Steve Sabol: Mourning the NFL's Great Loss from a Jets Perspective

Rocco ConstantinoContributor ISeptember 18, 2012

Photo courtesy of Yahoo Sports
Photo courtesy of Yahoo Sports

The news broke this afternoon that legendary NFL Films founder Steve Sabol lost his battle with brain cancer at the age of 69.

For anyone who grew up watching the NFL before the advent of the Internet or 24-hour sports coverage, NFL Films provided fans many of their first glances at game highlights that simply weren't available to the masses the way they are today.

NFL Films was at the forefront of documenting the NFL and AFL merger, and as expected, the Jets were featured prominently in those films.

NFL Films released a look at some rare AFL footage in a short film called The AFL Unearthed. The film showcased lost footage of the AFL and gave viewers a fascinating look at some legendary stories of the AFL. 

In the film's introduction, Sabol said that NFL Films started filming AFL games in 1968 as part of a clause in the agreement between the AFL and NFL.

Sabol was faced with an immediate quandary because one of his first charges was to complete a highlight film of Super Bowl III. The problem wasn't anything with the footage or production of the film, it was the fact that Sabol grew up as a Baltimore Colts fan.

In a fascinating admission, Sabol admitted to still holding a grudge against the Jets while making the highlight film and just couldn't bring himself to make the Jets look like heroes after winning the big game.

It also didn't help the Jets' cause that after Super Bowl III, the NFL Films cameras weren't treated well in the Jets locker room, specifically by Joe Namath, because of their connection to the NFL and the media doubting the Jets' chances they could win.

So, when producing the film, in what was a brilliant piece of editing and narration, Sabol inserted an homage to one of his heroes, Johnny Unitas.

In the film, Sabol said

I have to admit that I didn't help ease the tension between the two leagues when I made the official Super Bowl film the following spring.  I was still upset that the AFL won. You see I had been a Colts fan my entire life and in my version of the game, I played a little fast and loose with the facts.

The segment started off by showing Unitas under center, scouting the field at what looks like a crucial point in the game. The truth of the matter was that the game was already out of hand, and Sabol had spliced together footage of a late meaningless drive with looks of nervousness from the Jets bench.

Of course, John Facenda narrated dramatically as the segment started. The legendary voice of NFL Films boomed, "all the hopes and dreams of one season rested on the hopes of one man" when in fact the game was all but over.

This is of course a light-hearted glimpse at one small part of an incomprehensibly huge library of footage, so please don't take that as any kind of complaining.  It should instead be seen as the genius of Sabol and the personal feel NFL Films had.  

In fact, if you watch the accompanying video, you can see that Sabol laughs it all off and in pays reparations to the Jets by showing some highlights of confident Jets on the sidelines during the game, including vivid sound bytes of Namath and Don Maynard.  

It is a clip that as you watch, you can't help but laugh at Sabol's down-to-earth admission and tear up at the loss the NFL world suffered today. It's another piece of childhood that has gone away.

Later in the film, Sabol touched on another pivotal game in the AFL's history that involved the Jets: The Heidi Game.

Sabol shares with us two rarely-seen clips of Raiders touchdowns that were called back earlier in the game. If the scores had stood, there would have been no need for a comeback and the Heidi Game wouldn't exist in the annals of AFL history.

Another fascinating few seconds revolved around O.J. Simpson's first game in the NFL, which happened to be against the Jets, who were playing their in their first regular season game after Super Bowl III.

There were two great tidbits that Sabol shared here as well. First, Sabol showed a glimpse of the Bills cheerleaders carrying a green and white sign that said "champs" to honor the Jets and the AFL's win over the NFL.

Imagine one division rival celebrating another's Super Bowl win from the year before in today's game! 

Also, Sabol pointed out that Simpson entered the league with such hype, but couldn't do anything against the fearsome Jets defense that day, so the Bills public relations department asked that the film be thrown out.

It's simple clips like this that show the importance of Sabol and NFL Films. Anyone could have shown the highlights of the game's biggest plays, but Sabol wanted to go further. He wanted NFL Films to showcase the personal drama and characters of the game.

Sabol himself was an artist and that comes through in every film he produced.

I grew up watching reruns of all the great NFL Films productions on ESPN in the 1980s, before the station was populated with marathons of SportsCenter or shows featuring talking heads of whatever sports are in season.

It was a treat to flip on ESPN and hear Facenda's voice over a slow motion shot of Dick Butkus mowing down some poor running back.  

Whether it was the NFL video yearbook of the 1978 Detroit Lions, legendary footage of Hank Stram during Super Bowl IV or an episode of Football Follies, you were glued to the TV and as soon as the NFL Films were done for the day, you wanted to run out of your house, gather up your friends and play some football.

A lot of the figures from the NFL Films of the 1970s have left us in recent years. Stram died in 2005, Al Davis and Bubba Smith died just last year and Merlin Olsen and George Blanda in 2010.

Today with the loss of Steve Sabol, NFL Films as we know it won't be the same.  

Of course, thanks to thousands of hours of footage dating back over five decades, children of future generations will always have access to the history of the NFL and will know what someone's talking about when they make a reference to "matriculating the ball down the field."  

Steve Sabol and his father, Ed Sabol, the recent Hall of Fame inductee who turned 96 years old one week ago today, have seen to it that the history of the NFL and AFL was documented and preserved. Their contributions to the sport cannot be overstated.