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Steve Sabol Defined The Way We Look At Sports

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I first met Steve Sabol – actually, I talked on the phone with him – early in 1985. I was at the old Voice office at 842 Broadway, sitting in the cubicle that belonged to the sports editor, who was almost never there. The voice at the other end said his name was Steve and that wanted to talk football.

He was coming up to New York from his office in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, the next day, he said, to meet his sister Blair. Blair Sabol was one of the wittiest writers the Voice had – later I would hear her described as “the Abby Hoffman of fashion.” Would I like to go to lunch with them, he asked?

Well, yeah, I guess so, though I didn’t understand why some businessman from Mt. Laurel whose sister wrote for the Voice wanted to take me to lunch. For some reason I didn’t make the connection that his name was Steve, that Blair’s last name was Sabol, and this meant I was talking to Steve Sabol, the head of NFL Films.

We had lunch over at Bradley’s on University Place, the place where Voice
writers used to go, and Blair heckled and wise cracked the whole time
at two guys who just wanted to talk football. It wasn’t until about a
month later when, following up on an invitation to come by his office,
my wife and I drove about 80 miles down the NJ Turnpike down to Mt.
Laurel and, walking into the headquarters of NFL Films, I realized
exactly who Steve Sabol was. As Bogie said, it was the start of a
beautiful friendship.

I was writing a column for the Voice then called Football By
the Numbers, and Steve liked it. He asked me to come down to film some
segments for his Sunday show on football and statistics, which back then
hardly anyone paid attention to. Who was the best running back? Jim
Brown. Who was the best quarterback? Well, I said, if the point was to
win the game, then Bart Starr. Who was the best coach in the game today?
Bill Walsh, I said, who had won his second Super Bowl earlier that
year.

It was tremendous fun, and after a short time I realized why NFL
Films was such a force in not only football but in the way we looked at
all sports.

Steve Sabol was a dynamo; he crackled with intelligence, energy, and
good will. I could easily see where Steve got his smarts and vitality.
His father, Ed, was a dissatisfied overcoat salesman from Philadelphia
who started the company on a shoestring, a Bell & Howell handheld
movie camera that he had been given as a wedding gift and all the cash
he had, a little of it borrowed. Bob Costas told me that when it came to
empire building, Ed Sabol was Philip of Macedon and that Steve — who
had carried the company beyond even his father’s wildest expectations
into a multibillion dollar operation – was Alexander.

They made their first film together, a documentary of the 1962
championship game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants,
when Steve was 20. There was no stopping the two of them. They had a
passion for film and a passion for sports and a vision of how the two
could be brought together. Between them, they defined the way we came
to look at football, and, eventually, all sports. Joe Montana once told
me “I don’t know if I remember that pas to Dwight Clark’ – the
legendary “fingertip catch” that won the 1982 NFC championship game for
the San Francisco Forty-Niners – “or if I just remember it the way NFL
Films showed it.”

Every football fan knows the play: Montana is being rushed towards
the sidelines by Cowboy linemen. Then the camera pulls back to a camera
in the back of the end zone, which shows Clark, leaping, grabbing the
ball just inches from the hands of the Dallas defenders. Sabol called it
“The Catch,” and that’s the name we remember it by as well.

In fact, I would guess most of what we remember about pro football is
because of the way we saw it in replay by NFL Films. Steve was an
artist. This isn’t hyperbole; he was an accomplished artist who
exhibited in many galleries across the country. (The artistic side came
from his mother, a connoisseur and a dealer who had a gallery in
Philadelphia and introduced him to Jasper Johns, Ed Rush and Roy
Lichtenstein, among others. His special talent was the collage,
creating more than 200 pop-art collages that mixed iconic figures form
American history with popular culture.

Steve Sabol died yesterday of a brain tumor; he was 69. No one is my
lifetime did more to make football accessible and enjoyable. He loved
what he did, and he devoted his entire adult life doing it. He created
his own job description and spent nearly half a century expanding on it.
George Halas of the Chicago Bears, the man most responsible for
creating the National Football league, once told Steve and Ed, “You’re
the keepers of the flame.” I’m going to call that an epithet.

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