Steve Sabol lived a most remarkable life. He got to know many of the great pop artists of the 1950s, played college football, and built a multi-million dollar empire working alongside his father.
Through a camera lens, he captured Gale Sayers’ elusiveness and Earl Campbell’s brute force. He rubbed elbows with Vince Lombardi and Bill Belichick, and every great NFL coach between. And at the time of his passing, at age 69 last week from brain cancer, his name was as known and respected as the countless legends he filmed on the gridiron.
You might say Steve Sabol was lucky. In reality, it’s the rest who were lucky to have experienced his gifts.
My early football memories are not my own, but rather the films Steve and his father, Ed, helped to produce. When I think of the great Raiders teams of the 1970s, my mind replays a close up of Willie Brown’s face, his helmet joggling side to side as he races away from Sammy White in Super Bowl XI to finish off the Vikings. When I think of Dick Butkus, I see an image of the Bears middle linebacker seated on the bench, his taped and battered hands pressed together. Whenever I hear “Drunken Sailor” (aka “Up She Rises”) I feel urgency on the football field — a team mounting a comeback with time running out.
Of course, all of this was the work of NFL Films, and much of it the genius of Steve Sabol. He shot camera on Ed’s first assignment for the league — the 1962 NFL Championship Game — and was soon helping in each aspect of production. He understood film, but his greatest talent was as NFL Films’ chief copywriter. He took great thrill in this, and when I interviewed him for various assignments in recent years, he reminded me how proud he was to have penned “The Autumn Wind,” the battle hymn of Raider Nation. That piece of writing is almost too good — too civilized — for football, and yet I can’t think of another set of words that better encapsulates the essence of its subject.
What NFL Films accomplished cannot be understated; a production company helped to transform an emerging 14-team league into America’s Game. Next to Pete Rozelle, I’m not sure anyone is as responsible for the league’s ascent as much as the Sabols. Their films weren’t just football highlights; they merged music and game footage in the same style of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. The action and sound cannot be separated; they serve one another.
A couple of years ago I spoke to Steve about his artwork. He was preparing for his “Art of Football” exhibition at the Avant Gallery in Miami in the week leading up to Super Bowl XLIV. We spoke of how he had been able to marry his loves of football and Americana into his pieces.
“In the old sport magazines there was a popular love affair with football heroes,” he told me. “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.”
Sabol captured those virtues well; he embodied them, too.
Said Patriots owner Robert Kraft of Sabol in a prepared statement: “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 ...”
Who would have ever dreamt that an artist could build football memories for a generation? We live Steve Sabol every time we are reminded of Jackie Smith’s dropped touchdown pass in Super Bowl XIII, and the league owes him a debt of gratitude each time it broadcasts a game on NFL Network.
Cancer stole the man much too soon. Steve Sabol’s legacy has no expiration date. Football is forever, and therefore Sabol’s genius will live forever, and will become new again whenever the next generation decides it is ready to take up America’s Game.