Gone, but never forgotten -- at least if I have anything to do with it.
Before you read my tribute to Steve Sabol, who died at 69 last Tuesday, go here. Turn the volume low, especially if you're in your office this morning, but please open this up and listen to the musical stylings of Sam Spence, who created so much of the music you've heard over the years when NFL Films features have played, and the closeups on those spirals that filled the screen. (My favorite, "Let's Go Big O,'' begins at the 5:15 mark.).
I thought the best way to tell the story of Sabol's impact on football would be to find 10 people whose lives were impacted by Sabol and who can tell what he meant to them, and to the sport long-term.
Did you know he was once asked to be commissioner? That he had Bill Belichick eating out of his modest hands? That he and his dad made Vince Lombardi cry? That he's the reason Mike Mayock's on TV? That he's the inspiration for a 23-year-old photography student in a small town in Ireland? That he worked until Labor Day 2012, 15 days before his death? That his fingerprints are all over the last scene of the Ray Lewis documentary, which aired two days after his death?
Take it away, Jim Marshall.
Jim Marshall, former player
The former Minnesota defensive end was featured in a lead role in the 1968 NFL Films production of "Big Game America," a show Sabol envisioned as a way to humanize football players and the violent game they played. Sabol, just 26 at the time, and Marshall became good friends -- in part because Marshall appreciated Sabol's refusal to demonize him for running the wrong way for a touchdown in a 1964 Vikings-49ers game.
"In the '60s, most coaches felt cameras and microphones were an intrusion, and had no place inside a team, or on players. But it was a great, great positive for the players that America could get to see what we were really like. Steve wired me for 'Big Game America.' He showed me in team meetings, in games and he even showed me skydiving and skiing. When he came in to talk to me about participating in the project, he said, 'I want to show football players as they really are.'
"When you watched what Steve did, it was different than anything we'd ever seen in football. He made it seem every time you stepped on the football field you were stepping into a movie. He made me come to life so much as a human being that after 'Big Game America' was shown to the public, people would come up to me and instead of talking just football, they'd start discussing what was going on in my life.
"I also appreciated the fact that whenever my wrong-way touchdown was discussed, Steve made it clear that in that same game, I forced the fumble that Carl Eller returned for a touchdown [that won the game]. That was very meaningful to me, because football's a chaotic game, and sometimes you get turned around and get hit and don't really know which way to go when the ball pops loose like that. All you do is look for the end zone. What Steve did was important, because I didn't want to go down as a buffoon.
"Losing Steve is huge. His genius is such a big reason why the NFL is the biggest sport in America.''
In "Big Game America,'' immortal NFL Films voice John Facenda, reading a Sabol script, intoned over a shot of Marshall: "Jim Marshall is a defensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings. He lives to fight an anonymous and brutal battle in what pros call, 'The Pit.' There is no glory, there are no heroes in 'The Pit.' Finesse and style have no place here.''
Cut to a shot of Marshall. "I play football because I love the game ... You have to be a-GILE, mo-BILE, hos-TILE to play the game.''
David Maraniss, author
Maraniss wrote the definitive Vince Lombardi book, "When Pride Still Mattered,'' and used Sabol and NFL Films as resources. Sabol was on the ground in Green Bay as a cameraman and producer of several long Lombardi pieces, including a movie about the Packers in 1967 that got Lombardi very emotional. Sabol, at the time, was 25.
"Steve believed Lombardi's voice was something that separated him from others in history, and gave him his character. With NFL Films, the voice was central to the myth-making. They used John Facenda, and he was called the voice of God. But there was a practice in Green Bay once, and a dog got on the field and was interfering with practice. They couldn't get the dog to leave. All the players were laughing it up with this dog on the field, and Vince saw it, and he just yelled over, 'What the hell's going on here? Get that dog off the field!' The dog scampered away. That really did happen. Sabol witnessed it, and he thought it said something about Lombardi -- that his voice was so powerful, so controlling.''
In "When Pride Still Mattered,'' Maraniss wrote: "To Steve Sabol ... the secret of Lombardi was not so much what he said but the sound of it. 'It was all the voice,' Sabol said. 'The great leaders in history -- Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Roosevelt, Hitler -- all had these unique voices. And Lombardi's voice was so unique, so strident, so resonant, it could cut through anything.' The story of the little dog, in Sabol's opinion, revealed the power of Lombardi's voice.''
"After the [championship] '67 season, when Steve went to Green Bay to show Vince and a few of the players the film of their season, they ran it on the projector in Vince's rec room in his house. And they showed the film with that great NFL Films flair to it, and at the end of it, all you heard in the room was the film flapping over and over because Lombardi didn't turn off the projector. He was crying."
