PHILADELPHIA - It begins with music and ends with goose bumps. Musicians sit in chairs on the Verizon Hall stage in the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts as the crowd shuffles in from the biting Philadelphia cold. The musicians warm up their instruments, and the hall fills with the strains of strings and horns dancing around each other, like fencers at the opening of a duel.
It will help, I should say, if you read these words in the baritone of John Facenda. Here, to help you tune up, say this word: “Lombardi.” Say it again, only deeper. “Lombardi.” Stretch out the BAR in the middle. Lom-BAR-di. Again. Good. Try to hear that voice.
Above the orchestra, a film screen hangs by wires. The screen is blank, a plain white, but soon images will flicker upon it, images of quarterbacks being blindsided, running backs dissolving and reappearing like ghosts, footballs spinning slowly as they float against a white and blue sky, football images that inflamed the imagination of the man being honored in the theater.
You often hear of people being called “true believers,” but these are rare creatures. Steve Sabol was a true believer.
The orchestra begins to play a sweeping song called “Molder of Men.” The screen shows a photograph of Steve Sabol, 10 years old, wearing a football outfit straight out of 1953. This night is a tribute to Sabol, president of NFL Films, who died in September, a couple of weeks before his 70th birthday. But, even more, it’s a story of how we got here, to this complicated place where professional football, with all its excitement and violence and beauty and danger, (or as Sabol himself would say, with all its guts and glory) became the most American of all things.
A Steve Sabol quote appears on the screen.
“Life is great,” he said. “Football is better.”
* * *
He was born Stephen Douglas Sabol in October of 1942, two days before Sid Luckman and his Chicago Bears beat the Cleveland Rams in front of 17,000 or so stragglers at the old Rubber Bowl in Akron. That was a good football crowd in those days. There was a war going on. And pro football was barely twitching in the American consciousness, many miles behind baseball and boxing and track and college football.
But Steve Sabol had been born and he was going to change all that.
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From the beginning — well, starting in the fourth grade — Steve Sabol would think that football needed its own mythology. He loved football. He wanted others to love it the way he did. Baseball had a mythology — Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson and the Gashouse Gang and Murderer’s Row and all that. Why not football?
Sure, that’s an odd thing for a fourth grader to wonder, but Steve Sabol was an odd fourth grader. He saw football as pop art. The mud and torn up grass and snow was the canvas. The quarterbacks were commanders of ships. The running backs were ballet dancers and bulldozers. The linebackers were gladiators. The coaches were professors … or generals … or circus clowns. Yes, he wanted his art to convey all the colors and textures and rhythms of what football stirred up inside him.
Steve Sabol’s first great football artwork was … himself. Talk about pop art. He was a good enough football player in the 1960s to go to Colorado College and play occasionally — take that for what it’s worth. More telling, much more telling, he was a good enough promoter to convince Sports Illustrated to write a 2,500-word story about him … even though he was an occasional player at Colorado College.
Courtesy NFL Films
Steve Sabol and his father, Ed, during the 2004 Sports Emmys. NFL Films has won 107 Sports Emmys since its founding in 1962.
“Football is such a great game, but football players are so dull,” he griped to Sports Illustrated. See: He already knew his calling. Football needed mythology. He gave himself a spectacular backstory. He said he was from Possum Trot, Tenn., and he talked about playing football with alligators, and he wrote a whole story about his legendary achievements in the Colorado College game program, which was easy enough to do because he wrote the whole game program.
Before he left college, his father Ed had convinced NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to sell him the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game. He won those rights for $5,000 (a record) and by convincing Rozelle that he could sell pro football to the public. That would lead to the company called NFL Films.
When Steve Sabol left college, he went to work for his father. Sudden Death Sabol was ready to give pro football its mythology.
* * *
Steve Sabol never hid his intentions or his motivations. He saw it as his life’s goal to make everyone see pro football the way he saw it — as the greatest thing in the entire world. Of this, he had no doubts, no uncertainty, no hesitation. This is what it means to be a true believer.
His first big effort for NFL Films was the seminal film, “They Call It Pro Football,” made in 1966. “It starts with a whistle and ends with a gun,” John Facenda said at the beginning of that movie, which changed everything and is now listed in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
“It was our Citizen Kane,” Steve Sabol said. He was 24 years old and ready to spill everything he loved about football, everything he believed about football, everything he cherished about football onto the screen. It would be big, it would be bold, it would be over the top — that was how Sabol did things.
“For the audience crawling in the stands,” the narrator, John Facenda told the viewer, using Sabol’s words, “the drama begins with a slap of leather and the song of men in motion.”
“The forward pass in the hands of the pro quarterback is a bolt of lightning that can strike anytime, anywhere.”
“These are the runners — the racehorse halfbacks and locomotive fullbacks. Theirs is the speed and the fury, and to them must go the glory.”
“This is the part of the game rarely seen by the spectator. The shattering impact of a block. The mountainous size of an onrushing defender. The splintering force of a forearm shiver. One ton of muscle with a one-track mind.”
“Pro football. They play it under the autumn moon. And the heat of a Texas afternoon. In the ice-bucket chill of a Wisconsin winter. In the snow, fog and wind. And thousands come to watch … or sleep. To cheer … or stand in silent adulation. And millions more sit at home before TV sets, pursuing the elusive magic of the golden game.”
That might have been the subtitle of a Steve Sabol’s book — “Pursuing the Elusive Magic of the Golden Game." Yes, everything in Sabol’s first big movie was outsized, overstated, overwrought and filled with emotion and passion. He had his cameras focus close-ups on the players’ muddy and bandaged hands (“The hands of combat!”). He had the cameras follow linebackers from their starting point all the way to the inevitable collision (“Search and destroy!”).
He showed the players faces — “always the faces,” he told his cameramen for the next 40-plus years. He played jazz music while showing the grace of Gale Sayers running. He showed Vince Lombardi at the chalkboard talking about the famous Green Bay Packers sweep (“If you look at this play what we’re trying to get is a seal here and a seal here and to try and run the play in the alley.”)
“This is pro football,” he had John Facenda say. “The sport of our time.”
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