Steve Sabol was one of the greatest media innovators in pro football history.
Due to Sabol’s creative genius and his collaboration with his father, Ed, NFL Films became one of the most dominant players in the sports filmmaking industry.
The father-and-son tandem combined the elements of Hollywood and the feel of the gridiron from a unique game-day perspective. When they filmed the 1962 NFL Championship Game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants, they were just getting started.
Steve did just about everything imaginable at NFL Films during his almost 50-year career. He wrote, edited, directed, produced, and did cinematography.
Before long, Steve Sabol racked up an impressive 35 Emmys for his outstanding contributions to sports filmmaking.
NFL Films’ most famous projects include Hard Knocks, Peyton’s Places, A Football Life, America’s Game: The Super Bowl Champions, All or Nothing, Lombardi, and The Four Falls of Buffalo.
None of those would have been possible without Steve Sabol. This is his remarkable and inspiring football story.
Stephen Douglas “Steve” Sabol was born to parents Ed and Audrey in Moorestown, NJ on October 2, 1942. He had a sister named Blair.
Steve developed a passion for art and football during his formative years. He inherited his artsy side from his mother Audrey, who schmoozed with artists and displayed their artwork in the Sabol household, per the Los Angeles Times‘ Mike Kupper.
Steve Sabol attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs, CO from 1960 to 1965.
Sabol initially wanted to attend Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. Unfortunately, Sabol, who finished third in his prep school class, flunked the college board exams, per Sports Illustrated’s November 22, 1965 issue.
Consequently, he had to cross out Harvard from his shortlist. Sabol went on a tour of Europe to ease the pain.
When Sabol arrived in Amsterdam, his mother wrote to him and informed him that he had been accepted into Colorado College, which had a popular football program back in the 1960s.
Sabol, a football lifer, was sold. He was going to Colorado College.
The Cheyenne Edition’s Danny Summers reached out to Sabol for an interview request in 2002. The latter was already in his 38th year working for NFL Films at the time.
Summers and Sabol conversed about Steve’s campus life at Colorado College for approximately one hour.
In an article Summers wrote in September 2019, he described Sabol as “zany”—a trait consistent with many of the NFL Films masterpieces he became part of over the years.
Sabol majored in art history and played running back and special teams for Colorado College Tigers head football coach Jerry Carle. Sabol’s punts averaged a distance of 39.5 yards, per Summers.
Sabol told the Cheyenne Edition in 2002 that he enjoyed his college experience. He remembered that the Tigers were a diverse football team with many JUCO transfers, which was unheard of in the early 1960s.
One of Sabol’s teammates whose locker was right next to his was married with six children.
Sabol was a scrawny, 170-lb. beanpole when he took the field as a true freshman. Undaunted, he hit the weights and put on 40 pounds of solid muscle when he entered his sophomore campaign.
— ThisDayPhillySports (@TDIPSBook) September 18, 2014
Steve Sabol’s college football career gained traction as the years went by. He earned All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference honors following his junior season.
By the time Sabol’s senior season kicked off, Carle named him co-captain. That same year, Sabol drew a picture of himself signing a $375,000 contract with the Cleveland Browns.
Sabol loved playing mind games with visiting players. He put up a sign by their locker room that indicated that the Tigers’ Washburn Field had an altitude of 7,989 feet.
Sabol once sent a press release to the Tigers’ rival school, Concordia, saying that Colorado College would obliterate its football team.
By the time the two sides took the field, Concordia wanted to pummel Sabol into oblivion. Sabol told Sports Illustrated in 1965 that he actually loved it.
Sabol approached officials at halftime and told them that one of Concordia’s ends resorted to dirty tactics.
When the second half kicked off, the end pulverized Sabol on an end-sweep formation. Sabol whispered to the end that he amounted to nothing. The end promptly swung at Sabol.
Fortunately for Sabol and the Tigers, an official caught him in the act. He threw the end out of the game. Colorado College beat Concordia, 13-0.
Whenever Steve “Sudden Death “Sabol (a nickname he earned in college), was not busy studying art, writing game programs, or writing monthly columns for the school newspaper, he picked Carle’s brain.
