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The signature storyteller

Steve Sabol, an art history major and football star in college who combined those passions to help transform the family business, NFL Films, into a modern mythmaking marvel, died Tuesday in Moorestown, N.J., at 69.

Mr. Sabol had battled brain cancer since 2011. An inoperable tumor had been discovered just days after his father, Ed, the NFL Films founder, was elected to Pro Football's Hall of Fame.

A lifelong Philadelphia-area resident, Mr. Sabol forever changed the way Americans view sports.

The theatrical instincts that grew out of his love of movies altered what had been a mundane business of filming sports highlights into an acclaimed art form, one that 50 years after NFL Films' birth is universally imitated.

"Steve saw things in a unique way that every network is copying right now," said Hank McElwee, NFL Films' director of cinematography.

Combining classical scores, poetic scripts, and the "Voice of God" doomsday narrations that John Facenda embodied with various serious filmmaking techniques, NFL Films won critical praise, widespread popularity and Emmy Awards. Mr. Sabol earned 35 Emmys.

In 1960, pro football was the nation's fourth most popular spectator sport after baseball, college football and boxing. But over the next decade it rocketed to first place in polls, TV ratings and revenues, and NFL Films helped propel it. Sports Illustrated called the enterprise "perhaps the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America."

"Steve's legacy will be part of the NFL forever," commissioner Roger Goodell said.

The Sabols filmed coaches' pregame speeches, the snorts of linemen in the trenches, the give-and-take of teammates during idle moments, then punctuated it with a cheerleader's hair flip.

Aside from Facenda's narrations, super slow-mo was their trademark.

As a youngster, Mr. Sabol played for the Little Quakers, a traveling all-star team that inadvertently inspired NFL Films.

"My father had been given a 16-millimeter camera by his mother-in-law," he recalled. "When I started to play football he would come to the games and film them."

In 1962 he was an all-Rocky Mountain Conference fullback at Colorado College of Mines when his father, recently an overcoat salesman, purchased the rights to that year's Giants-Packers NFL championship game for $3,000.

"My father called me when I was out there and he said, 'I can tell by your grades that all you've been doing is playing football and going to the movies. That makes you uniquely qualified for this business I've started,' " Mr. Sabol said.

There were initial misgivings about the filming — George Halas once thought the Sabols were spies. But Jim Murray, onetime Eagles GM, said owners grew to love the films because they were so good they took the focus off a losing season.

"We had some bad teams when I was there," Murray said, "but NFL Films could take our two highlights, get John Facenda to announce them, and make us look like Super Bowl contenders."

Phrases coined by Mr. Sabol are now NFL catchphrases — "America's Team," "The Catch," "The Frozen Tundra."

Mr. Sabol was once asked to briefly describe his career. "Fun'' he said. "It's been nothing but fun."

The signature storyteller 09/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 12:49am]
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