I remember asking Steve Sabol if he ever got tired of putting together those football movies of his. Thirty … 40 years of NFL Films, slo-motion cameras focusing on the same punt, the same pass and kick and crunch. I mentioned something about The Last Remake of Beau Geste, implying, how many times and how many honest ways can you spin the same story before the eyes blur over or you just go batty?
“This is all I ever wanted to do,” he said. “Each season is fresh for me. The different personalities that emerge … the challenge of finding creative ways, new angles to present the game. I mean, Monet painted the same lily pads 300 times.”
And I told him that Van Gogh eventually developed a hearing problem, and Sabol just said, “You know, we were just a bunch of guys who loved pro football and loved to make movies, and we wanted to convey that to our audience. That’s why we’ve lasted so long. Our fans know they’re being made by people that truly care about the game.”
I’m not sure if anyone ever cared about this league more than Steve Sabol did. The treasures he created in the 1960s and the 1970s — the real incandescent period of NFL Films — are delightful proof of that.
The TV networks presented football’s formal landscape, the raw battlefield scenery with commentary. But NFL Films added the canvas and colors and the wiring on the back of the frame. And the sport’s popularity erupted because of Steve Sabol’s passion and imagination, his little Sunday vignettes laced with cellos and timpani, with Romanticism and medieval drama.
“We did this film called The Championship Chase, the recap of the ’74 season,” he told me that day. “I remember the line — The autumn wind is a pirate, rolling in from sea … That whole thing has become a part of the culture of the whole NFL. I was always a big fan of Rudyard Kipling and that was my attempt at poetry, with a little assistance from Shakespeare. Whenever I look at the old films I’ve done, I always go back and look at that one. It seems whenever it’s shown, everybody stops and listens.
“Nobody had ever done a sports film with music and poetry and the kind of Greek chorus that I used in the film. I remember writing those lines of script then hearing John Facenda read them and just getting chills and saying, ‘Boy, this is really great.’ ”
Sabol loved going back to the early times of NFL Films, recalling how a pair of amateurs with cameras got everything started. His dad, Ed, was the company face and the salesman, and he was “the little troll under the bridge” who decided how their movies would sound and look.
“At the beginning,” he said, “the company just rode my father’s personality, because until we developed our own style of filmmaking, we really weren’t doing anything that was different.
“Everything changed when we produced a film called They Call It Pro Football. It was the first film John Facenda ever narrated, and the first film that Sam Spence wrote the music for. And the first film that a coach was miked for sound. The script was terse and impressionistic. It really emphasized the drama of the game.
“It became the Citizen Kane of football movies.”
Tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever. A line that rests atop the Sabol fireplace. So here’s a Sabol story from the archives, a little lost treasure. It comes from someone named Mike Kearns who spent a lot of years working the Pittsburgh Steelers’ press box.
“Somebody told me about this guy who put together his own fan club while he was playing football for Colorado College,” Kearns said. “Turns out it was Steve Sabol. Of course, nobody knew who he was back then. So, on a whim, I signed up to see what this was all about. I sent in my money and ended up getting a fan club membership card and a monthly newsletter that gave updates on the progress of his football career.
“He started out calling himself ‘Steve Sabol from Irontown, PA,’ which made it sound like he was from some tough, hard-nosed place.
“Then he became ‘The Tottlin’ Tot from Possum Trot,’ whatever the hell that meant.
“And he used to send all the NFL teams a copy of his newsletter,” Kearns said, “maybe as a way of getting himself noticed by the scouts. I think the only team that responded was the Minnesota Vikings.
“They wrote back, ‘We are keeping an eye on your progress.’”
For the past year Steve’s progress wasn’t so good. He was fighting a bad tumor. It was hard seeing him at his father’s Hall of Fame induction last summer, his hair all missing from the radiation or chemicals they were using on him and draining him down and making him look like somebody else.
But he had a broad smile as he pushed dear dad around the platform. He laughed when Ed threw a few good lines at the crowd, and those NFL Films fans cheered and cried and were gracious for all of the Sabols' wonderful work.
Since then, I had been looking for any good news about the guy from Possum Trot, that things were coming around and maybe he was going to pull it out. But there was nothing. Only news of the end, which came last Tuesday. A great piece of the soul, of the color of pro football went away with him.
“It took me time to understand my water lilies,” Monet once said. “I had planted them for the pleasure of it. I grew them without ever thinking of painting them.”
Steve Sabol, the artist who brushed with a camera, looked at his Sundays quite the same way.
Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.