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Remembering NFL Image Maker Steve Sabol

Posted Sep 18, 2012

The New York Jets join the NFL, NFL Films and the nation's football fans in  mourning the passing of one of the league's legendary figures from a legendary family. Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films, died today at the age of 69 from his 18-month battle with brain cancer.

“Words cannot truly express what Steve Sabol has meant to this game," Jets chairman and CEO Woody Johnson said tonight in a statement. "His legacy will not only be the exemplary work done by NFL Films, but the unwavering passion and dedication he devoted to the game he loved. We were fortunate enough to see firsthand how Steve turned his vision into something people enjoyed and brought out the best in everyone. This is a sad day for the entire NFL, but also one where we are given pause to reflect on a life full of accomplishment.”

Sabol and his father, Ed, built NFL Films from a six-employee motion picture company into the NFL's quintessential filmic storyteller and its meticulous historian, a company that broke ground year after year in capturing the grittiness, the artistry, the humor and the humanity of the league as it played its games.

Ed encapsulated his son's role with the family business when he remarked, "Steve is uniquely qualified to make football movies." After all, the younger Sabol was an All-Rocky Mountain Conference running back at Colorado College, where he majored in art history and became an avid film buff.

Steve returned the compliment years later when, despite knowing he was suffering from inoperable brain cancer, he presented his father, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2011, at the enshrinement ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, a little over a year ago.

"My dad has a great expression," Steve said shortly after Ed's induction was announced in February 2011. "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. And now my dad's story will be in Canton and hopefully that will live forever, too."

NFL Films produced pro football's first magazine TV show, its first network pregame feature, its first blooper film. It introduced such staples of today's  game broadcasts as slow-motion replay, reverse-angle replay, the on-field miking of players and coaches, and the composition of music to accompany its great action footage.

And in 1969 NFL Films became the first to use a 600-mm telephoto lens for its filming. The purpose, said Steve: "To capture the raw intensity of the NFL — the bloody hands, the eyes bulging, the snot spraying and the sweat flying."

Sabol was a man with a big vision for the massive undertaking of portraying the grandeur of the NFL for generations of football fans. Yet that charge never seemed to change him as one person after another remarked how down-to-earth he was. The gentleman you may have seen hosting "NFL Films Presents" over the years was the same man who spoke tirelessly and engagingly about his craft with league executives and players, print, TV and film reporters, and casual fans who grew up enthralled by the way Films captured the NFL for them.

From his NFL Films bio, we learn that Steve was an accomplished collage artist. He spent his entire career thinking about football and the positive values the game represents and using the game as a prism to look at American society. Using symbolic imagery from the sports world and popular culture, he created a unique visual language that hearkens to times past and reminds us of the best in ourselves.

Sabol put his stamp on his company and on the way the game is portrayed. Most recently his work had been celebrated annually with NFL Films' collaboration with HBO Sports on "Hard Knocks." In that role, he visited the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in May 2010 to participate in the news conference announcing that the Jets would be the focus of "Hard Knocks" that August.

He sat down with me for a 1-on-1 interview about the series and its newest team in the spotlight. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

How did Hard Knocks begin?

In 1976 we did a show called "The Birth of the Bucs," which was when the Tampa Bay Bucs were founded. And I spent the whole summer with Coach [John] McKay. We had a lot of the same access there, but the team, there wasn't the interest there. It was syndicated on TV and the idea sort of disappeared until Ross [Greenburg of HBO Sports] and I had a meeting. And we started to talk about following a team for a whole summer. The issue then was could we get a team to agree to give us the access? Would they allow the cameras in the meeting rooms?

At the time, I went to the Ravens, and Brian Billick, who was their coach, was also a PR man, and also a big fan of NFL Films growing up. When we approached him with the idea, he said he'd do it. Each year we did another team and with it the appreciation for the show and the novelty of the show started to catch on with the public.

How important is Hard Knocks to NFL Films?

HBO does such a great job of promotion and publicizing. Now we're at a point where this is the single most important program that we do. We do over 1,000 hours of programming for the cable networks, for broadcast television. But these five hours with the Jets will be the most watched, the most publicized, the most scrutinized, the most expensively produced and the most creatively challenging of all the programs we'll do all year.

In a way, this is our Super Bowl as filmmakers, but it's strange that it starts in the beginning of the season.

We have over 200 people who are involved in the production, the filming, the postproduction, the editing, the music, the graphics. It really takes over our whole company for the whole summer. We're not investigative reporters. We're not breaking news. We're telling stories. That's what we're looking for, really, the stories. Is it a young rookie trying to fulfill a dream? An old pro trying to hang on? It might be the team doctor. Coaches are always important in building the esprit de corps for their units. When we did the Chiefs, the mayor of River Falls was a personality.

What is it that made the Jets attractive to you this year?

The show is built on twin pillars. One is access, the other is personality. The Jets, this is a team that's developing an entire new personality, an entire new identity, and a very theatrical identity. They've got some young, charismatic stars in Sanchez and Revis, a probable Hall of Famer in Tomlinson. They've got a very bold and adventurous head coach. And even the front office is feisty and competitive. So you've got the personalities there.

And then the access in talking with Mike [Tannenbaum] and Coach [Rex] Ryan that we've been given is all-encompassing, no-limitations, all-inclusive access to meetings, training rooms, personnel meetings, on the field, wiring players for games. And that's the core of what Hard Knocks is, is that reality. I'm not saying the "reality" you see on television. To me that's in quotes. This is not somebody getting voted off an island. This is the real thing. There are no retakes. This is not made for TV.

What are some of the details of how you'll put the Jets' five shows together?

We're shooting 25 hours of high-definition film every day for six weeks. It becomes the challenge of Kenny Rodgers, our producer, to take this and tame and shape this raw vision into a coherent TV show. He's also working with a team of 15 editors that are looking at this constantly, all the time. It's an incredibly well-organized process that we've perfected over the last eight or nine years.

Another thing about this from a filmmaker's perspective that's so challenging: We come into this with no treatment, no format, no preconceived ideas. It's like building an airplane in flight. We're just taking off.

Sadly, Steve Sabol will no longer be in the NFL Films cockpit. But his work and his love for his craft and his sport will, like his father's story, live on in our hearts for a long time.

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