NEW YORK (AP) — With the eye of an art history major, Steve Sabol filmed the NFL as a ballet and blockbuster movie all in one.
Half of the father-son team that revolutionized sports broadcasting, the NFL Films president died Tuesday of brain cancer at age 69 in Moorestown, N.J. He leaves behind a league bigger than ever, its fans enthralled by the plot twists and characters he so deftly chronicled.
“Steve Sabol was the creative genius behind the remarkable work of NFL Films,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement from the league confirming Sabol’s death. “Steve’s passion for football was matched by his incredible talent and energy. Steve’s legacy will be part of the NFL forever. He was a major contributor to the success of the NFL, a man who changed the way we look at football and sports, and a great friend.”
Sabol was diagnosed with a tumor on the left side of his brain after being hospitalized for a seizure in March 2011.
When Ed Sabol founded NFL Films, his son was there working beside him as a cinematographer right from the start in 1964. They introduced a series of innovations taken for granted today, from super slow-motion replays to blooper reels to sticking microphones on coaches and players. And they hired the “Voice of God,” John Facenda, to read lyrical descriptions in solemn tones.
Until he landed the rights to chronicle the 1962 NFL championship game, Ed Sabol’s only experience filming sports was recording the action at Steve’s high school football games in Philadelphia.
“We see the game as art as much as sport,” Steve Sabol told The Associated Press before his father was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year. “That helped us nurture not only the game’s traditions but to develop its mythology: America’s Team, The Catch, The Frozen Tundra.”
The two were honored with the Lifetime Achievement Emmy from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 2003. In his career, Steve Sabol won 35 Emmys for writing, cinematography, editing, directing and producing — no one else had ever earned that many in as many different categories.
“Steve Sabol leaves a lasting impact on the National Football League that will be felt for a long time to come,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said. “His vision and innovation helped make him a pioneer the likes of which the NFL has never seen before and won’t see again.”
He was the perfect fit for the job: an all-Rocky Mountain Conference running back at Colorado College majoring in art history. It was Sabol who later wrote of the Raiders, “The autumn wind is a pirate, blustering in from sea,” words immortalized by Facenda.
The Sabols’ advances included everything from reverse angle replays to filming pregame locker room speeches to setting highlights to pop music.
“Today of course those techniques are so common it’s hard to imagine just how radical they once were,” Steve told the AP last year. “Believe me, it wasn’t always easy getting people to accept them, but I think it was worth the effort.”
His efforts extended beyond his work as a producer, including appearances on screen and in public to promote NFL Films’ mission.
An accomplished collage artist, Sabol exhibited at the ArtExpo in New York, the Avant Gallery in Miami, the Govinda Gallery in Washington, the Milan Gallery in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Garth Davidson Gallery in Moorestown, N.J.
“Steve was a legend in this business — a dynamic, innovative leader who made NFL Films the creative force it is today,” ESPN President John Skipper said. “The work he and his dedicated and talented team create every day is one of the many reasons why so many more fans love the game of football today.”
Sabol is survived by his wife, Penny; his son, Casey; his parents, Audrey and Ed; and his sister, Blair. The NFL said there would be a private funeral.