The Ultimate Visionary: NFL Films’ Steve Sabol dies at age 69

Shutdown Corner

If you've ever watched slow-motion replay of an NFL play, laughed at a ridiculous NFL blooper, listened to a coach miked up on a sideline, sat enthralled as a player does his thing on the field and gives voice to his exploits, enjoyed the game or season review of your favorite NFL team, or watched an NFL broadcast at all, you have Steve Sabol to thank for that. And if you've ever cashed a seven-figure check from the NFL, you really have Steve Sabol and NFL Films to thank for that.

Sabol, the president of NFL Films for years, passed away on Tuesday after an 18-month battle with brain cancer. He is survived by his wife Penny, his son Casey, his parents Audrey and Ed, and his sister Blair.

"Steve Sabol was the creative genius behind the remarkable work of NFL Films," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "Steve's passion for football was matched by his incredible talent and energy. ... He was a major contributor to the success of the NFL, a man who changed the way we look at football and sports, and a great friend."

In 1962, Steve's father Ed made the winning bid to shoot the NFL championship game. The longtime amateur cinematographer called his son, then a football player at Colorado College. "I see from your grades that you've been doing nothing but playing football and watching movies," the elder Sabol told his son. "But that makes you uniquely qualified for this new position I have in mind."

At 20, Sabol shot that championship game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers for Blair Motion Pictures, named for Steve's sister. Within the next few years, the Sabols aligned their professional futures and creative passions with the league as the men behind NFL Films. And through the decades, every possible innovation in football film and video -- nearly every possible innovation in sports film and video -- came from their fertile minds. Without their vision and hard work, pro football would not be nearly as popular as it is today.

They brought quality narration to sports highlights with the great voices of John Facenda and Harry Kalas. They brought grand, sweeping orchestral music to the form with the great compositions of Sam Spence. They made us laugh at football with the Follies series, which debuted in the late 1960s and was always Films' most popular product. They turned the Super Bowl into an international sensation with their yearly highlight packages, and elevated sports film to high art with countless documentaries and longer-form projects. The two primary projects done by Films in the last years of Sabol's life, "America's Game" and "A Football Life," personified that vision as well as anything the company ever produced.

[Related -- October, 2010: The Shutdown Corner Podcast with Steve Sabol]

In 1984, Steve Sabol teamed with Greg Cosell, whom he hired in 1979, to produce the first advanced analysis show devoted entirely to football. "NFL Matchup" can still be seen on ESPN today, and it preceded and informed all the playbook shows and All-22 reviews you now see.

Hank McElwee, who worked with Sabol for years, told Sports Business Daily in March of 2012 that though Steve was Ed's son, there was never a hint of favoritism, nor would Steve have asked for it.

"Here's this rich kid whose father owns the company," McElwee said. "I'm from the other side of the tracks. I watched him work and said, 'God, I'm struggling to keep up with this guy.' I knew he was the boss' son, but he earned everything he got.

"We all realized pretty quickly that Steve was the force behind what we were doing here. The sound. The pictures. Big Ed had the idea and he sold the owners on it, but when it came to the actual vision of this company, without a doubt it was Steve. Steve saw things in a unique way that every network is copying right now."

Steve earned over 40 Emmy awards himself, and he proudly saw over 100 Emmys go to NFL Films over the years. Steve and Ed Sabol received the Lifetime Achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2003. Ed Sabol was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011, and while the NFL was unable for whatever reason to recognize Steve with the same honor in his lifetime, we certainly hope something will be done when the next round of inductions start in 2013. Few men deserve it more.

The Sabol family has requested that any donations be sent to the Jefferson Foundation for Brain Tumor Research, c/o Lindsey Walker, 925 Chestnut Street, Suite 110, Philadelphia, Pa., 19107.

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