Bill Belichick, coach, New England Patriots
The New England coach allowed Sabol to follow him, fully miked and on camera, for much of a year of his life, including the entire 2009 football season. The resulting two-part documentary, "Bill Belichick: A Football Life'' provided the best look at Belichick anyone has ever gotten. It captured his acerbic nature with coaches and players better than anything I've seen, as in a staff meeting when he was unhappy with the effort and work ethic of his receivers. In a staff meeting after a practice, he spat: "Wednesday practice is over and where do the receivers go? Straight in. We've got it all down. We don't need extra work. That sums it up for me.'' How Sabol got the secretive Belichick to become a reality show:
"Over the years I have been approached for hundreds of different projects. Commercials, books, movies, interviews, documentaries, you name it. It's impossible to do all of them. Most get consideration and then a few wind up happening. Of them all, there were two exceptions that I really never gave a second thought to. One was from David Halberstam and the other was from Steve Sabol. When they approached me for their book and film ideas, there were no 'what's the angle, what about this, what about that?' questions. That's nothing against anyone else, but I figured if these two special men, whose genius stretched far beyond today and even beyond sports, are interested in doing something special with me, then who am I to ask questions? You trust them and go with it.
"I can remember a couple of times sitting with Steve as he pitched an idea. He'd be rattling off something unique he did with Vince Lombardi or some of the great teams and on and on, probably thinking that might hook me on what he's trying to do. I'm just thinking to myself, 'Does he know I'm going to agree to whatever he wants anyway? Why are we even going through this?' Looking back, it was probably because as much as he enjoyed telling his first-hand experiences with every notable NFL figure over the past 50 years, I loved hearing them more. Like those legends he helped create, Steve will be impossible to replace and, to me, one of the biggest reasons is one word: trust.
"Steve Sabol was an innovator, motivator and salesman with the leadership and talent to execute ideas that others never even thought of. I mean, look at what he did with something as simple as a football spiral. He put it in slow motion to an orchestra and made it into an art form. That is one of countless examples of Steve's pure passion for the NFL's participants, the fans and the game itself. My condolences to the Sabol family and everyone at NFL Films."
Bruce Allen, general manager, Washington Redskins
A football lifer, Allen got to know Sabol while his father, George Allen, was the coach of the Los Angeles Rams in the '60s. They remained close, and Bruce Allen had a love for NFL Films' reverence for football.
"Sabolvision. Many of you have might not be familiar with that word, but you know the product. I know thousands of players and coaches, millions of fans and every team have benefited from it for the last half-century. Fortunately, tens of millions of people over the next century will also be able to appreciate the genius of Sabolvision.
"This week the NFL lost its most acclaimed person. Beginning in 1962, Steve Sabol and his Hall of Fame father, Ed, built the NFL's version of Fort Knox: NFL Films. It has been nice to hear the outpouring of love and gratitude from all corners of the sports world for the brilliant work and personal stories about Steve Sabol. However, as usual, the best features are the ones that have replayed Steve in his words with his vision and his attitude. So, if I may, modify one of Steve's great lines from a team highlight film, it would be rewritten to say: 'There are thousands of writers, directors, editors and producers in the country .... And then there is Steve Sabol.'
"You don't have to be a NFL insider to appreciate that the NFL has 33 different personalities and 33 different viewpoints of any play or game. While never compromising on NFL Films' standards and authenticity, Steve had an unequal ability to tell the story in a manner that was universally accepted by all the teams and fans. When the league was considering people to follow Pete Rozelle as commissioner of the NFL, I thought Steve Sabol would have been the perfect candidate. Because there was no one who was more articulate or passionate about the game than Steve. He was already every team's historian and the NFL's best promoter. When I suggested my idea to him at a league meeting, Steve quickly asked: 'Can I keep my current job at NFL Films? Because that's the best job in the world.'
"NFL Films cameras didn't just show the world a play and a scoreboard. Thanks to their ethical and genuine appreciation for coaches and players, they were able to show the world how that play was designed in a meeting room, practiced, called on the sideline, executed, and then the emotional result of success or failure of the play in the eyes of the gifted players and coaches. For anyone not affiliated with Steve or Ed Sabol, it's difficult to appreciate how they got the access and the inside view on everything in the NFL. There is really only one word that can explain it: trust.
