Football Friday: What Steve Sabol Meant to Me

Football Friday at The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

Steve Sabol of NFL FilmsOne of the few things about the nearly interminable one or two-week buildup between the NFC/AFC championship games and the Super Bowl that I looked forward to was tuning into ESPN and watching hours upon hours of NFL Films’ Super Bowl highlight packages.

In some ways, watching those 30-minute capsules — replete with their sweeping orchestral scores and booming narration by John Facenda — was more rewarding than the games themselves.

Through the magic of eBay and torrent sites, I’ve had the opportunity to watch Super Bowls from the 1970s and early ’80s, that I wasn’t around to see or was too young to remember. In almost all cases, watching those contests was almost a letdown after memorizing practically every line and every beat from the NFL Films version.

Take, for example, Super Bowl XIII between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s a snippet from the NFL Films recap:

And here’s an assortment of actual game footage clips:

Now I’m sure that if you’re a Steeler diehard then you get an equal thrill out of both videos. But to me the latter is a game, while the former is an epic struggle between two sporting titans.

The man most responsible for that passed away Tuesday at age 69, after a battle with brain cancer. I did not even know he was sick, but I feel the loss now that he is gone. For no single person, in my estimation, was more instrumental in shaping the way I thought about football than Steve Sabol.

When I used to play football in my back yard, time and time again I pictured myself not as one of my beloved Raiders — for whom Sabol composed the timeless “Autumn Wind” poem — but as Washington Redskins RB John Riggins busting through the Miami Dolphins defense in this clip from Super Bowl XVII:

Sabol’s productions weren’t so much highlight reels as they were mini-epics. Watch any similar presentation from the NBA or MLB, and it’s painfully dull to get through. You pretty much have to be a fan of the teams being shown. But with NFL Films productions, it didn’t matter who you were watching. It was riveting and memorable, and after all these years I still watch them with the same wide-eyed love that I did when I was 9 years old.

And even as a person whose love for the current NFL seems to fade a little bit with every year, I still make time to look through Sabol’s camera and am instantly transported back to magical world where every game is grand, every down is crucial, and every nuance of football is a glory to behold.

And for all that, I am eternally in Steve Sabol’s debt.