The Ute Pass fault slices down the Rockies just to the northeast of Pikes Peak and directly in to Colorado Springs, Colo. Every eon or so, the earth moves and most of the knowledgeable people at tiny Colorado College, which happens to nestle near the base of Pikes Peak, are at least intellectually prepared for a tremor or two. But something happened to them in the fall of 1960—it was so quiet at first they were not even aware of it—for which they were quite unprepared. That was the enrollment of a little fellow named Stephen Douglas Sabol, freshly arrived at Colorado College from Villanova, Pa. to play football. If mountains did not move at first, they would shortly.
Now, it is not as though football or even fame was new to CC, as intimates call the college. It is only that not much had happened since 1928, when 10,000 or so people used to pile into Washburn Stadium to see Dutch Clark do his stuff. It was stimulating. It was great. It was also brief. Clark graduated, and the seating capacity of Washburn Stadium has been shrinking ever since. Last summer another chunk of seats was ripped out, leaving 2,500. Those who craved for action on Saturday afternoons got into the habit of hiking 12 miles up the road to watch the Air Force Academy teams play.
Nevertheless, football was what Sabol had in mind when he got to Colorado Springs, and if he could do nothing to check the school's emphasis on de-emphasis he could do the next best thing and become college football's greatest living advertisement for himself. In the last three years Stephen Douglas Sabol, better known because of his own press-agentry as Steve (Sudden Death) Sabol, has had a roaring good time perpetrating the idea that he is slightly more talented than Jimmy Brown.
Sudden Death was named All-Rocky Mountain Conference fullback the year before last, but there are pro scouts who have been known to ignore a full season of Rocky Mountain football and not miss a thing. Still, Sudden Death does not blush at his own high assessment of himself ("I'm not to be taken seriously," he tells anyone who is inclined to be specific), and the fact is that Brown, Cookie Gilchrist and Bronko Nagurski stuffed into the same uniform could not touch his publicity.
With his own good money Sudden Death has paid for newspaper advertisements, colored postcards, brochures, T shirts, lapel buttons and pencils—on which are written such legends as "The Prince of Pigskin Pageantry now at the Pinnacle of his Power," and "one of the most mysterious, awesome living beings of all times." He has sent out news releases reporting the incredible accomplishments of Sudden Death Sabol on the football field—with sidebars describing his colorful campus life—and it is testament to his ability that sports editors swallowed his releases gladly, never realizing that Sabol was spoofing.
On the surface, CC is not the right place for the likes of Sabol. He had intended to go to Harvard—Norman Mailer's alma mater—after graduating third in his class from prep school but, he recalls happily, "I blew the college boards, and to ease the snub from Harvard made a tour of Europe." It was in Amsterdam that a letter from his mother arrived informing him of his acceptance by Colorado College, among other places. As Sabol was a football nut (he can rattle off the names of obscure halfbacks who played at the turn of the century), instant thoughts like "Dutch Clark, mountains—great," rattled through his mind, and that was that for Sabol.
Sabol arrived, uncharacteristically, with no fanfare. "In fact," he says recalling his first freshman practice, "the coach looked at me as if I were a side dish he hadn't ordered." Sabot's problem then was that there were only 170 pounds of him, and the coaches, for the most part, ignored him. "If there's one thing I can't stand," said Sabol, "it's not being noticed."
Sabol's first gambit was to change his home town from Villanova to Coaltown Township, Pa., a nonexistent locality that had the ring of solid football country to it. "Everybody knows that western Pennsylvania is where the studs come from," he said. "I've never even seen a coal mine, but if the coaches thought I'd been rubbing shoulders with guys like Mike Ditka and Leon Hart they'd have to start thinking. You know, I carried it off all season and nobody caught on. Guys would come up and ask me why I hadn't got a big scholarship from Notre Dame or Ohio State or someplace, and I'd say, 'Aw, I was just third-string.' "
While he impressed his colleagues, Sabol remained unnoticed by the coaches through the entire freshman year. Figuring he had been too subtle, he was ready with a veritable blitz of eye-catchers by the time the sophomore season rolled in. He informed one and all that he was from Possum Trot, Miss, ("now, who could ignore anyone from a place called Possum Trot?" he reasoned) and then went to work on his name, which was honorable enough but lacked the ring of greatness. "I wanted something really lethal," he said, "like Sudden Death—hey, yeah, Sudden Death! Fits my initials, too." It is recorded that on the program for the next game CC had a third-string fullback called Sudden Death Sabol. That wasn't all that was in the program. "Coach Jerry Carle [CC's head coach] wishes Sudden Death Sabol a successful season," read a modest ad—paid for by Stephen Douglas Sabol.
"My God, Coach Carle's a regular Bear Bryant," said Sabol. "About the last thing he'd do is wish me a successful season. But a lot of people took it seriously. I thought it was all pretty funny."