Steve Sabol, NFL Films President and Sports-Production Visionary, Dies at 69

NFL Films President Steve Sabol, a member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame and a beloved sports-production visionary, died today at the age of 69 after an 18-month battle with brain cancer. For the past five decades, he served as the creative force behind the camera and often as the recognizable face in front of it for NFL Films’ unique brand of storytelling and cinematography.

“Steve Sabol was the creative genius behind the remarkable work of NFL Films,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “Steve’s passion for football was matched by his incredible talent and energy. Steve’s legacy will be part of the NFL forever. He was a major contributor to the success of the NFL, a man who changed the way we look at football and sports, and a great friend.”

A 35-time Emmy Award winner, Sabol was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame in December 2011, delivering a moving acceptance speech and receiving a standing ovation from the crowd. To view the full video of Sabol’s induction and to read his in-depth Hall-of-Fame profile, CLICK HERE.

“No artist can determine his own legacy. That is up to the people that see their films and their work,” Sabol said last year. “But I would like to think that we’ve captured some great moments on film that will stay in the hearts and minds of football fans forever.”

Funeral arrangements will be private. Plans for a Memorial service at a later date will be forthcoming. The family has requested that any donations be sent to the Jefferson Foundation for Brain Tumor Research, c/o Lindsey Walker, 925 Chestnut Street, Suite 110, Philadelphia, PA 19107.

Sabol and his father at Ed’s Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2011.

He began his career in 1964 as a cinematographer working for his father and founder of NFL Films, Ed Sabol. He would go on to serve as the creative visionary behind NFL Films’ unique style of production and was officially named president of the company in 1987.

During his time at NFL Films, the league’s production arm has won more than 100 Emmys and was honored with the Lamar Hunt Award for Professional Football in2011. Other honors bestowed on the beloved Sable include the the NFL’s prestigious Pete Rozelle Award, the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Dan Reeves Pioneer Award, the 2002 Sporting News Sports Executive of the Year award, and the 2010 Sports Leadership Award from the March of Dimes.

“I ask you, who has contributed more to professional football and the NFL than Ed and Steve Sabol and NFL Films? Not many,” Sabol’s longtime friend and Chairman of USA Football Carl Peterson said last year. “Anyone who has ever been involved in professional football has got to agree that NFL Films is the best thing to happen to the NFL, next to live television, and even live television can’t capture the human side of the game like Steve and NFL Films have.”

Sabol served as the creative force behind the camera and often as the recognizable face in front of it during his five decades with NFL Films.

As an All-Rocky Mountain Conference running back at Colorado College majoring in art history, as well as an avid movie fan, Steve was, as his father put it, “uniquely qualified to make football movies.” Ed, an overcoat-salesman-turned-filmmaker, successfully bid for the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship game and launched NFL Films two years later, bringing his son aboard as a camera operator.

Throughout the 1960s, Sabol fils cultivated a distinct new style that was based on the rhythm and drama of the game and would become the signature of NFL Films. In those early films and television programs, Sabol and company singlehandedly revolutionized sports-film production, introducing such elements as montage editing, super-slow motion, sideline cameras, telephoto lenses, epic Hollywood-style scores (composed by Sam Spence), mics on players and coaches, and the iconic baritone narration of John Facenda (usually scripted by Sabol himself).

“We were very much flying by the seat of our pants in those days,” former NFL Films VP/Editor-in-Chief Bob Ryan said last year. “Steve wanted to make our films appeal to a wider audience — not just the sports fan but everyone. He wanted it to be more like a Hollywood movie than a documentary.”

Sabol at the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame induction ceremony last December

With his father, Sabol continued to help mold NFL Films’ epic style and land distribution deals throughout the 1970s, introducing groundbreaking programming like Inside the NFL and even adding in a dose of humor with the introduction of the popular Football Follies bloopers series. Then, in 1979, a fledgling cable network named ESPN tapped the studio to produce original content to fill out its 24/7 programming slate.

Sabol was officially named president of NFL Films in 1987, and his father retired from his post as chairman in 1995. Steve kicked off the 21st century with a bang, once again revolutionizing sports on film with the introduction of the wildly successful Hard Knocks reality series on HBO in 2001. Two years later, Sabol and NFL Films played an integral role in the launch of the NFL Network.

A noted artist well beyond his work at NFL Films, Steve has exhibited at the ArtExpo in New York, the Avant Gallery in Miami, the Govinda Gallery in Washington, the Milan Gallery in Ft. Worth, TX, and the Garth Davidson Gallery in Moorestown, NJ.