Steve Sabol, President of NFL Films, Passes as One of Our Greatest Storytellers
Steve Sabol once had an electric chair built inside his house, front and center when you walked through the door, for no other reason than he thought it would make a good story.
Steve Sabol—and his father Ed before him—were pioneers of telling a good story.
The Sabol family built NFL Films on the premise that a single sporting event could stand the test of time, far beyond the final whistle and well past a printed box score in the following day's gazette.
Steve Sabol died Tuesday at the age of 69 after a long battle with brain cancer. The man's legacy, reach and impact in our profession and across the sport of football will carry on far beyond his final days.
Sabol was a true visionary, imagining a new way for people to consume sports, one that the world had never seen. He thought of showcasing football with a bed of orchestral music, employing the use of poetry and letter-perfect prose to aid in creating narratives and cementing legacies.
Without Sabol, the autumn wind would just be a cool breeze. He made it a boisterously-swaggering pirate.
Sabol was a vociferous supporter of using film as a story-telling medium, adding a level of quality and depth to the story the regular television cameras—or even digital—could never achieve. Sabol and NFL Films mastered the use of putting microphones on coaches and players that gave viewers a version of the events the network microphones could never hear.
Beyond that, Sabol was a larger-than-life personality. He would mail handwritten letters in envelopes that were previously used, just because he thought the recipient would get a kick out of where it had been before. I was lucky enough to get one after I toured the NFL Films offices, looking for an internship.
Sabol would take the time to talk to everyone, simply because he loved to share his stories. He loved to talk about football and his experiences covering the most memorable games in the history of the sport.
What separated Sabol from others in this profession is that he was equal parts historian and storyteller. He perfected the ability to tell a tale down to the last minor detail, all in an effort to keep his audience on the edge of our collective seats.
I had the great pleasure of interviewing Sabol in 2008 (you can listen to the conversation here), and we looked back at some of his favorite moments in NFL history and looked ahead at the changing landscape in the industry.
It seems odd to punctuate this remembrance with some poignant thought or platitude from me. Rather, I'll share one of the memorable moments of our interview. In addition to Sabol telling me about that electric chair, which he had installed as a gag for a story my father was writing on him at the time, Sabol's recollection of the genesis of the term Frozen Tundra, which he wrote for a Green Bay Packers highlight film, seems a fitting way to remember Sabol at his best:
When I said "on the Frozen Tundra," (Vince Lombardi) put a big red line through it and said, "Take this out. I’m not going to have my stockholders believe that their $250,000 investment doesn’t work." (Green Bay had recently installed a heater under the field.) So I changed the phrase to "in the ice-bucket chill of a Wisconsin winter."
How the phrase Frozen Tundra came into being was the Dallas Cowboys, in their highlights, they felt the reason they lost the game was because of the conditions of the field. So Tex Schramm loved the line and said, "Put it in. On the Frozen Tundra, because dammit, that’s how we lost the game."
So that phrase appeared in the Dallas Cowboy highlight film, and as long as Lombardi was alive it was never allowed in the Green Bay Packer film and was banned from any of their press releases. When Lombardi went to Washington we brought it back, and it caught on.
Click here for NFL.com's remembrance of a true legend.
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