18 September 2012
Those of you who know me know I am utterly obsessed with sports history. I take some sort of perverted pleasure in knowing every Super Bowl winner, MVP, the score of the game and where it was played. That manic fixation has one father: Steve Sabol.
The first sports tape (a VHS) I ever owned was a Super Bowl highlight video feauturing NFL Films recaps of Super Bowls I through XXIII. I must have watched that tape 100 times, often with my brother on the catch in our living room, memorizing its most beautifully written lines. To this day both he and I can recite on command John Facenda's spine-tingling prose about Super Bowl V (Colts-Cowboys), the famous phrase, "...fiercely fought but frightfully flawed," as a montage of the game's 11 turnovers played in the background. Each game was told in its own beautiful way, with the appropriate music---a trademark of NFL Films (my favorite is "Heroes of War;" it's on my iPod)---playing behind Facenda's voice.
I remember waking up on cold January mornings when I was in elementary school to watch the annual Super Bowl highlight shows on ESPN2. Each episode began with Sabol sitting in a film storage room surrounded by the company's millions upon millions of film rolls. Sabol's opening essay for each game was a perfect description of what transpired, and left you thoroughly engrossed in what was to come. It was a wonderful way to start the day.
As I grew older Sabol's company, founded by his father Ed in 1962, grew to be what it is recognized today as: the greatest film company in the history of sports. As revenues and resources increased, NFL Films embarked upon projects that were more and more insightful, giving you a look into the world of football that made it feel like you were watching a movie. After all, how else would they get Bill Walsh to have his weekly team meetings videotaped? It didn't seem possible. For a profession with some of the most paranoid people in the world, every NFL coach---Bill Belichick included, allowed Sabol to infiltrate his maximum security lair so he could show fans what went on behind closed doors.
For me, the greatest thing NFL Films has ever done, and quite possibly my favorite thing ever produced for television, is the NFL Network's America's Game series, which highlights each of the 46 Super Bowl champions. The episodes are all narrated by a different celebrity, with three or four of the team's star players sharing their memories of the season and all the trials and tribulations that had to be overcome for the team to reach the pinnacle of the sport. I bought the entire collection in 2005 (I through XL), and have watched every new episode since.
For me, Sabol's enduring legacy will be this: He romanticized a sport that is played by overweight men and characterized by unimaginable violence. He made it poetic and beautiful, and told a story that no human being could tell through words. His unmatched storytelling illustrated what so many die-hard sports fans know, that while sports is trivial in nature, it can tell you more about a person than you could ever learn speaking to them. It reveals character. It shows how people respond to adversity, how they deal with success, whether or not they are leaders, and ultimately, how they work in a team. Sabol, through his revolutionary decision to tell game stories through slow-motion, tight, dramatic shots, changed sports history and made this blogger into an NFL fan for life.
Think about it, without Steve Sabol and NFL Films, we may never have seen Namath wag that finger.
Rest in Peace, Steve. You will be missed.
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