"In the early 1970s, Steve and the crew from NFL Films came to do a feature on my father, who was the head coach of the Redskins at the time. They interviewed him for three hours in his office at Redskins Park prior to the season starting. A few weeks later, Steve called my father and said: 'Coach, we need to come back and re-shoot your interview.' Dad, who famously didn't like his routine during the season to ever be disrupted, said: 'How did you goof up?' Steve responded: 'While we were editing the film, we noticed that on the credenza behind you that you had copies of the Cowboys, Eagles and 49ers playbooks and we don't want you to get in trouble.' After thinking about that for a few seconds of silence, my father responded: 'Heck with it. They know that I know. You can use it.' I don't know if they ever used that video clip or not, I do know that type of integrity is invaluable to the sport.
"Although I will miss my friend, similar to all the great artists, their work lasts forever. Steve's commitment to football and films will allow all of our grandchildren and their children to see the greatness of Jim Brown, Deacon Jones, Jerry Rice -- through the eyes of Sabolvision.''
Alex Sinclair, film student, Bray, Ireland
One of the 9,000 or so readers of this column who took the time to write to Sabol after they learned he was suffering from a brain tumor in 2011, the 23-year-old Sinclair says NFL Films, and Sabol, made him a football fan.
"I will always be thankful to Mr. Sabol for the 'Game of the Week' series. One of the first episodes I found featured the Giants, in a Super Bowl that I had stayed up watching with my brother two years previous. Now, I was faced with what seemed to be an extended highlight reel of a game I had already sat through.
"I say this in earnest, and some of you may question the relative impact that this actually had on me, but watching that episode was one of the most significant decisions in my creative life. I'm currently in my fourth year of studying photography at Dublin Institute of Technology. I've always had a passion for image-making. What immediately captured me in the Giants Super Bowl video was the fact that it was unlike any piece of sports footage I had ever come across. It had staggeringly vivid colours, a true affinity for great imagery and most of all, it had a story. It was fine-art documentary filmmaking; it just so happened that the subject was football. They even filmed it all on analog equipment. As a photographer with a penchant for shooting film, you must understand that this was a big deal for me.
"I discovered this during a deferred year of college, which I wasn't able to attend because of an anxiety disorder; I was on more medication than I felt comfortable with. My days didn't have much purpose and, a lot of the time, even lacked basic activity. What Mr. Sabol did was provide a gateway to a sport that I previously didn't follow. I was drawn into the stories he told. I was hooked. I've been a diehard Giants fan not since the first time I saw that Super Bowl, but since I saw it through the lens of Sabol.''
Keith Cossrow, NFL Films senior producer
Cossrow and another NFL Films veteran, Ken Rodgers, ran herd on the "Hard Knocks'' series, which was Sabol's pride and joy. Cossrow, until Sabol fell ill, would screen hours of "Hard Knocks'' segments that had to be trimmed to 55 minutes per show with Sabol at his side in the NFL Films offices in south Jersey on Saturday. That all changed this year.
"I don't think people realize how important 'Hard Knocks' was to Steve. He viewed it as the culmination of his entire career as a filmmaker and story-teller. 'Hard Knocks' was our Super Bowl to Steve. He was always determined that it have a cinematic quality, and each episode would be like a short motion picture. You're producing this cinematic narrative in real time. Imagine how difficult that is, when, at the start of each week you're shooting, you have no idea how the movie is going to end. Steve described it as building an airplane in mid-flight, and he loved every second of it.
"So many of these stories on 'Hard Knocks' end up having Steve's signature. Two years ago, when we had the Jets on the show, Ken Rodgers walked into my office one night and said, 'I've got to show you something.' He plays Rex Ryan speaking sternly to the team, and he finishes with, 'Let's go eat a goddamn snack!' And I just sat there, laughing for five minutes. I couldn't believe it. When Steve saw it, he loved it too -- no one understood the value of humor better than Steve. But he wondered if there was a way to subtly point out the team actually had a team snack scheduled, and that's where they were headed after the speech. He didn't want people to think we included the scene just to take a shot at Rex's weight. He said, 'Put in a shot of the whiteboard outside the room where it shows they have a team snack.' That was Steve -- he got the story, and he had a big heart about it.
