* * *
Here, just for fun, we should put down Steve Sabol’s epic poem in its full glory. The poem is called: “The Autumn Wind is a Raider.”
The autumn wind is a pirate
Blustering in from sea
With a rollicking song
He sweeps along
His face is weather beaten
He wears a hooded sash
With a silver hat about his head
And a bristling black mustache
He prowls as he storms the country
A villain big and bold
And the trees all shake
And quiver and quake
As he robs them of their gold
The autumn wind is a raider
Pillaging just for fun
He’d knock you round
And upside down
And laugh when he’s conquered and won
* * *
Back at Verizon Hall, the orchestra plays some of NFL Films most sweeping music. If you grew up with NFL Films, as most football fans did, you cannot hear “Classic Battle” or “Up She Rises” or any of these songs without thinking of classic Super Bowl moments or the great old John Madden Oakland Raiders or a slow motion shot of a football dropping into a receiver’s hands. The music and the images are inseparable. That’s how Steve Sabol wanted it.
“If you get just the right image and just the right words and just the right music,” Sabol would say, “you can make magic.”
Then the orchestra starts playing some of the lighter music — “Dance of the Fumblers” — and the screen shows film clips of players falling down, dropping passes, fumbling the ball, making weird faces … these were the clips Sabol packaged to make what he called “The Football Follies.” That was cutting edge in the 1970s, when he first tried it. Sabol had to fight the NFL owners to make the Follies — they thought it would make the NFL look ridiculous. Sabol said, “No, it will just be funny.”
The orchestra plays a song called “A Hero Remembered.” And then there is a series of film clips featuring Steve Sabol. In some, he has on the silly sweaters he would wear for his weekly television show. In one, Al Gore is busting his chops by asking if he’s ever been to a Super Bowl (“I’ve been to all of them,” Sabol says defensively before realizing the Gore’s just messing with him).
Courtesy NFL Films
Steve Sabol might not have been a technically proficient camerman, but he knew what people wanted to see.
Other clips show Sabol talking about football. It did not matter if he was talking about Jim Brown or the evolution of touchdown dances or the top 10 uniforms of all time, his passion always roared through. He loved football … loved it as much at 68 as he did at 14.
Here’s a quote of his: “So they talk about heaven, and I don’t know what’s waiting for me. But I can tell you this: Nothing will happen up there that can duplicate my life down here. Nothing. Life in heaven cannot be better than the one I live down here. The football life. It’s perfect.”
Yes, the clips are all beautiful and touching, but the most gripping stuff is still the football stuff. It is the film of Fran Tarkenton scrambling around and trying to find an open receiver. It is the film of Barry Sanders, hips going one way, legs going another, hands going a third way, head going a forth, and the defender so disoriented he just falls down. It is the film of Mike Singletary standing in the cold, his eyes as big as platters, his face a steel plate of intensity.
* * *
Football is a harsh and brutal game. Stretchers wait on the sideline. Injury reports are commissioned each week. Concussions are a plague, and there is a constant but so far unfulfilling effort to prevent them. Eric Winston of the Kansas City Chiefs probably spoke for a lot of people when he admitted last year, “I’ve already kind of come to the understanding I probably won’t live as long because I play this game. And that’s OK. That’s the choice I’ve made. That’s the choice all of us have made.”
When you hear such things, it’s hard to come to grips with why America loves football so much. Sunday Night Football is the number one show on television — that’s all of television, sports and non-sports. The Super Bowl is the biggest annual event on TV. Fantasy football is a $1 billion industry … that’s just FANTASY football. Football gambling is an even bigger business. Big screen televisions and snacks and beer — just through their football connections — are even bigger businesses.
Steve Sabol thought about these things. He would talk passionately about the pain of old friends and the increasing ferocity of the game and his worries that it was all getting too barbaric. But, in all, football, through his eyes, IS America. That is to say, to Steve Sabol, the violence was overwhelmed by fearlessness. The pain was overcome. Challenges were met head on. Receivers still caught balls over the middle. Quarterbacks still stood in the pocket. Linebackers still clawed through double teams to make the play. Coaches still designed little packages that contained genius.
Toward the end of the show, there are a few scenes where fans talk about what Steve Sabol and NFL Films meant to them. Some of them actually started to cry as they worked through their emotions watching NFL Films through the years. Several of the thousands of letters Sabol received in his dying days were read out loud. And the orchestra played. And people in the crowd teared up.
Sabol, himself, probably wouldn’t have liked that part much. He did not mind being on camera — to say the least — but he did not like being the story. No, he liked being the storyteller. He used to scribble down quotes all the time, maxims, proverbs, adages, phrases, you name it. His favorite was an American Indian proverb his father Ed would tell him sometimes. It is the quote that ends the film and the tribute.
“Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever.”
* * *
Courtesy NFL Films
Steve Sabol was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in December of 2011.
“I’ve wondered sometimes why football became such a big deal,” he said. “And I think it’s that football takes people outside of themselves. It takes people out of their lives and puts them on this big stage, where the characters are huge and courageous, and the battles are epic. It is like Homer. It is the Odyssey. We are so tied down by the limitations of life. Pro football is something more than real life.”
Sabol, it seemed to me, wasn’t talk about how “people” saw pro football. He was talking about how he himself saw pro football all his life. By the end, though, there really was no difference. It started with Steve Sabol seeing football through the ingenious eyes of a child, and it ended with America seeing football through those same eyes.
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