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Reflecting on the legend of Steve Sabol

Yesterday we featured a Q&A with longtime NFL Films producer Jeff Jorden.  If by chance you haven't read it, you can read it at this link.  It's great insights from Jorden on what set Steve Sabol apart from his peers and the irrevocable bond he had with NFL Films.  Today, a more personal perspective on Sabol's incredible impact.

If you polled fans heading into NFL games this past Sunday if they knew Steve Sabol, sadly I'm not sure 50% would be able to answer that question in the affirmative.  Sabol wasn't a player, not a coach, not an owner, and not an announcer. His genius, accomplishments, and legacy have unfortunately flown a bit under the radar to a large swath of "diehard" football fans. It's a shame.

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It's hard to imagine where the NFL would be without Steve Sabol's stewardship of NFL Films and even what the sports media world would look like without his innovative approach to filmmaking.

There are a lot of great tributes to Sabol throughout the industry including a 90 minute podcast on Sabol by Rich Eisen who gracefully broke the news of Sabol's passing on NFL Network.  PFT aggregated a lot of great quotes on Sabol's passing, Fang Bites posted a timeline of the studio's history, SBJ has relevant piece from March that dives into the history of NFL Films, the NFL put together this great video  (a must watch) which includes Eisen's handling of the news, and The Atlantic has a great feature on the history of the company.

If you're like the many fans out there who don't have a grasp of just what Sabol helped build, below is a great crash course from The Atlantic article on what many people have termed "The last great old movie studio."

"The company has produced some 10,000 features since 1964, and supplies hundreds of hours of content a year to HBO, ESPN, ABC, Fox, CBS, and Showtime, including the highlights played during halftime and the features for the Sunday pregame shows. NFL Films generates 25 percent of all content for the NFL Network, including award-winning shows such as Hard Knocks America’s Game. In 2004, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences gave Steve and his father, Ed, its Lifetime Achievement Emmy—one of 107 Emmys the company has won over the years. In 2011, Ed was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a signature recognition for a man who neither played nor coached."

Highlights set to music, slow motion, micing up players and coaches, dozens of camera angles, narration, and unprecedented access can all be traced back to NFL Films and the pioneering artistic style of storytelling Steve and Ed Sabol rooted into the company's DNA and into the sport's culture.

Personally, NFL Films had a profound effect on me as it often was the best babysitter my parents could have hired. Between the ages of 6-10, I watched the 1988 and 1989 Video Yearbooks of the Super Bowl winning 49ers at least thirty times each, to the point where I knew almost every line and name every player on the those teams, a feat my parents would show off in front of their friends. 

My zeal for the 49ers and the NFL did have some negative repercussions though. On Mother's Day in the early 90's, my family went out to celebrate at Sports City Cafe in Cupertino, a restaurant owned by a lot of 49ers, including Ronnie Lott. The Hall of Famer was there, presumably with his mother celebrating the occasion as well. Although my father was adamant we shouldn't interrupt, my mom knew that was asking too much of me and walked me over to get an autograph. It was then in front of Lott and his mother (on Mother's Day) I decided to quote his postgame speech after defeating the Bears in the NFC Championship that was documented in the 1988 yearbook video. The look on everyone's faces sticks with me to this day. My mom shocked that I dove into this speech, Lott somewhat amused but also aware of his own mother's disapproval, and Lott's mother shaking her head in stunned disbelief that a ten year old was yelling out profanities in a public place having learned them from her son. For that memory, I owe NFL Films thanks.

Over the years, the proliferation of cable and the NFL's popularity meant NFL Films no longer had to be isolated to syndication, short segments, and VHS videos. In my mind, it was a Catch-22 as NFL Films saw its popularity and audience grow, yet the brand seemed to become hidden behind the likes of ESPN, HBO, and others as if they were the creative force behind gems like Hard Knocks, Lost Treasures, and NFL Films Presents.

It was somewhat maddening to me how Sabol and NFL Films was so beloved in some circles yet totally unknown among others. How you could have 4 fantasy teams, NFL Sunday Ticket, and spend $250 in team apparel a year yet not watch Hard Knocks, Turning Point, or NFL Films Presents? How could you not want to absorb the human element and pull back the curtain on how the sausage was made? 

While Hard Knocks began to achieve the cult status that it deserved, I always thought NFL Films Presents was one of the most under-appreciated things on television. Roommates of mine in college and after were required to watch it, regardless if they actually liked football, and it quickly became a favorite to anyone who would indulge me. 

Serious stories like Randy Paush's Last Lecture and Juan Castillo's NFL journey mixed in with light hearted features like the one below on the origin of "hut" combined to make NFL Films Presents a favorite of mine and other NFL addicts.

 

It was my affinity for NFL Films Presents, hosted by Sabol until his diagnosis, that was the cornerstone of my appreciation for NFL Films and the Sabols. Over the last year, his health has been on my mind and I've mentioned it here on the site, tweeted some inquiring on his condition, and searched the web for any clues on how he might be doing. Tuesday's news wasn't just another figure in the sports world passing, Steve Sabol was someone I grew up with. That was Sabol's greatest gift. He gave me and countless others a personal connection to pro football. There will never be another like Steve Sabol in terms of legacy and impact for an off-the-field contributor to a sport. He didn't just break the mold, he shattered it.

Ben Koo

About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - CEO of @Bloguin, GM at @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.

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