Ed Sabol started NFL Films long before ESPN was even a whisper or Monday Night Football was an institution. It was started with a small camera and huge dreams. Those dreams were passed onto his son, Steve, who was the President of NFL Films when I arrived in March of 1995. I met him when I was only 25. I was fresh out of working for a film company in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and I was headed for the big time. The Hollywood of sports. I was called to become one of only 19 Filmmakers at NFL Films and I was walking into the hallowed halls of a company that was not only respected for their incredible work, but also for the family behind that work.
One of the very first events I attended at NFL Films as an employee was Films’ Founder, Ed Sabol’s retirement. The lavish party, like Steve and Ed’s life, revolved around celebrating the NFL and took place in a tented area adjacent to the Films’ second home on Fellowship Road in Mt Laurel, NJ just a few miles away from its original and humble beginnings in downtown Philadelphia. It was amazing to be a part of that event – if not only for being part of Films’ history with Ed, but to watch it be officially passed to someone who deserved to command the helm. By the time I was getting comfortable at writing and directing nationally with Films, Steve was well into being the unequivocal leader of our group, and he led from the ground.
Meeting with Steve and the other filmmakers in NFL Films’ theater was like going to a Saturday matinee in a small town. The room had true theater seating and a red velvet curtain that flanked a large screen. Back then, the theater actually had reel to reel projection – although most of what we watched was on video tape. The screenings were unbelievably unique as we would get criticized, applauded and at times, jeered for our work. It was a time for the 19 of us to pull together and get lessons in filmmaking from one of the very best. Sometimes the screenings were calm; rated G. Other times, well, let’s say that they became NC-17 and taught us not only the philosophy of cutting and directing properly, but also the value of having thick skin as he prepared us for life with a national audience.
There were even times when I had one on one sessions with Steve that I will never forget. The first of them was when I was tasked (in my Rookie year) to cut the 1-15 New York Jets highlights… or lowlights. I sat in Steve’s office which, like all offices at NFL Films in the mid 90’s, was equipped with a linear film editing Movieola, or what looked like a combination of a sewing machine and a 1950’s FBI tape recorder. Hulking and antiquated, all films were viewed on these machines in their raw form and they were on film. No Video tape. No computers.
As we watched the film together, Steve critiqued my work but most of all he taught and guided me. His words of wisdom, like those of an old coach, helped me to relax and focus on being the best that I could be. His subtle philosophies on what filmmaking was about were always mixed with his gruff voice and quick wit. On that one evening, though, when we were working and Steve was diligently teaching, we were interrupted by a phone call. Steve left his post at the Movieola controls and turned to his desk in a sprawling office covered with memorabilia of which most football junkies could only dream. As he got up, I breathed out and relaxed into my chair, feeling more comfortable with every minute that passed. I was in Steve Sabol’s office. I was in the office of the Big Boss. I was showing Steve my first film and he was enjoying it. I then looked up towards the wall behind the Movieola that was purring in its paused state and saw a small framed, black and white picture of Coach Vince Lombardi. Leaning towards it, I noticed there was a personal message to Steve from Lombardi. Squinting in the dimly lit room to get a better glimpse I finally was able to see what was under the classic picture of the iconic leader.
“To Steve, A bigger schmuck I have never known, -Vince.”
At that moment I was completely at ease. At that moment I knew what Steve was like. He was like you and me.
My years at Films were short as I left Steve and Films to pursue a career in the NFL at the team level, and I headed for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1997 as their Executive Producer of the Eagles Television Network. There, we built our very own version of NFL Films, and 14 seasons later, in 2010, I made the move to the Chiefs and began the same process here in Kansas City. The idea of having an outlet celebrate the teams’ history and connection with the fans; telling stories untold and getting people closer than ever before had all started half a century ago with the Sabols.
Turning the average into the incredible was what Films did. From the days of being a young fan to the days of being a dad of three, NFL Films still holds in my heart a place that can’t be touched. Story telling at its finest. Cinematography beyond words. The marriage of sport and script – the concept so simple, the execution so divine. It is why I do what I do.
The last time I was able to really sit and connect with Steve was a little over a year ago. Fellow 65 Toss Power Trap Production members and I headed to the palace that is now Films’ headquarters. Our goal was to have Steve tell us a few things. His thoughts on Arrowhead. His thoughts on the fans. His thoughts on the greatest wiring of all times (as he proclaims) which is the Hank Stram, Super Bowl IV wiring, of course.
We talked and caught up and he asked about my time in KC and then when I said, “Lets talk about the fans” the interview started. No prompting or reasoning behind the questions. He began to answer so colorfully, so amazingly, so Steve-like, that I am embarrassed to say we jumped to begin rolling the cameras as to not miss a word.
That is how I will always remember Steve. The center of everyone’s focus … and for good reason. He captured audiences whether it was two people or a generation of them. I hope he is up there explaining to a choir of angels that the fields today are still “more grit than glitter” and that the players are, in fact, “more spit than polish.” I feel blessed to have worked for him as he, like the Hunt Family who I work for now, revolutionized the game of football. Unafraid of unconventional leaps or leading where others dare only to go, the Sabols defined sports entertainment and redefined how sports are viewed even to this day.
Thanks, Steve. For inspiring me and a million others. A greater story teller, I have never known.
VIDEO: Fathers & Sons: Hank Stram Wired Up - Steve Sabol & Stu Stram reminisce about how the famous Super Bowl mic'ing came to be in this Emmy nominated feature.