It was a good move—Sabol eventually credited Jerry Carle with his success at NFL Films many years later.
“He was so creative and so inventive,” Sabol told Summers in 2002. “He gave me a tremendous technical background for football. A lot of the stuff that we do on NFL Films first appeared on the field at Colorado College.”
When Colorado College terminated its football program in 2008, Sabol was outraged. He could not believe the school did away with a football team that dated back some 140 years.
Nevertheless, Steve Sabol not only co-founded NFL Films in 1962, but he also became one of the most brilliant sports filmmakers of his generation.
Career at NFL Films
Steve Sabol and his father, Ed, founded NFL Films in 1962.
It all began when Ed approached NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and asked him to allow his company, Blair Motion Pictures (which Sabol named after his daughter, Blair), to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.
Blair Motion Pictures paid the NFL $5,000 to create highlights from that game. Ed’s team did so using bird’s-eye view footage, general fan reactions, and music similar to college fight songs.
Ed Sabol summoned his son Steve back to their hometown of Philadelphia, PA to help film the 1962 NFL Championship Game. Steve was in his junior year at Colorado College at the time.
Steve flew back to Pennsylvania and brought one of the eight cameras Ed Sabol and his team used for the game. It was indeed a roll of the dice for Ed and company. Prior to that task, his only filming experience was recording videos of Steve playing youth and high school football.
Fortunately, and against all odds, they pulled it off.
Rozelle gave his go-signal and the Sabols went on to capture the attention of football fans everywhere. Steve and Ed eventually transformed NFL Films into a multi-billion player in the sports filmmaking industry several decades later.
Ed Sabol’s aim from the get-go was to add a unique Hollywood touch to NFL Films. For his part, Steve wanted to depict America’s Game from a player’s perspective. They made those two styles mesh seamlessly.
“My dad wanted to show the game the way Hollywood portrayed fiction with a dramatic flair,” Steve told USA TODAY (via the Los Angeles Times) in 2008. “I wanted to show the game the way I had experienced it as a player—with the eyeballs bulging and the veins sticking out and the snot flying. We blended those two styles.”
Three years after Ed Sabol’s historic meeting with Rozelle, all 14 NFL teams contributed $20,000 so the league could purchase Blair Motion Pictures.
The company, which changed its name to “NFL Films” in 1965, began covering NFL football year-round. Steve and his team began using other innovations such as slow-motion footage and field-level camera angles to capture the players’ emotions. They also expanded their coverage to include fans in the stands who stood out.
NFL Films’ next major breakthrough was the sports film They Call It Pro Football, which they released in 1967. The film included players, coaches, cheerleaders, fans, marching bands, and officials—the entire gamut—to narrate the story of America’s game.
Steve and his team also included a clip that showed football players strutting their wares in inclement weather conditions. Seeing teams still playing in bad weather set the gridiron apart from other sports such as baseball and basketball.
Sabol also made sure that NFL Films captured players’ raw emotions that fans previously failed to see from their television sets or radios. To make a long story short, NFL Films revolutionized football filmmaking in the late 1960s.
NFL Films zoomed in on personalities such as Joe Kuharich, Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Fran Tarkenton, and Gale Sayers from field-level cameras.
These were the first football movies that incorporated gripping music, stunning cinematography, and dynamic editing. NFL Films eventually used these elements and other innovations in their movies in subsequent years.
Steve wanted nothing left out when adding a Hollywood touch to the company’s sports filmmaking repertoire.
Much of NFL Films’ evolution credit belonged to Steve, a football lifer, who, when he didn’t play football and ask his coach Jerry Carle questions, binged on movies for hours on end.
Steve’s dad Ed asked him to do most of the writing and producing for They Call It Pro Football. One of Steve’s writing influences was the English novelist Rudyard Kipling.
When Steve wrote a line about defensive linemen for the movie, he summoned his inner Kipling and described the defensive line as “one ton of muscle with a one-track mind.”
