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Remembering Steve Sabol, President of NFL Films

For 50 years, the South Jerseyan helped transform football into the most popular game in America. Sabol died Tuesday after an 18-month battle with brain cancer.

Before you read any of these words, please, take a moment to watch a video or two, above, that accompanies them.

Let them take you away to an earlier, bygone day, if they can.

To a time before Sundays were dominated by ads for light beer and Toyotathons; a time before the concepts of fantasy sports and football widows.

A time when football was a fun way for high-school and college kids to spend their Saturday mornings and not the billion-dollar bulwark of the American sporting landscape.

A time before those afternoon contests were elevated to the stuff of Viking legend. A time before your mind's eye could picture "the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field"—words never actually uttered by the immortal John Facenda—or before your ears beheld the couplets of the Oakland Raiders paean "The Autumn Wind".

Try to imagine one-size-fits-all highlight footage, shot from the press-box crow's nest with the stringers. Or try to imagine it without the cinematic concepts of slow-motion replay, operatic scoring and the dramatic action of small moments.

That's what Moorestown resident Steve Sabol brought to the game of football.

'Tell me a story and it'll live forever'

As president and co-founder of the Mt. Laurel, NJ-based NFL Films, Steve and his 96-year-old father, Ed, performed the great audio-visual alchemy of their day, transmuting sweat and mud into gold—literally and figuratively.

For 50 years, the Sabols followed players into the trenches, coaches into the tunnels and fans into the stadiums. What they extracted from those journeys formed the indelible narrative of the fledgling sport.

Their work was governed by two dominant mottoes; one familial, one critical. Ed Sabol urged his son: “Tell me a story and it'll live forever.”

At Colorado College, Steve Sabol, an art history major, adopted his own credo from the writings of Remy de Gourmont: “Art is the accomplice of love. Take love away and there is no art.”

Infusing his strong work ethic with a passion for storytelling, Steve Sabol filtered football through a Hollywood lens at a vantage point few people had ever experienced.

He was good at it, too. Steve Sabol remains the only five-category Emmy winner (cinematography, editing, writing, directing and producing), personally accounting for more than 40 of the 107 statuettes awarded to NFL Films.

A biography of Steve Sabol provided by the company that survives him describes the man as "big, bold, honest and funny," and "one of that now-rare breed of executive who not only had done every job in the company at one time or another, but could still do any of them better than most.

"More than the company's head, he was its heartbeat," it said.

'Keepers of the flame'

Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia analyst Ray Didinger was a close friend of Steve Sabol for 40 years, and worked at NFL Films under him for 15 years.

“If you love football, then the greatest job in the world was working for Steve Sabol,” Didinger told Patch. “He was the pulse of that place; he was the generator. We all sort of fed off his creative energy and spirit and vision.”

What the Sabols concocted in their Mt. Laurel studio, Didinger said, was “the rocket fuel that took the NFL past other professional sports.”

Through the years, he said, their enthusiasm expanded the role of NFL Films from documentarian to indispensable coaching resource to “keepers of the flame,” thusly anointed by no less than George Halas himself.

“It’s a great repository of the history of the game,” Didinger said. “That vault downstairs has every game film going back to the 1930s. It really is the whole history of the NFL in one big vault, from Red Grange to Barry Sanders and beyond.”

And the beating heart at the center of it all was Steve Sabol, whose “down-to-the-bone love of the game” was evergreen, Didinger said. Even as he battled brain cancer, Didinger said, “there wasn’t anything that left the shop that Steve Sabol didn’t see and approve.

“He was 69, but he had the energy and the passion of someone who was half that age,” Didinger said. “His creative juices were still roaring. He wasn’t a guy who was tapering down, ready to ride off into the sunset. He looked great, worked out all the time, took care of himself.

“He was a guy who was inspirational to me,” Didinger said.

Yet for every accolade bestowed upon Steve Sabol—for every time he was honored and introduced as “a genius, as an artist, as a pioneer,” Didinger said, Steve Sabol always thought of himself simply as a fan.

“I never thought I would meet anybody who loved professional football more than I before I met him,” Didinger said.

“That’s one of the reasons we became such good friends.”

'His legacy is assured'

At word of Steve Sabol's passing Tuesday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell issued a statement that “his legacy is assured,” and marked Sabol as "a major contributor to the success of the NFL...and a great friend."

NFL Network anchor Rich Eisen was so shaken that could barely maintain his composure enough to introduce a tribute to a man whose achievements touched so many lives in the sports world.

"It is beyond belief that this weekend's games...will be the first in over half a century in which Steve Sabol will not be with us to enjoy," Eisen said before throwing it to the video package.

"We recall."

Steve Sabol, president and co-founder of NFL Films, died Tuesday after an 18-month battle with brain cancer. He is survived by his wife, Penny; son, Casey; parents Audrey and Ed; and sister, Blair.

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