Greg Cosell, senior producer, NFL Films
One of Sabol's strengths was inventing television shows with people who had never done them. Cosell, the nephew of Howard Cosell, was an Xs-and-Os football junkie and one of many bright young producers at NFL Films when Sabol approached him in his office one morning in the spring of 1984.
"Steve said, 'I have an idea for a show, and I think you're just the guy to do it.' I'd been with the company for five years, and I guess he had a sense of who I was and what I could do. His whole point was that no one was doing a really inside football show, with the Xs and Os. He said, 'Let's experiment with this and see what happens.'
"I remember at the time people saying a show like that would never work, because people weren't interested enough in the real nitty-gritty of football. Steve used to tell me not to worry about what anybody said, just go do the best show you can. We started out with 'Monday Night Matchup' on ESPN, before, obviously, they had the Monday night game. Chris Berman hosted it. We've been through a lot of hosts and a lot of experts on the air, but I think there was only one year it didn't air. It's still on, so I guess Steve was right."
Cosell is being modest. He and his coaches-tape-studying staff in the current iteration of the show, "NFL Matchup'' on Sunday mornings on ESPN, have the best show on TV teaching the common fan about complex football schemes and plays. Sal Paolantonio hosts, and Ron Jaworski and Merril Hoge do the on-camera tape breakdown. A show like this for football-mad fans would have happened eventually, but as often has been the case, Sabol thought of it 10 years before anyone else would have.
Mike Mayock, broadcaster, NFL Network, NBC Sports
A cold call changed his life.
"In the early '90s, I was a commercial real estate broker in south Jersey. I'd done two years of high school football games on the radio for free, and though I didn't hate the real estate job, I knew I couldn't survive without football in my life. So I got this idea. I'd gone to the same high school as Steve Sabol and I knew what a great man he was. I just figured I'd cold-call him, just walk into the NFL Films building and see if he'd see me.
"I walked up to the receptionist and said, 'I'd like to see Steve Sabol, please.' She said, 'Do you have an appointment?' I said, 'No, but I went to the same high school as him, and I played briefly for the New York Giants.' I can just imagine what she thinks of me, but two minutes later, Steve comes bounding into the lobby and says, 'Mike, how are you!' I told Steve my life story, and within five minutes he has me in front of a camera, making a tape I could show people in the business to try to get a job doing games on TV.
"I hope that tape never surfaces anywhere. What an embarrassment. I was scared, I was wooden, I was awful. Steve would say, 'Mike, let some personality out!' So I thanked him and walked out of NFL Films with this demo tape, and New Jersey Network hired me to be a sideline reporter on Princeton and Rutgers football games. I remember Pat Scanlon at New Jersey Network told me, 'Your tape was so bad that the only reason I hired you was you had the balls to send it out.'
"Where I am right now never would have happened without Steve. He was the biggest advocate in my career. He knew how much doing this meant to me. He felt like the only thing I didn't have was a name. Every minute I spent with him over the years -- in his office, in the hallways at NFL Films -- was so cool, so empowering. His curiosity -- amazing. Sometimes I'd find a sheet of legal paper on my desk from Steve. He'd have watched a game, maybe Brett Favre threw for 300 yards and was the talk of the league, and he'd have three or four ideas. 'Why doesn't anyone talk about this, or this, or this?' It was always different, always smart. Anyone can talk about a football play. Steve found something different in every football play.''
Brett Favre, former quarterback
One of the most wired players in history, Favre recalls laying in bed the morning of his first Super Bowl appearance, Super Bowl XXXI in early 1997 in New Orleans, and hoping his dream would come true that day. The dream included Sabol.
"Just laying there that morning, watching Super Bowl after Super Bowl on TV -- I'm more of a history buff probably than most players -- and I was thinking about my dreams when I was a kid. I wanted to be a football player. My dreams came true, obviously, and that's an understatement. I loved NFL Films. I used to watch all those blooper reels, and I loved the way NFL Films made the game look. And here I am listening to Steve Sabol talk about all these Super Bowls.
"There was one play where they had Joe Montana checking to what became a big play. And I just thought: 'Wouldn't it be cool to have Steve Sabol, 30 years from now, talk about how Brett Favre fought through such adversity to get to the Super Bowl and to win it?' So many kids watching NFL Films, I'm sure, would grow up thinking what a thrill it would be to have Steve Sabol interviewing them, and showing some slow-motion play that made them look so fantastic.
"It's funny. It used to be when I first got into the game nobody wanted to wear those wires for games. It was like, 'Get that camera out of my face.' Late in my career, it was, 'Hey, I'm wired today! Cool!' Numerous times I would tell [Packers PR chief] Jeff Blumb or [Vikings PR men] Tom West and Bob Hagan no, because I thought they wired me too much. But now, thinking back, I wish I would have done it more. It shows a side of the game you want to remember forever.
"He changed the face of the NFL without ever playing a down in it."
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