Steve Sabol: The NFL's storyteller

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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'Football is such a great game, but football players are so dull,'' Steve Sabol said. He had just watched a dreary interview with a "brutal" tight end who leveled an opponent and explained the play only with an aw-shucks, "I was lucky.''

Wouldn't it be better, Sabol wondered, if he could dramatize things by writing material himself? He said he would have had the big galoot say something like, "Look at him, he's still breathing,' or something real colorful like that.''

No surprise there. As the creative force behind NFL Films for a half-century, Sabol perfected the art of mining the mundane for the masterful -- and if he couldn't find it, he'd use poetic license to make it so.

But here's the remarkable thing: The thoughts above were uttered in 1965, when Sabol was a 23-year-old running back at Colorado College and Sports Illustrated presciently visited to chronicle his shameless, creative self-promotion, complete with a nickname ("Sudden Death") and fictional hometown (Possum Trot, Miss.).

The tight end in question? Mike Ditka, then 26, when he still played for the Bears and George Halas still coached them.

Only in passing did the story mention Steve's father, Ed, "produces the official color films of the National Football League's championship games.'' But it did speculate that come graduation, Steve might go to work for the old man.

It was a good thing for the NFL that he did. Steve, who died Tuesday at 69, helped Big Ed, as he called his father, revolutionize the way sports were captured on camera and in the process create the mythology of modern pro football.

Many moments fans think they remember watching live on TV actually are iconic replays courtesy of NFL Films, from Joe Namath waving an index finger at the Orange Bowl in 1969 to Franco Harris' Immaculate Reception in 1972 to Dwight Clark's Cowboys-beating touchdown in 1982.

The video magic extended off the field as well. There might be no better example of Sabol's front-row-seat-for-life than the footage of a 1960s cocktail party in Vince Lombardi's basement that turned up in an HBO/NFL Films documentary about the Packers coach in 2010.

Young Steve Sabol shot it all, naturally.

Images now so common they are clichés once were pure inventions of Sabol and his crew, from passes spiraling through the air in slow motion to linemen digging their hands into the ground and snorting snot and sweat.

Coaches and players miked for sound? Yup, Sabol played a big part in that, too, producing gems from Hank Stram on the sideline during Super Bowl IV urging the Chiefs "just keep matriculating the ball down the field" to Bill Belichick on the sideline in Super Bowl XLVI, urging the Patriots not to concern themselves with Mario Manningham on the Giants' final drive. Oops.

Sabol's mission was more propagandistic than journalistic, to be sure. He worked for the NFL and loved football, and coaches and players learned to trust him not to make them look bad, as when Belichick, of all people, gave NFL Films extreme access for a recent show called "A Football Life.''

Wednesday, it will be Tom Coughlin's turn to be spotlighted in the series. Let's just say that not any camera crew gets invited into the Giants coach's home.

Sabol was a storyteller not only when the cameras came on, but always. A visit to his office in Mount Laurel, N.J., inevitably would turn into a lengthy afternoon full of tales, some of them tall.

The storytelling never stopped, a lesson in human nature Steve learned from Ed, now 96, who understood stories trump dry facts every time.

After being diagnosed with brain cancer in March of 2011 and before introducing his father upon Ed's induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last summer, Sabol couldn't help marveling over the juiciness of the narrative.

He told Sports Illustrated, "Dad makes the Hall of Fame. Son's going to be his presenter. Son gets a brain tumor. Now the story is, 'Is the son going to be there? Will the son make it?' What a great story this is going to be, however it turns out."

It was, and is.

Sabol's death inspired an extraordinary response from the football community, with heartfelt remembrances from owners, coaches, players, media executives and journalists. Not bad for an art history major from Possum Trot.

The Sabol magic never was more evident than in a poem he wrote, "The Autumn Wind,'' which when read by John Facenda and backed by a jaunty orchestral soundtrack became the unofficial theme of the Raiders and the quintessential example of inspired NFL Films schmaltz.

"The autumn wind is a pirate,'' it began, "blustering in from the sea. With a rollicking song he sweeps along, swaggering boisterously.''

Sabol's piece debuted in 1974 in a Raiders highlight film. Saturday the autumn wind -- and with it the heart of another NFL season -- blew in for the first time since then without Sabol around to narrate for us.

It felt colder than usual.

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