RIP Steve Sabol, the football poet

The tributes to Steve Sabol poured in Tuesday afternoon, flush with the rhetorical and creative flourishes that he would have loved, and that epitomized his long career at NFL Films.

Sabol, who died of inoperable brain cancer earlier Tuesday at 69, was the son of Ed Sabol, who 50 years ago founded what became that beloved enterprise, to the league and fans alike.

But it was the son’s open passion, creative energy and immense storytelling skills chronicling the NFL as a cinematic art form that helped elevate the perception and popularity of professional football.

Until the mid-to-late 1960s, the American sporting consciousness was dominated by the vast, pastoral shadows of baseball. That began to change with the Sabols’ film “They Call It Pro Football,” made at the dawn of the Super Bowl Age, as Michael MacCambridge notes in his book “America’s Game:”

“When the film premiered in 1967, pro football was still far behind in the matter of myth, nostalgia and lore. The ’small ball’ theory of literature, oft joked about but held in some respect, maintained that golf and baseball were the true literary, intellectual pursuits. But with ['They Call It Pro Football'] the league began to manufacture its own myth.”

Before NFL fans heard John Facenda, ‘The Voice of God,” and watched footage set to orchestral music, Steve Sabol was already creating myths, namely his own. His arrival at Colorado College and participation on its football team drew the attention of Sports Illustrated in a 1965 profile, “The Fearless Tot from Possum Trot,” which revealed many other monikers he created for himself, as well as the etchings of an unforgettable persona:

“Last summer Sabol made another grand tour of Europe, and it was in Madrid that he was inspired anew. El Cordobés, the current rage in bull fighting circles, had picture postcards of himself placed all over Spain.

“Thought Sabol: ‘Now, that’s class.’ First thing he did when he returned home was to shell out $55 (financial support comes from his father) for a couple of crates of color postcards with himself in football togs. On the top at the back is:

“STEVE ‘SUDDEN DEATH’ SABOL
All-Time, All-Rocky Mountain football great

“On the bottom it says simply: ‘The Prince of Pigskin Pageantry.’ “

Richard Sandomir of The New York Times, in perhaps the signature obituary:

“Sabol had much in common with Bud Greenspan, the Olympic documentarian who died in 2010. Sabol, as an insider, and Greenspan, as an independent filmmaker hired to make official films every two or four years, emphasized a Panglossian view of sport that has all but disappeared. But both men knew that journalists would cover the sordid, seamy and financial doings they diverted their cameras from; they adored the athletes and the sports they filmed and saw no reason to carp when others eagerly would.”

For a short while on Tuesday, football fans were able to set aside current headlines about concussions caused by the violence that some allege NFL Films helped to glorify, as well as concerns about the safety of players due to the league’s lockout of referees. As the Associated Press’ Jim Litke wrote:

Sabol wasn’t blind to the terrible toll the game extracted, how it broke players’ bodies and sometimes later in life, wiped away their memories and worse. He was put off by the commercialism, and troubled by the way players from the past were short-changed by the pension plan. Mostly, though, he wanted people to see and hear what he did. Sabol would have been delighted to hear the way a friend described his life’s work: ‘Baryshnikov had nothing on John Stallworth leaping for a pass in the end zone when you saw it through the lens of NFL Films.’ “

Another terrific read on the Sabols comes from Rich Cohen of The Atlantic, which just published a lengthy profile of father and son, who didn’t wish to dwell on his illness.

Long after his legacy was solidified, Steve Sabol explained his abiding fascination with the intersection of sports and art on a website entitled, fittingly enough, Steve Sabol Art:

“This ‘unity of opposites’ interests me and I’ve tried to convey that in my choice of subject matter and composition. I combine the arcane with the commonplace, the ephemeral with the everlasting. You might say I look at football with an irreverent sort of reverence.”

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