Sports with Shook: Remembering Sabol and his NFL Films legacy

Nick Shook

The Autumn wind is a pirate

Blustering in from sea

With a rollicking song

he sweeps along

Swaggering boisterously.

His face is weatherbeaten

He wears a hooded sash

With a silver hat about his head

And a bristling black mustache

He growls 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’ll knock you ‘round

and upside down

And laugh when he’s

conquered and won.

—Steve Sabol

The poem above, titled “The Autumn Wind,” was written by NFL Films co-founder Steve Sabol, who passed away Tuesday from brain cancer at 69.

Sabol, son of NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, began his career at NFL Films as a cameraman, shooting the 1962 NFL Championship Game. For the next 50 years, Sabol would revolutionize the way the world viewed football. Classical compositions underscored slow-motion highlights of NFL players gracefully moving across the field. One of my greatest memories of these slow-motion masterpieces is of Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers, hailed as the “Kansas Comet” in an NFL Films production. Sayers famously opened the film in a close-up shot, standing in a stadium, in which he said “Give me 18 inches of daylight; that’s all I need.”

NFL Films romanticized football while retaining the tough, gritty aspects of the game. Their productions turned players into gladiators of the gridiron. This style of filmmaking captivated a nation of football fans, including me.

I grew up watching a plethora of Steve Sabol’s work in his time at NFL Films. Any time an “NFL Yearbook” was on the TV guide, nothing could peel me away from watching. An offseason Sunday marathon of NFL Yearbook? I practically considered it a godsend.

NFL Films is by far the best production company I have ever seen in my life. Don’t believe me? Take a non-football fan who knows nothing about the game and play an NFL production of a recent Super Bowl (I prefer you use XLII). I guarantee you that even though your selected person knows nothing about and has zero attachment to the game of football, he or she will be engrossed in the film. It’s seriously that good.

I’ve always wondered what the headquarters of NFL Films is truly like inside. It’s been a dream of mine to just take a tour of NFL Films. I’m a huge sports history buff, especially football history, so I’d imagine visiting NFL Films as the equivalent of touring the Ancient Library of Alexandria. What’s the first roll of film I’d attempt to find at this great library of football, you ask?

Simple: the 1964 NFL Championship Game. The Cleveland Browns played the Baltimore Colts. Frank Ryan tossed three touchdown passes to Gary Collins in the Browns’ 27-0 victory over the heavily favored Colts. Cleveland’s last championship, in all its black-and-white glory.

I honestly somewhat want to weasel my way into a job there, doing something, anything. I’ll cut film, I’ll edit audio, heck, I’ll push papers. The thought of being able to work in a place with that much accessible football history — that would be remarkable.

And none of that would be possible without the efforts of Ed and Steve Sabol.

NFL Films, and Sabol, made me into the football addict who I am today. Without his work, his multiple short productions (“Football Follies”), his cinematic style of presenting an NFL game and ultimately, his ability to show me and the rest of the world just how beautiful the game of football truly is, I would not love the game like I do.

Thank you, Steve Sabol. You are the consummate professional, the architect who designed the revolutionary structure on the foundation which your father built. May you rest in peace.

Contact Nick Shook at [email protected],edu.