Steve Sabol: Football and Mythmaking

Sep 19, 2012

A football game could be defined as 22 guys beating the hell out of each other for 60 minutes. It’s rough, inelegant, and full of foul language that no man would share in the presence of the opposite sex. It’s a game that grown men play, while other grown men and women watch and cheer, gamble, and drink copious amounts of alcohol hoping their team comes out on top. On its surface football seems barbaric, a modern gladiator arena where meatheads take their medicine and dish it out too. One man was able to look at football though and see something more, a story worth telling.

Steve Sabol was the President of NFL films, which he founded with his father Ed. He was a mythmaker, he saw past the surface brutality of the NFL to find a nuanced sophistication; full of people, whose stories were as detailed as the sport they played. On Tuesday Sabol passed away after an 18 month battle with brain cancer. His life and vocation leave a void that can’t be filled; his legacy is one that will never be forgotten.

Steve Sabol was a filmmaker, as talented as the great Errol Morris, and over 50 years built a filmography that would rival anyone’s. He won 35 Emmys(35!!!) for writing, cinematography, editing, directing and producing. More importantly though he broke a barrier down, he showed the world that sport was more that it seemed. He paved the way for ESPN to have its “Classic” channel and for things like their documentary series "30 for 30". Using cinematic techniques like using the great John Facenda for narration, slow motion, orchestral music(that you’re probably humming right now), and amazing cinematography Sabol told in-depth stories of the Sunday gridiron.  While NFL Films was not the first to make film of sport, they were the first to universalize and mythologize the genre. While most directors pulled back and looked at sport from the vantage point of the spectator Sabol pushed in. He showed us eyes and feet, we heard voices and laughter, we saw blood and sweat, we felt victory and we wept in defeat. Steve Sabol was 69 when he passed, when he was 23 Vince Lombardi saw one of his films and asked his father Ed who shot it. Ed replied “My Son.” Lombardi shot back, “How old is he, 7?” Steve Sabol saw the game of men through the eyes of a child and by doing so changed football forever.