"So in a normal year of 'Hard Knocks' preparation, Steve would come in on Saturday and we'd watch segments for 10 or 12 hours, and Sunday he'd be back to see the rough cut of the show. This year, because he was sick, he was able to come in on four of the five Sundays to see the rough cut. But his input, though limited, was as cogent and indispensible as ever. In the first show, for the opening scene of the series, we'd been arguing about whether it should begin with a shot of the Dolphins' old locker room getting torn down, or a beautiful helicopter shot over the water in Miami. The way Ken and I had it was like a double-intro -- the locker room rebuilding for 12 seconds, then the helicopter shot. Steve could barely speak, as I said, and he heard us out and just said: 'Lose the first 12 seconds. Start with the helicopter shot.' Of course, he was right.
"I will never forget show four, the Vontae Davis trade show, because as we put it together it was a complete disaster. Steve comes in. It's 4, maybe 5 o'clock in the afternoon. We've got 45 minutes of show, with no ending. And he's in rough shape. He could hardly speak. He couldn't move his right side. He was in this 'Jazzy,' one of those electric wheelchairs, and when he came in, he had almost a sheepish look on his face, like, 'Can you believe this crap?' I'm telling you, the show was a disaster. You know the feeling you have when you show your boss something that you know really stinks? I just wanted to crawl out of my own skin. I'm thinking, 'This is Steve Sabol, and he feels like crap, and I'm making him sit through this!' It may have been the worst 45 minutes of my career.
"So it ends, finally, and I say to Steve, 'Obviously, we have our work cut out for us.' I don't know what to say. At that moment, Ken Rodgers walks in and says, 'Well, at least we have an ending. Vontae Davis just got traded.'
Now Ken and I turn to the corkboard in my office, which is covered with index cards reflecting each scene currently in the show. We're trying to figure out how to rearrange these pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to make it work, asking each other which scenes need to go. The editor, David Stiles, and I are basically in a panic. Out of nowhere, Steve says, 'OUT!' We're wondering which segment he wants out. He says it again: 'OUT!' We have no idea what he means. Then he points his left thumb toward the door and says a third time: 'OUT!' He just wanted to get the hell out of there so we could get back to work, because he knew how much we had left to do and he couldn't do anything more to help us.
"I'm particularly proud of how that fourth episode turned out. When Steve came in two days later and watched the final version of the show, he pointed his thumb in a different direction: up.
"Steve couldn't have cared less about being an executive. He just wanted to sit in a room with a bunch of guys he trusted and make a great TV show. I still feel his creative force. I always will. That's why next to that corkboard in my office, there are four more index cards taped to the wall, spelling out the letters, 'WWSD.' What Would Steve Do? I'll always think that way.''
Bob Angelo, senior producer, NFL Films
Angelo did much of the camerawork and the interviewing for the NFL Films show -- "Ray Lewis: A Football Life" -- the company was producing as Sabol lay gravely ill in New Jersey. Sabol wasn't able to contribute to the final edit of the show, which aired one day after his death. But he was in Angelo's head for one of the most memorable camera shots of Angelo's 37-year career, and what turned out to be the last shot of the Lewis documentary.
"What's the classic shot of Ray Lewis pre-game? You see it almost every week -- Ray coming out of the tunnel in Baltimore, with all the smoke and fireworks, going crazy. Everybody's seen it a million times.
"Obviously, in a show like this, you want something memorable. So I'm behind Ray as he's going out for a game in Baltimore. Steve always said, 'The shot is about composition and framing.' I learned how to do this job by imitating Steve -- how he shot pregame, how he shot the sidelines, how he shot action. So I'm behind Ray, and you see the fog and the fireworks, and it's framed by the tunnel. When he goes out and screams on the field, it's going to be out of my view, and the shot is so good right where I am with the fog and the fireworks -- because everybody's seen the other shot, with Ray in plain sight -- that I say to myself, 'Stop! Go no further!' And the shot is Ray, being enveloped by the fog, and you can hear him but can't really see him. He's screaming.
"Now, all I can think of is Steve saying, 'Ang, when you get your shot, don't blow it!' I just wish Steve would have been around to see that last shot. Just that last shot. I can hear him, though.
" 'Ang, you got the shot!' "
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