How one man gave the NFL its modern mythology - NBC Sports

How one man gave the NFL its modern mythology
Steve Sabol's NFL Films opened America's eyes to the 'elusive magic' of the sport that rules today's entertainment landscape
Courtesy NFL Films
Steve Sabol was "uniquely qualified to make football movies," according to his father, Ed. That may help explain why NFL Films turned into such a success.
March 1, 2013, 10:03 am

It begins with music and ends with goose bumps. Musicians sit in chairs on the Verizon Hall stage in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts as the crowd shuffles in from the biting Philadelphia cold. The musicians warm up their instruments, and the hall fills with the strains of strings and horns dancing around each other, like fencers at the opening of a duel.

It will help, I should say, if you read these words in the baritone of John Facenda. Here, to help you tune up, say this word: "Lombardi." Say it again, only deeper. "Lombardi." Stretch out the BAR in the middle. Lom-BAR-di. Again. Good. Try to hear that voice.

Above the orchestra, a film screen hangs by wires. The screen is blank, a plain white, but soon images will flicker upon it, images of quarterbacks being blindsided, running backs dissolving and reappearing like ghosts, footballs spinning slowly as they float against a white and blue sky, football images that inflamed the imagination of the man being honored in the theater.

You often hear of people being called "true believers," but these are rare creatures. Steve Sabol was a true believer.

The orchestra begins to play a sweeping song called "Molder of Men." The screen shows a photograph of Steve Sabol, 10 years old, wearing a football outfit straight out of 1953. This night is a tribute to Sabol, president of NFL Films, who died in September, a couple of weeks before his 70th birthday. But, even more, it's a story of how we got here, to this complicated place where professional football, with all its excitement and violence and beauty and danger, (or as Sabol himself would say, with all its guts and glory) became the most American of all things.

A Steve Sabol quote appears on the screen.

"Life is great," he said. "Football is better."

* * *

He was born Stephen Douglas Sabol in October of 1942, two days before Sid Luckman and his Chicago Bears beat the Cleveland Rams in front of 17,000 or so stragglers at the old Rubber Bowl in Akron. That was a good football crowd in those days. There was a war going on. And pro football was barely twitching in the American consciousness, many miles behind baseball and boxing and track and college football.

But Steve Sabol had been born and he was going to change all that.

From the beginning - well, starting in the fourth grade - Steve Sabol would think that football needed its own mythology. He loved football. He wanted others to love it the way he did. Baseball had a mythology - Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson and the Gashouse Gang and Murderer's Row and all that. Why not football?

Sure, that's an odd thing for a fourth grader to wonder, but Steve Sabol was an odd fourth grader. He saw football as pop art. The mud and torn up grass and snow was the canvas. The quarterbacks were commanders of ships. The running backs were ballet dancers and bulldozers. The linebackers were gladiators. The coaches were professors . or generals . or circus clowns. Yes, he wanted his art to convey all the colors and textures and rhythms of what football stirred up inside him.

Steve Sabol's first great football artwork was . himself. Talk about pop art. He was a good enough football player in the 1960s to go to Colorado College and play occasionally - take that for what it's worth. More telling, much more telling, he was a good enough promoter to convince Sports Illustrated to write a 2,500-word story about him . even though he was an occasional player at Colorado College.

Image: Steve and Ed
/ Courtesy NFL Films

Steve Sabol and his father, Ed, during the 2004 Sports Emmys. NFL Films has won 107 Sports Emmys since its founding in 1962.

"Football is such a great game, but football players are so dull," he griped to Sports Illustrated. See: He already knew his calling. Football needed mythology. He gave himself a spectacular backstory. He said he was from Possum Trot, Tenn., and he talked about playing football with alligators, and he wrote a whole story about his legendary achievements in the Colorado College game program, which was easy enough to do because he wrote the whole game program.

Before he left college, his father Ed had convinced NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to sell him the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game. He won those rights for $5,000 (a record) and by convincing Rozelle that he could sell pro football to the public. That would lead to the company called NFL Films.

