In Memoriam: Steve Sabol

bill bodkin looks at a football icon’s impact…

It’s not often that we write about sports on, but today the exception is being made. See, earlier this week, Steve Sabol, the co-founder and the face of NFL Films passed away after his battle with brain cancer.

And his impact on the world of football and the sports eventual entrenchment in pop culture wasn’t something I really thought about until I listened to ESPN Radio talking head Colin Cowherd this morning. In his opening ‘rant’ Cowherd talked about Sabol and his NFL Films company were every young man’s initiation to the NFL. This was years before cable TV, the NFL ticket, the NFL network and definitely before you could watch the game on your phone. The gridiron gladiators that NFL Films captured and featured were names most of us only read about in small briefs in the sports page or in the box scores.

The way NFL Films told a story was as cinematic as they come. They were scored with lush, beautiful, orchestral music — it was a blue collar man’s night at the symphony. We might not be able to attend Carnegie Hall concertos, but the wonders we heard watching a perfect spiral or a grueling battle in the trenches, were just as stirring.

Of course, we couldn’t think of the classic NFL Films specials without the “Voice of God” himself, John Facenda, a Philly sportscaster, who’s boomingly authoritative yet grandfatherly tone was as compelling as the music and the images NFL FIlms captured. Phrases like “the frozen tundra” were never uttered so eloquently.

But Sabol’s contribution to the pop culture world wasn’t just those classic, grainy retellings of Bart Starr, “The Catch” and The Steel Curtain. No, Sabol and his team were the men behind all the Superbowl videos, influenced every network’s highlight reel, inspired ESPN’s compelling documentaries and most recently developed and created one of the most fascinating “reality” series in HBO’s Hard Knocks.

Yet, I have to go back to Colin Cowherd’s thoughts about how Sabol’s NFL Films were every young man’s introduction to football. For me, Sabol’s influence on my insatiable love for football was second only to my dad’s — and often the two would cross paths. Every weekday on ESPN in the late 80s/early 90s, seeing Sabol in front of a green screen talking giving his closing speech on what the audience had just seen, meant that pro wrestling was coming on soon. Soon, I stopped turning the channel to ESPN at 3:59 so I could watch reruns of World Class, the USWA and AWA. I started tuning in earlier, learning about the exploits of Franco Harris and Terry Bradshaw or re-watching my Giants glorious march to the Superbowl against The Broncos. I learned so much history from Sabol’s films.

And then there was the times my dad’s football fanaticism would be bolstered by Sabol’s films. Every Christmas Eve, ESPN would rerun highlight shows from NFL Films whether they be bloopers or “best of” packages. After we wrapped our presents, we’d be glued to the TV watching the NFL Films marathon; with my dad giving historic context to every segment.

So when we watch an NFL highlight package this week, let’s think of the legendary Steve Sabol. The man who brought the warriors of the frozen tundra from the ink of our local newspaper to the forefront of American pop culture, helping take this blue collar sport to the heights of commercial and popularity superiority overall all American sports and the man who helped young, wide-eyed boys like myself fall in love with the sport of football.

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites