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Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films and the son of its founder, died Tuesday of brain cancer, the league said. He was a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday.
After being hospitalized for a seizure in March 2011, Sabol learned that he had a brain tumor that couldn’t be removed.
Sabol took over the mantle of NFL Films from his father Ed Sabol, who founded the company in 1962 after filming his son’s high school football games. Ed Sabol turned 96 on Sept. 11.
Generations of NFL fans learned to love pro football through the lens of the Sabols. Steve started out as a cameraman before eventually running the company. In August 2011, he introduced his father during Ed’s enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“We all realized pretty quickly that Steve was the force behind what we were doing here,” NFL Films head of cinematography Hank McElwee said this year. “The pictures. Big Ed had the idea, and he sold the owners on it, but when it came to the actual vision of this company, without a doubt it was Steve. Steve saw things in a unique way that every network is copying right now.”
A Philadelphia native, Steve Sabol won more than 40 Emmy Awards and oversaw 107 Emmys for NFL Films. He and his father were awarded a Lifetime Emmy in 2003.
“Steve Sabol was the creative genius behind the remarkable work of NFL Films,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “Steve’s passion for football was matched by his incredible talent and energy. … 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.”
NFL Films was launched by Ed Sabol a half-century ago as New Jersey-based Blair Motion Pictures, and the company found its footing when it was awarded rights to the NFL Championship Game (in the days before the Super Bowl) between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers at a frigid Yankee Stadium.
Blair paid $4,000 for the rights, double the bid for the 1961 title game.
Fresh out of Colorado College, where he played running back, Steve worked the contest as a cameraman alongside his dad. In 1965, the league acquired Blair for $20,000 and put the newly named NFL Films to work as its elegant PR machine, producing video content replete with orchestral music, ground-level slow motion, montage editing and narrators such as John Facenda and Harry Kalas with deep, baritone voices. The company’s lighthearted “Football Follies” series is a longtime fan favorite.
An accomplished collage artist whose work was exhibited at galleries all around the nation, Steve told The Associated Press last year that he and his father “see the game as art as much as sport.”
Sabol also edited, produced and wrote for NFL Films, and he penned the poem “The Autumn Wind,” which would become the official theme of the Oakland Raiders. One verse:
The autumn wind is a pirate?
Blustering in from sea?
With a rollicking song he sweeps along
Sabol became an on-air personality when ESPN was founded in 1979 and signed NFL Films as a production company. He took over from his father as NFL Films president in 1985 and played a part in founding the league’s NFL Network in 2003.
NFL Network anchor Rich Eisen tweeted: “All of us here at @nflnetwork are crestfallen and mourn the loss of the genius and iconoclast Steve Sabol. May he rest in peace.”
Added former Giants defensive lineman and Fox Sports analyst Michael Strahan: “RIP Steve Sabol!! A great man who made football film into art.”
David Hill, former Fox Sports chairman and now a News Corp. senior executive vp, said NFL Films under Sobol captured football’s “nuance and subtlety.”
“When we started Fox Sports, no one was more helpful than Steve, and in a short time he became a great, great friend,” Hill said. “He was always there to listen to one of my idiotic ideas. Nothing was ever too much trouble for Steve, and no one, absolutely no one, could rock a pink shirt while talking about the NFL as well as he could.”
And CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said that “very few who have never played in the NFL have had such a profound impact on the game.”
“My dad has a great expression,” Sabol said when his father’s induction was announced. “Tell me a fact, and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth, and I’ll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever. And now my dad’s story will be in Canton, and hopefully that will live forever too.”
In addition to his father, Sabol is survived by his wife, Penny; son Casey; mother Audrey; and sister Blair, for whom Ed Sabol’s company was named.
The family requests that any donations be sent to the Jefferson Foundation for Brain Tumor Research, c/o Lindsey Walker, 925 Chestnut St., Suite 110, Philadelphia PA 19107.
Watch “The Autumn Wind,” narrated by NFL Films legend Facenda, here.
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