Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Steve Sabol

Steve Sabol passed away today at the age of 70.

If you're in your twenties or thirties, that name might not ring a bell. If you're older, that name is magic, as evocative as the word "carnival." Steve's father, Ed, started a company called Blair Motion Pictures in 1962, and the company won the rights (for $4,000) to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game. The film impressed The NFL so much that they bought the company, and it was renamed NFL Films.

NFL Films, in many ways, created the blueprint of how modern football is expored (and revered). Super slo-mo? Wireless mics? Musical scores for highlight films? Those were all first done by NFL Films.

If you're too young to know any of this, try to imagine a time when ESPN didn't exist. NFL Ticket didn't exist. On Sundays, one of the networks (CBS or NBC) broadcast a doubleheader, while the other network had a single game to show only.

Monday Night Football started in 1970. I can still remember, as a football-crazed nine-year-old, losing my mind with excitement over the idea of having football to watch on MONDAY night.

That was it.

Highlights? Those would be in the five-minute Sunday sports segment of your local news broadcast. Monday Night Football added a halftime highlights segment which had brief highlights from every game played on Sunday (another mind-blowing innovation).

I actually tried to take a photograph of Tom Dempsey kicking a 63-yard field goal against the Detroit Lions during the halftime highlights segment, because it wasn't something I was likely to see again. That's how different things were back then.

Against that backdrop, the first time I saw an NFL Films feature (probably of an early Super Bowl--one of the first three), I was spellbound. The production values were decades ahead of its time, and it was the first time anything had been shown behind the scenes. There's a very famous NFL Films clip of Hank Stram talking to the referees (and to himself, seemingly) during Super Bowl IV. That would be totally mundane today, but in 1970, it was absolutely stunning.

In addition to giving you insight into the game, NFL Films did an absolutely wonderful job of making the NFL seem larger-than-life. It's hard to understand today, but back then, the NFL was rarely larger than life (Joe Namath in Super Bowl III was an obvious exception). The magic of NFL Films, though, was that it could elevate anyone, not just Joe Namath.

Plus, the soundtracks! The music was so unforgettable that I still instantly recognize any of the original songs. NFL Fever licensed that music (genius), and in one of those all-too-rare moments when the people who make Madden knew that they were doing, they licensed it, too. As soon as I hear that music, football is the only word in my mind.

The Voice (John Facenda) was as memorable as the music. Anyone in my generation who is a sports fan instantly recognizes his voice. He made everything seem both legendary and dramatic.

It's easy to see NFL Films features now, but when I was a kid, showings were rare. Any time I accidentally changed a channel and saw one in progress, it was a guaranteed watch until its conclusion.

There was one exception to the gravitas created by NFL Films, and that was the Football Follies. The original film made football seem both hilarious and ridiculous, and I still remember laughing my young ass off.

There's only one word I can think of for all those early films: treasures.

Steve Sabol was responsible for most of this brilliance. He won Emmys for Cinematography, Editing, Writing, Directing, and Producing. No one else has ever won an Emmy in all five of those categories.

Early in his career, he said his goal was "to give a new understanding to what has already been seen."

Mission accomplished.

In a time when my enthusiasm for football has sadly begun to wane, mostly due to the avalance of concussion-related research that is emerging, I still have fond--incredibly fond--memories of watching NFL Films features as a boy, feeling a sense of wonder that I will always remember.

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