Steve Sabol Made NFL Films Better Than Games

By Timothy Holland

NFL Films president Steve Sabol died Tuesday at age 69 after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. Sabol and his father Ed Sabol did more to make me an NFL fan than any player, coach or team. His films were so good that I would often choose them over a live game broadcast.

I’m 44 years old. When I began to watch football in the 1970s, the only highlight shows were done by NFL Films. There was no ESPN NFL Primetime. There was no NFL Network. There was no Showtime ‘Inside the NFL.’ It was NFL Films with Monday night halftime highlights, ‘This Week in Pro Football’ and ‘The NFL Game of the Week.’ In the off season there was ‘NFL Action,’ which was a one hour show where documentaries, team and game highlight films were shown. The Super Bowl highlight film usually came out in the spring.

These productions were so good that they were often better than the actual games. In an era where Super Bowls were lopsided and dull, the Sabols could somehow make a 30 minute highlight film that was entertaining. They could take the season of a 1-13 team and make it look like that of the world champions. Their documentaries were so good that some thought they should use their talents on something other than football.

I lived for Saturdays in the fall when ‘This Week in Pro Football’ or ‘Game of the Week’ came on. Often it would be the only time any of us would see certain teams and players during the course of a season. You could go a whole year and never see any of their games live.

As the years progressed, Sabol and his company became the standard by which films are done. Everything that you see today stemmed from them. They forced other leagues like MLB, NHL and NBA to keep up. They forced the television networks to give fans views and replays that they had never shown before. They even had an effect on how Hollywood produced sports in movies and on TV. All of those sappy Hollywood endings with dramatic music we see today are nothing more than NFL Films from the 1970s and ’80s done nowhere near as well.

To this day, if I have the choice between a vintage NFL Films production done by Sabol and narrated by John Facenda or a game being played at that moment, I will pick the former. Fortunately with DVR and 24 hour satellite I don’t have to make this choice anymore.

For me, there is no way to explain how much Sabol and NFL Films did to make me a fan. My passion for the game has always existed, but NFL Films helped enhance it.

For that, Sabol will be missed.

Fortunately, he has left a legacy that will endure as long as football is played.

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