Two things put the NFL in a different stratosphere above baseball, hockey and basketball when it comes to capturing public interest:
1) Gambling and/or fantasy football
2) NFL Films
Today the sports world lost its Academy Award winner, its Martin Scorsese. A man who owned a monopoly on the most iconic moving images in sports over the past 50 years, NFL Films President Steve Sabol, died today at 69.
“Super slow motion, wireless mics on players, reverse angle replays, follies films, and custom composed musical scores. All that’s standard stuff today, but before NFL Films it was unheard of,” the NFL says in its official obituary for Sabol, who passed away after an 18-month battle with brain cancer.
All professional sports have their greatest moments replayed over and over again.
The NBA has Magic’s skyhook in Boston in '87 or Jordan’s jumper in '98 to win an NBA Championship in Utah.
Baseball has Kirk Gibson limping around the bases after beating the A’s in the World Series at Chavez Ravine or a harmless ground ball trickling through Buckner’s legs at Shea.
Hockey has Bobby Orr flying through the air after a game winning goal to win the Cup at Boston Garden 42 years ago and the Miracle on Ice 32 years ago.
But when you think of those moments, can you hear that booming, larger-than-life classical masterpieces that is a staple of NFL Films?
And ask yourself: When you see Michael or Buckner or Lake Placid in your head, do you see grainy network video or a picture-perfect, slow motion film?
In the pure art Sabol created along with his dad when NFL Films was born back in 1962, you see in your head Dwight Clark snaring a ball with his overstretched fingers out of the twilight of Candlestick Park when making The Catch.
You see in your head Joe Namath waiving his finger high going into an Orange Bowl tunnel, reminding the world of his guarantee.
You see in your head an extreme up-close shot of Franco Harris making the Immaculate Reception when no other camera at Three Rivers Stadium that day could do the same. You hear the Pittsburgh radio call. And all of this happens as classical music build to a crescendo, and as the voice of God, John Facenda, provides a poetic narration ("The catch was instantly dubbed, 'The Immaculate Reception. Somehow even that doesn't do it justice.") that makes the moment feel so much more…important.
That’s what Sabol and NFL Films has always done. Take a violent sport like the NFL and turn it into an opera, a ballet or a combination of both that can make even the most hardened football fan misty-eyed.
Sabol was also one of the great visionaries of all-time in any industry. Putting microphones on coaches to truly get a feel for the chaos and emotion on an NFL sideline, for example, was started by Sabol well before—as in over 40 years ago—it became as widespread as we see it today.
Vince Lombardi’s, “What the HELL is going on out there?” or Lou Saban’s “They're killing me, Whitey. They're KILLING ME!" can be quoted by any fan as easily as any line from Caddyshack.
NFL Films will carry on as an American institution despite the loss of its leader, just as it did after Facenda's passing and Steve’s father and company co-founder (Ed Sabol's) retirement.
No footage of any sport has ever been more magical, more perfect than NFL Films.
The NFL should do the right thing this Thursday, Sunday and Monday, and honor Steve Sabol with a moment of silence before every game across the country.
The league simply wouldn’t be where it is without him.
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