Legends Behind the Lens: Steve Sabol
The "keeper of the flame" of NFL Films was one of sports television's greatest storytellers and one its most ambitious mad scientists
The story of American sports television is engrained in the history of this nation, rising on the achievements of countless incredible men and women who never once appeared on our screens. During this pause in live sports, SVG is proud to present a celebration of this great industry. Legends Behind the Lens is a look at how we got here seen through the people who willed it to be. Each weekday, we will share with you the story of a person whose impact on the sports-television industry is indelible.
Legends Behind the Lens is presented in association with the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and the SVG Sports Broadcasting Fund. In these trying times — with so many video-production professionals out of work — we hope that you will consider (if you are able) donating to the Sports Broadcasting Fund. Do so by visiting sportsbroadcastfund.org.
By Jason Dachman
Pro-football legend and pioneer George Halas once called NFL Films the “keepers of the flame,” entrusted with preserving the game’s history as well as preaching the NFL gospel to future generations. Today, thanks largely to the luminous creative force of Steve Sabol, that flame shines brighter than ever nearly half a century after his father founded NFL Films.
“Many have tried, but no one in the sports industry has ever duplicated what Steve and NFL Films have accomplished — in any professional league, nationally or internationally,” says Sabol’s longtime friend and Chairman of USA Football Carl Peterson. “Steve’s legacy is his ability to grow the business while also retaining the storytelling and human aspects in these films.”
A Uniquely Qualified Filmmaker
An All-Conference running back at Colorado College as well as an accomplished art major and film aficionado, Sabol was “uniquely qualified to make football movies,” according to his father. Ed, an overcoat-salesman-turned-filmmaker, successfully bid for the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship game and launched NFL Films two years later, bringing his son aboard as a camera operator.
“In the early days, Big Ed was the boss, but Steve had his fingerprints all over [NFL Films],” says Hank McElwee, current NFL Films executive in charge of cinematography. “I always say, if I was going to build a house, I would have Ed build it, but I would have Steve do all the decorating because Steve has always been, without a doubt, the true creative eye of NFL Films.”
Perfecting the NFL Films Style
Throughout the 1960s, Sabol cultivated a distinct new style that was based on the rhythm and drama of the game and would become the signature of NFL Films.
“We were very much flying by the seat of our pants in those days,” says former NFL Films VP/Editor-in-Chief Bob Ryan. “Steve wanted to make our films appeal to a wider audience — not just the sports fan but everyone. He wanted it to be more like a Hollywood movie than a documentary.”
In those early films and television programs, Sabol and company singlehandedly revolutionized sports-film production, introducing such elements as montage editing, super-slow motion, sideline cameras, telephoto lenses, epic Hollywood-style scores (composed by Sam Spence), mics on players and coaches, and the iconic baritone narration of John Facenda (usually scripted by Sabol himself).
“There are so many things that we did in those early films that are cliché today, but, in the 1960s, they were considered groundbreaking and even radical,” says Sabol. “The first time that we did these things, a lot of the owners and people around [the NFL] were not happy. We had to keep doing it to make the owners believe in it. But we believed in it, and that was all that mattered.”
“I think NFL films is an important part of the history of the league. People would not have the same feeling about the league without NFL Films.” – Bob Costas
Ryan adds, “We stumbled around trying to gain our footing at first, but, under Steve’s leadership, our style really started to reveal itself after the first two or three years. Our camera work and use of sound was completely different from anything else that had been done in the past. We took the fan where no one else had ever really been.”
Continued Growth and the World-Wide Leader
With his father, Sabol continued to help mold NFL Films’ epic style and land distribution deals throughout the 1970s, introducing groundbreaking programming like Inside the NFL and even adding in a dose of humor with the introduction of the popular Football Follies bloopers series. Then, in 1979, a fledgling cable network named ESPN tapped the studio to produce original content to fill out its 24/7 programming slate.
“That was a huge step for us because, all of a sudden, our films were being shown in primetime,” says Sabol. “Before that, we were syndicated, so we would often air in the middle of the night between infomercials. ESPN let us do what we did best and didn’t interfere with our creativity, while also exposing us to a much bigger audience.”
The Other Side of the Camera
However, NFL Films was desperately in need of a full-time on-air host, having been turned down by a stable of well-known personalities. The solution turned out to be right under Sabol’s nose and would end up solidifying him as the face of NFL Films for the next three decades.
“[Long-time ESPN executive and current Big East Associate Commissioner] Tom Okjakjian said, ‘Why don’t you do it? You are writing all this stuff anyway,’” recounts Sabol. “But I was concerned because I had never done anything on camera before. So he said, ‘Don’t worry about it; no one is going to be watching anyway.’ And that is how I got started in front of the camera, and I kept doing it for the next 30 years.
Sabol proved to be a consummate pro in front of the camera, writing all his own scripts and, according to McElwee, often described as ‘One Take Sabol’ by NFL Films staffers — all the while driving NFL Films to new heights creatively.
“I always thought of myself as a filmmaker first and foremost rather than a television personality, but Walt Disney was the host of his show, and he was a true filmmaker at heart,” adds Sabol. “Plus, I was awfully cheap since I never asked for any money.”
A Continued Push of the Envelope: Hard Knocks and NFL Network
Sabol was officially named president of NFL Films in 1987, and his father retired from his post as chairman in 1995. Steve kicked off the 21st century with a bang, once again revolutionizing sports on film with the introduction of the wildly successful Hard Knocks reality series on HBO in 2001. Two years later, Sabol and NFL Films played an integral role in the launch of the NFL Network.
“I don’t think [the league] would have been able to launch NFL Network without Steve’s input and the NFL Films library,” says Peterson. “Nearly all of the [programming] to start out was from NFL Films. Plus, it gave the network instant credibility because of what NFL Films stands for.”
A Legacy To Behold
Today, more than 50 years after it was founded, NFL Films is a multimillion-dollar business that has received more than 100 Emmy Awards — 34 of which were won by Sabol himself, including a Lifetime Achievement Award. Among his laundry list of accomplishments, Steve has received the Pete Rozelle and Lamar Hunt Awards for his contributions to the NFL, as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Dan Reeves Pioneer Award.
“I ask you, who has contributed more to professional football and the NFL than Ed and Steve Sabol and NFL Films? Not many,” says Peterson. “Anyone who has ever been involved in professional football has got to agree that NFL Films is the best thing to happen to the NFL, next to live television, and even live television can’t capture the human side of the game like Steve and NFL Films have.”
Says Ryan, “There is not a phony bone in Steve’s body, just a legitimately wonderful person. The company is everything to him. I just don’t know what the shape of NFL Films would be like without Steve Sabol.”
Described by multiple NFL Films staffers as “the most generous man” they have ever known, Sabol has one son, Casey, and his wife, Penny. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2011 and passed away in 2015.
“No artist can determine his own legacy. That is up to the people that see their films and their work,” says Sabol. “But I would like to think that we’ve captured some great moments on film that will stay in the hearts and minds of football fans forever.”