When Steve Sabol left college, he went to work for his father. Sudden Death Sabol was ready to give pro football its mythology.

* * *

Steve Sabol never hid his intentions or his motivations. He saw it as his life's goal to make everyone see pro football the way he saw it - as the greatest thing in the entire world. Of this, he had no doubts, no uncertainty, no hesitation. This is what it means to be a true believer.

His first big effort for NFL Films was the seminal film, "They Call It Pro Football," made in 1966. "It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun," John Facenda said at the beginning of that movie, which changed everything and is now listed in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

"It was our Citizen Kane," Steve Sabol said. He was 24 years old and ready to spill everything he loved about football, everything he believed about football, everything he cherished about football onto the screen. It would be big, it would be bold, it would be over the top - that was how Sabol did things.

"For the audience crawling in the stands," the narrator, John Facenda told the viewer, using Sabol's words, "the drama begins with a slap of leather and the song of men in motion."

"The forward pass in the hands of the pro quarterback is a bolt of lightning that can strike anytime, anywhere."

"These are the runners - the racehorse halfbacks and locomotive fullbacks. Theirs is the speed and the fury, and to them must go the glory."

"This is the part of the game rarely seen by the spectator. The shattering impact of a block. The mountainous size of an onrushing defender. The splintering force of a forearm shiver. One ton of muscle with a one-track mind."

"Pro football. They play it under the autumn moon. And the heat of a Texas afternoon. In the ice-bucket chill of a Wisconsin winter. In the snow, fog and wind. And thousands come to watch . or sleep. To cheer . or stand in silent adulation. And millions more sit at home before TV sets, pursuing the elusive magic of the golden game."

That might have been the subtitle of a Steve Sabol's book - "Pursuing the Elusive Magic of the Golden Game." Yes, everything in Sabol's first big movie was outsized, overstated, overwrought and filled with emotion and passion. He had his cameras focus close-ups on the players' muddy and bandaged hands ("The hands of combat!"). He had the cameras follow linebackers from their starting point all the way to the inevitable collision ("Search and destroy!").

He showed the players faces - "always the faces," he told his cameramen for the next 40-plus years. He played jazz music while showing the grace of Gale Sayers running. He showed Vince Lombardi at the chalkboard talking about the famous Green Bay Packers sweep ("If you look at this play what we're trying to get is a seal here and a seal here and to try and run the play in the alley.")

"This is pro football," he had John Facenda say. "The sport of our time."

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* * *

Here, just for fun, we should put down Steve Sabol's epic poem in its full glory. The poem is called: "The Autumn Wind is a Raider."

The autumn wind is a pirate
Blustering in from sea
With a rollicking song
He sweeps along
Swaggering boisterously
His face is weather beaten
He wears a hooded sash
With a silver hat about his head
And a bristling black mustache
He prowls as he storms the country
A 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'd knock you round
And upside down
And laugh when he's conquered and won

* * *

Back at Verizon Hall, the orchestra plays some of NFL Films most sweeping music. If you grew up with NFL Films, as most football fans did, you cannot hear "Classic Battle" or "Up She Rises" or any of these songs without thinking of classic Super Bowl moments or the great old John Madden Oakland Raiders or a slow motion shot of a football dropping into a receiver's hands. The music and the images are inseparable. That's how Steve Sabol wanted it.

"If you get just the right image and just the right words and just the right music," Sabol would say, "you can make magic."

Then the orchestra starts playing some of the lighter music - "Dance of the Fumblers" - and the screen shows film clips of players falling down, dropping passes, fumbling the ball, making weird faces . these were the clips Sabol packaged to make what he called "The Football Follies." That was cutting edge in the 1970s, when he first tried it. Sabol had to fight the NFL owners to make the Follies - they thought it would make the NFL look ridiculous. Sabol said, "No, it will just be funny."

