I never met Steve Sabol, but I wish I had. I knew of him and admired him from afar for 47 years. I absolutely loved his work, his unmatched sense of humor, and his obvious zest for life.
I first learned of Steve in 1965, when I was a high school senior and he was a college senior, attending Colorado College, which is - or was - a college somewhere in Colorado Springs. He was also a pretty fair football player.
Sports Illustrated was my bible back then, and, when it arrived in the mail, I would read it from cover to cover. One week in the autumn of 1965, there was an article entitled, “The Fearless Tot from Possum Trot.” It was about a kid from Philly who went to play football out there in the Rockies and was his own press agent. The article, by Tom Brody, chronicled Sabol’s exploits and shenanigans...
“Sabol's first gambit was to change his home town from Villanova to Coaltown Township, Pa., a nonexistent locality that had the ring of solid football country to it. "Everybody knows that western Pennsylvania is where the studs come from," he said. "I've never even seen a coal mine, but if the coaches thought I'd been rubbing shoulders with guys like Mike Ditka and Leon Hart they'd have to start thinking. You know, I carried it off all season and nobody caught on. Guys would come up and ask me why I hadn't got a big scholarship from Notre Dame or Ohio State or someplace, and I'd say, 'Aw, I was just third-string.' "
While he impressed his colleagues, Sabol remained unnoticed by the coaches through the entire freshman year. Figuring he had been too subtle, he was ready with a veritable blitz of eye-catchers by the time the sophomore season rolled in. He informed one and all that he was from Possum Trot, Miss, ("now, who could ignore anyone from a place called Possum Trot?" he reasoned) and then went to work on his name, which was honorable enough but lacked the ring of greatness. "I wanted something really lethal," he said, "like Sudden Death—hey, yeah, Sudden Death! Fits my initials, too." It is recorded that on the program for the next game CC had a third-string fullback called Sudden Death Sabol. That wasn't all that was in the program. "Coach Jerry Carle [CC's head coach] wishes Sudden Death Sabol a successful season," read a modest ad—paid for by Stephen Douglas Sabol.”
Brody’s article noted that Sabol actually became a starter in his junior year, racked up some decent numbers, and continued the press agentry. He bought T-shirts for kids that said “I’m a little Possum Trotter,” and sold them to fans for a buck each. He had a column in the school newspaper called, “Here’s a lot from Possum Trot.”
Seventeen-year old Homer read that article, and decided that Sudden Death Sabol was his hero. He never forgot that article, and when he first saw Steve Sabol on NFL Films, he KNEW that had to be “Sudden Death.”
Steve Sabol might well have been the only art history major ever to get a job out of college. It helped that the job was working with his dad, Ed, on a fledgling project called NFL Films.
Ed started a company called Blair Motion Pictures in 1962 (he had attended Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey and named his daughter Blair), and his first contract with to film the 1962 NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers. Steve, home from college on break, shot footage of the game. Pete Rozelle liked the finished product, and so did some of the other owners. By 1964, Blair Motion Pictures became NFL Films, and Ed Sabol had an exclusive deal to preserve all NFL games on film.
Like father, like son, Ed and Steve were both athletes who dabbled in the arts. Dad qualified for the 1936 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team, but boycotted the games, refusing to go to Nazi Germany. He also appeared in a couple of Broadway plays. Steve was, by his own admission, an all-time college football great, and - by the consensus of all who knew him, a great writer and a visionary producer.
Ed had a sharp eye for talent, hiring an anchorman from WCAU in Philadelphia, John Facenda, to narrate NFL Films productions. Facenda, with his magnificent set of pipes, became known as “The Voice of God,” as well as “The Voice of the NFL.” Hiring Facenda was a great move, but Ed’s best move was hiring his own son. Together, they formed the greatest team in the history of sports marketing.
Steve Sabol helped oversee the transition of NFL Films from chronicler to legend-maker. They went from manufacturing weekly highlight packages and season wrap-up packages for each team to creating visual masterpieces that - decades later - still can inspire or give you goosebumps.
In 1974, Steve wrote a poem, narrated by John Facenda, about the Oakland Raiders. No one has ever better captured the essence of a sports team than did Steve, with what has been called “The Battle Hymn of the Raider Nation.” He called it “The Autumn Wind.”
The Autumn wind is a pirate Blustering in from sea
With a rollicking song he sweeps along
His face is weatherbeaten
He wears a hooded sash
With a silver hat about his head
And a bristling black mustache
He growls as he storms the countryA villain big and bold
And the trees all shake and quiver and quake
As he robs them of their gold.
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.
It takes my breath away, and I cannot read that poem without visions of Ben Davidson, the Mad Stork, Jack the Assassin Tatum, the Snake, and the others who sailed aboard that ship.
Steve Sabol took us aboard pirate ships. He took us to the symphony, by hiring Sam Spence to compose music for his films, and he then hired orchestras to play those themes that we instantly recognize as NFL Films Music. He took us back in time to see the comical futility of the old Chicago Cardinals, the 1947 NFL Championship game played in an all-out blizzard, or the 1924 Pottstown Maroons, who were NFL champs. He took us to the library, for his reading of “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio,” by the American poet James Wright.
He gave us Football Follies, Top Tens, and Fabulous Finishes. We all know that NFL stands for “not for long,” as we go matriculating down the field of life, thanks to Ed and Steve Sabol.
They were the great story tellers. The myth makers. They helped pass on to us our fathers’ love of the game, and they help us to pass it along to our children.
Last month, I had the honor and pleasure to visit NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. It’s an amazing place, with world-class production facilities, an even a symphony hall big enough to allow members of the Philadelphia Symphony to record themes and music beds. There’s a video library that has every NFL game played in the last 50 years.
There are posters everywhere, and memorabilia. Game programs from the Notre Dame-Army “win one for the Gipper game,” board games and table games, posters, and dozens of collages. The collages are the work of Steve Sabol.
I was invited to NFL Films to be interviewed for a show on the Immaculate Reception. It will be part of Steve’s last series, “A Football Life.”
Steve didn’t quite make his three score years and ten. He was stopped just short, at age 69, by brain cancer. He had battled it for several years, and kept coming into work as long as he could, because he loved his work. He died on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, with his family at his side.
Steve’s football life was a joyous and great ride, and I’ll leave you with the conclusion of that 1965 Sports Illustrated article.
“Sabol was elected co-captain of this year's team, which had a 3-5 record. He ran for 332 yards and punted at the usual plus 40 (37.8) clip and, though his coach's best wishes no longer appeared in the program, psychological warfare was big again at CC. There was, for instance, a plaque prepared for the visiting team's dressing room that read:
This field is named in honor of Morris Washburn, who perished when his lungs exploded from a lack of oxygen during a soccer match with Denver University, 1901.
Immediately outside was a sign giving the altitude of Colorado Springs: 7,989 feet (an exaggeration by 2,089 feet). Carle blanched and suggested that the plaque might be unethical.”
"Too bad," said Sabol. "Would have been colorful."
I know I speak for many people when I say I really loved Steve Sabol. I only wish I had the chance to meet him.