Steve Sabol, the man who ran NFL Films, succumbed to brain cancer last week at the age of 69. There are plenty of obits and bios online about how he and his father Ed changed the way we watch football, but I’ll remember him as one of my longtime money-in-the-bank guests.
He made about a half-dozen appearances on my radio shows in the 1990s, always had great stories to share, and put up with my obsessive questions about process — explaining how NFL Films shot from different angles from everyone else, convinced players and coaches to wear microphones, and managed to get amazing footage of every game in the league, then ship it back to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to process, edit, score, and produce, often in less than 72 hours. This was all in the pre-digital, pre-instant-transmission era, when he had employees carry the cans of film from each home city on their laps as they were taken to the airport by a police escort to fly back to NFLF headquarters.
I hadn’t talked to Sabol for over a decade, unfortunately, but was sad to learn of his death, and also sad to read this Robert Weintraub piece about how the future of NFL Films looks dim because of the way the league is treating its product.
I’d been fascinated by NFLF’s work for years, watching the 30-minute “Game Of The Week” and “This Week In The NFL” telecasts, with the basso profundo of John Facenda narrating it all as if it were an epic. I was also taken by the original music Sabol commissioned, so much so that when he released a CD compilation, I went out and bought it, then listened as I imagined the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
When we had our first conversation in September, 1991, I started by asking about the music, specifically why he used “What Do You Do With A Drunken Sailor?” as the theme for one of his first NFL Films. We chatted for a few minutes, then he and my sports guy Dave The Predictor made their picks for that weekend’s games. As you’ll hear, Sabol wasn’t shy about voicing his opinions, and at the end he correctly forecast the two teams that went on to play in Super Bowl XXVI, although he chose the wrong one to win it.