The other side of Steve Sabol

Posted Feb. 15, 2010 @ 12:24 p.m.
Posted By Mike Beacom

NFL fans know Steve Sabol as the colorful spokesman for NFL Films, whose carefully crafted words (uttered by legendary narrators such as John Facenda) have become as important to the game's history as the images he and his cameramen capture.

But Steve Sabol, the artist?

Sabol's childhood seems as dreamlike as his adult life has been. Forget the fact that his father, Ed, was the mastermind behind NFL Films after a successful business career, Sabol's mother, Audrey, was one of Philadelphia's leading art connoisseurs.

Says Sabol, she appreciated the Pop Art of the 1950s before many others on the East Coast did, and had regular showings at her gallery. Sometimes those artists — men like Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg — would visit the Sabol home to discuss their outlooks on art and life.

"As a kid I was exposed to them," says Sabol, "just the same as later on I was exposed to Vince Lombardi, Paul Brown and George Halas. These artists made an impression on me and their definition of what art was."

He notes that before he operated a camera for his father, he was an art major in college. His passion for art never left him, not even through the decades he and Ed built NFL Films.

Twenty years ago, when NFL Films moved into a new facility, Steve Sabol the artist took flight.

"We had this 200,000-square-foot building and we had to put something on the walls," he recalls. "When you're the president of the company, nobody can say, 'What the hell is that, take it down!' "

His collages blend football with his love of Americana. "... everything from old game pieces to photographs, newspapers, badges, pennants ..."

Says Sabol, "I love the old magazines from the 1930s and '40s, the old pulp magazines. In the old sport magazines there was a popular love affair with football heroes. They were the paragon of physical prowess; they were the captain who sacrificed his own All-American prospects for the good of the team, or a blocking back who won recognition he deserved. Football players in the game embodied many of our culture's most cherished masculine virtues, and I think I reflect that in the collages I do."

Visitors who strolled through the NFL Films hallways regularly showed interest in his artwork — what Sabol classifies as mixed media — and soon he became encouraged to do regular showings. So far he says he's done roughly a dozen shows, most in major cities along the East Coast, and has sold a large number of pieces to collectors from all corners of the globe. He also features his pieces on his Web site,

Sabol's hectic schedule in years past had prevented him from doing a show during Super Bowl week. Fortunately, he says, this year presented him with that opportunity. He just wrapped up "The Art of Football," an exhibition held at Miami's Avant Gallery from Jan. 19 to Feb. 9. He admits it was a proud moment, an opportunity to share the other side of Steve Sabol with those who have gotten to know him on camera through the years.

Says Sabol, "I did an interview with Walter Payton once, and he told me that 'In the midst of the action, your mind can shift in an instant from something precise to something pointless,' and I think the unity of opposites interests me, and I've tried to convey that in my subject matter. When you look at my art, it's a combination of the infinite and infinitesimal, and the mythic and mundane.

"I spent most of my adult life documenting and thinking about the sport of football. As I've grown older, I now see the game as a prism through which I can interpret our culture and history."


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