The orchestra plays a song called "A Hero Remembered." And then there is a series of film clips featuring Steve Sabol. In some, he has on the silly sweaters he would wear for his weekly television show. In one, Al Gore is busting his chops by asking if he's ever been to a Super Bowl ("I've been to all of them," Sabol says defensively before realizing the Gore's just messing with him).

Image: Sabol camera
/ Courtesy NFL Films

Steve Sabol might not have been a technically proficient camerman, but he knew what people wanted to see.

Other clips show Sabol talking about football. It did not matter if he was talking about Jim Brown or the evolution of touchdown dances or the top 10 uniforms of all time, his passion always roared through. He loved football . loved it as much at 68 as he did at 14.

Here's a quote of his: "So they talk about heaven, and I don't know what's waiting for me. But I can tell you this: Nothing will happen up there that can duplicate my life down here. Nothing. Life in heaven cannot be better than the one I live down here. The football life. It's perfect."

Yes, the clips are all beautiful and touching, but the most gripping stuff is still the football stuff. It is the film of Fran Tarkenton scrambling around and trying to find an open receiver. It is the film of Barry Sanders, hips going one way, legs going another, hands going a third way, head going a forth, and the defender so disoriented he just falls down. It is the film of Mike Singletary standing in the cold, his eyes as big as platters, his face a steel plate of intensity.

* * *

Football is a harsh and brutal game. Stretchers wait on the sideline. Injury reports are commissioned each week. Concussions are a plague, and there is a constant but so far unfulfilling effort to prevent them. Eric Winston of the Kansas City Chiefs probably spoke for a lot of people when he admitted last year, "I've already kind of come to the understanding I probably won't live as long because I play this game. And that's OK. That's the choice I've made. That's the choice all of us have made."

When you hear such things, it's hard to come to grips with why America loves football so much. Sunday Night Football is the number one show on television - that's all of television, sports and non-sports. The Super Bowl is the biggest annual event on TV. Fantasy football is a $1 billion industry . that's just FANTASY football. Football gambling is an even bigger business. Big screen televisions and snacks and beer - just through their football connections - are even bigger businesses.

Steve Sabol thought about these things. He would talk passionately about the pain of old friends and the increasing ferocity of the game and his worries that it was all getting too barbaric. But, in all, football, through his eyes, IS America. That is to say, to Steve Sabol, the violence was overwhelmed by fearlessness. The pain was overcome. Challenges were met head on. Receivers still caught balls over the middle. Quarterbacks still stood in the pocket. Linebackers still clawed through double teams to make the play. Coaches still designed little packages that contained genius.

Toward the end of the show, there are a few scenes where fans talk about what Steve Sabol and NFL Films meant to them. Some of them actually started to cry as they worked through their emotions watching NFL Films through the years. Several of the thousands of letters Sabol received in his dying days were read out loud. And the orchestra played. And people in the crowd teared up.

Sabol, himself, probably wouldn't have liked that part much. He did not mind being on camera - to say the least - but he did not like being the story. No, he liked being the storyteller. He used to scribble down quotes all the time, maxims, proverbs, adages, phrases, you name it. His favorite was an American Indian proverb his father Ed would tell him sometimes. It is the quote that ends the film and the tribute.

"Tell me a fact, and I'll learn. Tell me a truth, and I'll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever."

* * *

Image: Steve Sabol
/ Courtesy NFL Films

Steve Sabol was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in December of 2011.

"I've wondered sometimes why football became such a big deal," he said. "And I think it's that football takes people outside of themselves. It takes people out of their lives and puts them on this big stage, where the characters are huge and courageous, and the battles are epic. It is like Homer. It is the Odyssey. We are so tied down by the limitations of life. Pro football is something more than real life."

Sabol, it seemed to me, wasn't talk about how "people" saw pro football. He was talking about how he himself saw pro football all his life. By the end, though, there really was no difference. It started with Steve Sabol seeing football through the ingenious eyes of a child, and it ended with America seeing football through those same eyes.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.

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Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski