Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films, passed away Tuesday from brain cancer. He was 69 years old.
I never met Sabol, although I have always wanted to. Now, unfortunately, that’s one more thing on my bucket list that won’t happen. Although I never knew him personally, I know his work with NFL Films. His work (and before that, his father’s) turned me into a full-blown NFL fan as a child.
I liked football when I was a child, but was by no means passionate about it. How passionate can a child really be, anyway? The relationship between the game of football and me fundamentally transformed then, however.
I was nine years old in 1992. That year holds special meaning for any football fan in the state of Wisconsin, as that’s the year Brett Favre emerged for the Green Bay Packers. It's also the year the Packers began their climb back to respectability after a long absence. The team finished 9-7 that year and sensing the Packers would soon be destined for bigger things, my dad subscribed to Sports Illustrated.
With every new subscription, SI usually gives away some kind of free gift. In this case, the gift was a VHS copy The Hidden NFL. NFL Films produced the program about aspects of the National Football League that fans can’t access. It was the ultimate football insider documentary in the early 1990s, long before the advent of the Internet. The Hidden NFL covered everything from the emotions behind draft day to how NFL Films puts the microphones on the players’ shoulder pads.
I didn’t appreciate how fascinating all that was then, but as child it helped hook me on football. Even then, the work of Sabol’s NFL Films tuned my young mind into the human and emotional aspects of a game that is so much more than just big men slamming into each other over a pig's bladder, or rather pigskin.
What did I remember most from that program? Two things. One was former Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville mic’d up. “This is the NFL, which stands for Not For Long when you make those (expletive) calls.” I think many of us have said similar things about this season’s replacement officials, have we not?
The other part (naturally) involved a Packer and, of all people, it was defensive end Tim Harris. During a home game, the Lambeau Field crowd started doing the wave with the offense on the field—a no-no. Harris, mic’d up, pleaded with the crowd “You're not supposed to do the wave with the offense on the field! No! No!" It made me laugh then and it still makes me laugh now.
As I grew up, my favorite part of NFL Films’ programming was the Super Bowl highlight shows ESPN broadcast a month or so before the Super Bowl. Even knowing the outcome out of the game, I was still kept on the edge of my seat thanks to brilliant film making and the spine tingling narration of the great Harry Kalas, as well as others.
I graduated high school and partially because of what I saw from NFL Films, I decided to pursue a film degree in college. Though that career path hasn’t worked out the way I planned, I did do a decent amount of filming in college, mainly at weddings.
I tried to emulate NFL Films. Though a wedding is no football game, I tried to capture angles no one else tried and add some gravitas to event. Like a football game, a wedding is a big event. I tried to make it look that way on film and judging by the compliments I received, I had some success.
That was perhaps the genius of what Sabol and his father, Ed, who founded the company in 1964, did with NFL Films. They took a game that is incredibly fast (especially over the past two decades) and slowed it down, literally. The slow motion used by Sabol’s crews has helped many see so many things they may have missed at full speed, either on live television or in person. Not only that, but you also can see the laser-like focus it takes to be an NFL player. Just watching the eyes of players as they’re about to make a big play (or a big mistake) is one of the biggest thrills I still get from watching NFL Films.
Sabol and his dad changed the way we look at football and the larger world of sports. The microphones on players and coaches have provided unparalleled insight into some the great moments in NFL history. It’s still crazy to hear Packers' Coach Vince Lombardi screaming “What the hell is going on out here?!” and how tense Packers' receiver Greg Jennings was in the final moments of Super Bowl XLV. It’s become routine to see such access now but for some reason it still never gets old.
Another key piece to Sabol’s legacy is how he moved NFL Films into the 21st century. With the rise of the internet and explosion in demand of streaming content, Sabol kept NFL Films relevant. With programs such as SoundFX featuring the old standby of mic’d up players, NFL Films is able to go from shooting a game to having an episode ready to go in a matter of days. You used to have to wait a month or two for a Super Bowl highlight program to air, but now it’s ready to go before workers have even cleaned up the stadium.
Sabol did so much for the game of football that it’s impossible to document it all here. I was incredibly sad to hear of the passing of a figure who has meant so much to me, personally and professionally.
R.I.P., Steve. You’ll be missed by us all. Thanks for helping make football the great game it is today.
Kris Burke is a freelance sportswriter currently residing in Wisconsin. His work has been linked to by such sites as CBSSports.com and National Football Post. You can read his work on AllGreenBayPackers.com as well as on Bleacher Report. Follow Kris on Twitter @KrisLBurke