Marshall McLuhan declared the medium is the message. In the case of NFL Films, the message became the medium. There has been no greater proselytizer for professional football than NFL Films, whose lenses and lyrical prose created a gridiron gospel that has been drawing fans to the pew for five decades.
Through the eyes of NFL Films, football became more than merely a violent, unforgiving, unpredictable game. It became Shakespearean drama with shoulder pads — theater, not in the round, but in the oblong shape of the ball. Those NFL Films eyes belonged to Steve Sabol, who died Tuesday at age 69, following an 18-month battle with brain cancer, according to the NFL.
Sabol, NFL Films president, was the Steve Jobs of his craft, and he left a lasting imprint on the league with his artistic vision and storytelling talent.
No matter which teams win on Sunday and Monday, the NFL and its fans have suffered a great loss. There is no NFL Network, no “Hard Knocks” series, no NFL pregame shows, no NFL highlight packages without the pioneering work of NFL Films.
The name of a Colorado College fullback-turned-filmmaker might not be as hallowed to football fans as Lombardi, Unitas, Brown, or Montana. It should be. Tick off a list of the most influential men of the modern NFL — Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle, Al Davis — and right near the top of that list are Sabol and his father, Ed, who was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
Simply put, the NFL is not the marketing behemoth and American obsession it is today without the mythmaking of the Sabols. They created a must-see league before one actually existed.
Mount Laurel, N.J., the home of NFL Films since 1979, is the game’s Mount Olympus.
It was Steve Sabol who crafted the unique look, feel, and sound — including the booming baritone of John Facenda — of NFL Films. He made the score of the game as memorable as the scores in the game.
“The films he created and the highlights he captured were amazing,” said Patriots owner Robert Kraft in a statement. “I still get goose bumps every time I watch one of the Patriots’ ‘America’s Game’ series.
“He spent his life preserving the legacy of the National Football League and its many legends. In doing so, he became a legend in his own right.”
Ed Sabol bought the rights to the broadcast of the 1962 NFL Championship game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants for $3,000. Steve Sabol worked as a cameraman for that first game, filmed at Yankee Stadium by Blair Motion Pictures, the precursor to NFL Films. Two years later, the Sabols convinced NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle that the league needed its own film company “to not only promote the NFL, but to preserve its history.”
Professional sports would never be viewed the same way.
“Visionary” is a word that gets thrown around too easily, but any football fan who has ever watched one of Sabol’s pigskin paeans and gotten chills from the poignant images perfectly matched to a cascading musical score knows that Sabol, who won 35 Emmy awards, was a visionary with a keen eye for detail and a flair for the dramatic.
His ode to the 1974 Oakland Raiders, the picaresque poem “The Autumn Wind,” is the epitome of how Sabol turned the chronicling of professional football into an art. He took a team of renegades and presented them as lovable rogues.
“The Autumn wind is a Raider
Pillaging just for fun.
He’ll knock you ’round and upside-down
And laugh when he’s conquered and won.”
Many football fans — including yours truly — owe their earliest football memories to Sabol, except they aren’t memories at all because we weren’t old enough to recall the actual events, only the NFL Films retelling. They’re more like football folklore passed down from above, watched and re-watched.
If you’re a hardcore football fan, you have seen the iconic images of Joe Namath running off the field in Super Bowl III, index finger firmly pointed to the firmament; Lynn Swann’s balletic catch over Mark Washington in Super Bowl X; Willie Brown’s slow-motion run to glory in Super Bowl XI. All are the work of Sabol and his crews.
Sabol was both autobiographer and auteur for the modern NFL.
“You can’t say enough about Steve and what he has meant to the National Football League, NFL Films, and the game of football,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “I think he has presented the game in a way that all fans, all of us, enjoy. You can see the excitement, the entertainment, and can laugh at [it], depending on how it’s being presented.”
It wasn’t all mythos with Sabol. There was mirth, too. “Football Follies” turned ill-fated plays and ignominious faux pas into captivating viewing. It was the fumble as physical comedy.
Along with productions like “Super Bowl Memories” and “NFL Yearbook,” the follies, which debuted in 1968, are a staple of the NFL Films library. They still cause me to stop flipping channels if they’re on.
Sabol’s legacy isn’t just what he filmed, but how he filmed it. Under his watch, NFL Films pioneered the use of wireless microphones on players (1966), slow-motion (1967), and reverse-angle replays (1971).
Thanks to Sabol, we knew that Shannon Sharpe felt compelled to call the National Guard when his Denver Broncos were blowing out the Patriots.
Like any great artist, Sabol was able to tap into the souls of his subjects.
“He has done a tremendous job of gaining the trust and confidence of the people that he has worked with, which isn’t the easiest thing to do, to do what he does and get that kind of cooperation,” said Belichick, who said the NFL Films production “Bill Belichick: A Football Life” would not have happened without Sabol.
The games go on without Sabol.
But his lens is everlasting.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.