Every life is a symphony. There is an abstract soundtrack to everything we do out there somewhere. It'd be interesting to hear it, although I suppose we can each determine on our own what ours would be. For Steve Sabol, it'd be hard to imagine hearing anything but the rolling orchestral arrangements made famous by his family business -- NFL Films.
Sabol passed away Tuesday at the age of 69 after a year and a half battle with brain cancer, and in his passing, the city of Philadelphia lost another sports legend with close ties to the South Jersey based company.
Sabol once told Hall of Fame sportswriter and a longtime NFL Films employee Ray Didinger, "To me, football is more closely associated with music than any other sport. I think of the drums and the bands and thought the music in our films should be more theatrical."
He grew up in love with the game, playing for the Little Quakers of Philadelphia, a youth football all-star team still in existence today. He went on to play at the Haverford School. He was a big proponent of Philadelphia sports, along with his father, and remained a Philadelphia resident until his passing.
In 1962, Ed Sabol, Steve's father, went to then commissioner Pete Rozelle to pitch the idea of portraying NFL football in a Hollywood light. He recruited his son out of the Colorado College of Mines, where he was an all-conference fullback, to take part in the business. Young Steve had shown a bigger predilection toward movies and football than the classroom, so the new family venture would be right up his alley.
The idea for scripted narration and symphony music came from an old World War II documentary series called, "Victory at Sea." It was Ed Sabol's idea, but it was Steve Sabol's vision that blossomed into the NFL Films we all grew up with. Slow-motion action, tense close-ups, on-field microphones and the selection of his original narrator demonstrated the football mythos that was NFL Films.
The Sabols hired a local Philadelphia newsman named John Facenda to narrate the films. Facenda, or "The Voice of God," as he came to be known, brought a fierceness and palpable intensity to words that Sabol himself often scribed. When Facenda fell ill, Sabol called on the golden fog of Philadelphia Phillies' broadcaster Harry Kalas to fill the role, giving Kalas a much deserved turn in the national spotlight.
Without NFL Films, we'd never know just how frightening and inspirational Lawrence Taylor, Ray Lewis or Brian Dawkins are on the sidelines. We'd never understand the sheer impact of a Jack Lambert blow delivered across the middle. We wouldn't know where to find the Frozen Tundra, or what of the thousands of receptions in NFL history should be referred to as "The Catch."
Without NFL Films, we wouldn't have anything to watch following the lean years that actually made our teams look like Super Bowl contenders. Throw a battle themed clash of cymbals behind Sabol's words and Facenda's voice and a meaningless Philadelphia Eagles' win over the old St. Louis Cardinals that brought their record to 4-9 suddenly looked and sounded like the Ice Bowl, or Norwood's wide right, or the Immaculate Reception. NFL Films injected vitality to every single game, and the modern monster that is today's NFL owes much of its clout to that film work.
Sabol was awarded 35 individual Emmys for his work with NFL Films. Mere trinkets rewarding a career he described simply as, "fun." How often do we get to take two loves in our life and turn them into a symphony a nation falls in love with?
Pete Lieber is a freelance writer and a Philadelphia sports enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter at @Lieber14.
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