The first full NFL game I can remember watching was the 1981 NFC Championship game between the Eagles and Cowboys. Yet my memories of classic games and moments from the 1960s and ’70s are as vivid as anything I’ve watched the past 10 years. Bart Starr’s touchdown in the Ice Bowl, Hank Stram’s taunts in Super Bowl IV, Lynn Swann’s acrobatic catches, Old Man Willie running down the field for the Raiders. Those images are called up on a moment’s notice, video snapshots that linger long after the details of those games fade.
Steve Sabol created those moments, and those memories. Sabol — who died Tuesday at the age of 69 after a battle with brain cancer — took over NFL Films from his dad, Ed. Today the NFL’s popularity is unrivaled, a religion that competes with any of the older ones who also put on Sunday shows. And Sabol deserves as much credit as anyone in the game’s history for making the league what it is today. He did it by documenting the present, and by never letting fans forget the past.
NFL Films provided the league with a huge advantage over its competitors. While football fans were treated to superior highlight packages, specials, music and cinematography, a league like the NBA offered up no coherent archive until about the 1980s and even then it could be hit or miss.
Sabol became the face of NFL Films — he greeted us before Super Bowl highlight shows and wandered around the offices surrounded by hundreds of canisters of old films, the type of surroundings you’d find in the home of a hoarder who was once a Hollywood producer — but his role behind the camera was even more important. He worked the cameras and wrote the scripts, including the famous “Autumn Wind” poem narrated so memorably by John Facenda. He was president of the company but always remained a true filmmaker.
NFL Films was not 60 Minutes. It was propaganda, but we knew it and still loved it. As a kid, I always looked forward to the days before the Super Bowl when ESPN ran a marathon of past highlight shows, those 30-minute episodes where we watched the Packers and Steelers always win and the Vikings and Bills always lose. Certain games stand out, even today. Games like Super Bowl III, when the Jets beat the Colts and Johnny Unitas came off the bench late to try to rally Baltimore. With Facenda’s narration Unitas became a general brought out of retirement for one final battle against the Axis powers. I can easily picture Butch Johnson’s diving TD catch against the Broncos, even though I still can’t figure out how the refs actually counted it as a touchdown. Replays of Swann’s diving catch against the Cowboys and leaping ones on the sideline and in the end zone against them probably helped put him in the Hall of Fame. The Super Bowl is actually larger than life today. NFL Films made it feel like that even at the beginning, even when the game was played in front of numerous empty seats.
Any Minnesotan who was at least 6 years old at the time of Super Bowl IV still hasn’t forgiven Sabol for wiring Chiefs coach Hank Stram before the game, what with his matriculatin’ and Chinese fire drills.
Coaches provided many of the more memorable moments for NFL Films, from “They’re killing me, Whitey, they’re killing me,” to John Madden being told to get his big butt off the field after a miraculous victory by the Raiders.
Growing up the follies were as much fun to watch as the great moments, back when the league wasn’t quote so serious about itself. Today I can’t imagine Roger Goodell allowing Elmer Fudd or Bugs Bunny to provide a voiceover for an NFL Films package, though a sly producer with career suicide on his mind could perhaps slide something in for a package involving the replacement refs.
Then there was the music. Always the music, many of the more legendary pieces created by Sam Spence, who provided the soundtrack to one league and millions of childhoods. Even today a single clip of music can conjure up images of John Riggins breaking free in the Super Bowl or Roger Staubach leading a comeback victory. The music was over-the-top — it might have been over-the-top in a war documentary — but was part of the NFL Films package, as important as the images and the words. Sabol understood how all of those elements worked together; I loved watching the NFL Films specials where he’d visit Spence or operate a roundtable with cameramen from the company, who spoke lovingly of slow-motion shots on spirals and techniques they perfected over the years.
Each year NFL Films put together a “Yearbook” for each team and Sabol must have called in a dozen PR men and the parents of half the players to find good things to say about some of those squads. A 3-13 team received the same treatment as a 13-3 one. NFL Films provided the raw material for so many classic shows, from the old Inside the NFL on HBO to Monday Night Matchup, when an old coach named Allie Sherman broke down each week’s contest. NFL Films turned Art Donovan into something of a legend decades after his retirement, the fat man with funny stories who appeared in numerous shows, appearances that helped the old Colts lineman find an audience for his book, appropriately titled “Fatso.”
NFL Films was about turning mere men into legends, and legends into gods. Gods like Lombardi.
Steve Sabol made football films and he made NFL Films what it is today. He did the same thing for the NFL, by becoming the keeper of its past and the man who helped the league secure its future.