genius behind NFL Films’ remarkable work. Steve’s passion for football was matched only by his talent and energy. He was a major contributor to the success of the NFL, a man who changed the way we looked at football and sports, and a great friend. His legacy is assured.
“Steve was an incredible visionary. He spent 50 years at the NFL and changed the way we see pro football. So when you’re watching the games this week, it’s worth remembering just how much Steve contributed to the way we think, see, and love our game.”
He also forever changed even our first viewing of that football movie. Those times when you hear the quarterback yell “Kill! Kill! Kill!” have been made possible by Sabol’s ingenuity which included wiring players for sound in addition to introducing slow-motion replays. He started way back in 1962 as a cameraman working with his father and then that partnership eventually grew into NFL Films, a company that turned football into theater.