As a finishing touch, Steve and his dad chose Philadelphia news anchor John Facenda to narrate the film.
Facenda’s famous opening line, “It begins with a whistle, and ends with a gun,” was powerful and succinct. The man who earned the nickname “The Voice of God” continued working as NFL Films’ narrator until he passed away in 1984.
They Call It Pro Football became firmly entrenched in the annals of sports filmmaking. The National Film Registry of the Library of Congress added it to its collection 52 years after its initial release.
Sabol and his team continued to innovate as the 1960s wound down. NFL Films used microphone wires attached to players and coaches for the first time in 1967. That particular breakthrough allowed viewers to hear what was said on the sidelines as if they were watching live.
For instance, Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi wore a microphone wire in 1967 and yelled, “What the hell’s going on out here?”
Steve Sabol became a household name among football movie fans in the late 1960s. The staff of the movie Paper Lion asked him to film the football scenes and make them more realistic.
As a result of Sabol’s camera work, Paper Lion, which featured Alan Alda as Sports Illustrated writer George Plimpton, became a hit.
Three years after NFL Films wired players and coaches on the sideline, the company reached a new milestone as the football world ushered in the 1970s.
Sabol’s team gave Kansas City Chiefs head coach Hank Stram the honor of being the first football coach who was wired during the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs, behind touchdowns from Len Dawson, Otis Taylor, and Mike Garrett, beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.
Not only was it Kansas City’s first Super Bowl title, but it was also the last Super Bowl game prior to the historic AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
The legend Steve Sabol working a camera in 1975 pic.twitter.com/GXTCVm5DcX
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) September 10, 2017
NFL Films became a major player in ABC Monday Night Football’s sixth year in 1975. Steve Sabol and his crew edited highlights of Sunday’s games which Howard Cosell narrated for a nationwide television audience in just several hours.
Fast forward three years later and Sabol and NFL Films had earned a Sports Emmy for its one-hour featured film, Skateboard Fever.
Renowned female sports journalist Andrea Kremer gave credit to Steve Sabol for getting her career off the ground.
Steve made Kremer NFL Films’ pioneer female producer-director in 1984. One day, when Kremer bumped into him in the hallway, Steve greeted her and called her by her childhood nickname, “Andee.”
A shocked Kremer cleared the air and told Sabol her name was Andrea. Sabol laughed hysterically and called her “Ahhhhhndrea” from that point onward.
Sabol taught the employees at NFL films the nuances of sports filmmaking. During the 1980s, their responsibilities ran the gamut: they had to splice film, write copy, research, and produce the films’ music, to name a few.
Not only that, but Kremer and her co-workers worked their fingers to the bone seven days a week.
During her early days with NFL Films, Kremer learned valuable leadership lessons from Sabol.
One Saturday evening, Kremer used a ladder and rummaged through game canisters in the company’s film vault.
While it was practically pitch-dark, Kremer saw a light emanating from Steve Sabol’s office. Kremer peeked and saw her boss wearing his trademark sneakers and using his moviola with dozens of index cards plastered all over the walls.
That was Sabol in a nutshell.
NFL Films Video created World Champions! The Story of the 1985 Chicago Bears in the mid-1980s. The historic VHS video included highlights from the Bears’ championship season from training camp to Super Bowl XX.
In true Steve Sabol fashion, the video hit nationwide store shelves mere days after Mike Ditka’s Bears annihilated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, 46-10.
Ed Sabol led NFL Films as its chairman and president until 1985. His son, Steve, became the company’s president that year.
Sabol assigned Kremer and Phil Tuckett to work on a production entitled Autumn Ritual in 1986. The duo interviewed players, coaches, and personalities such as George Thomas Ainsworth Land, Philip Glass, Bill Blass, and Max Weinberg.
Before long, Autumn Ritual became a hit that defied Father Time. Kremer considers it one of the proudest accomplishments of her career, per NFL.com.
Not only did Steve Sabol set a leadership example for his co-workers, but he also fostered a team atmosphere at NFL Films.
Kremer remembered the times she and her co-workers watched weekly screenings of Inside the NFL so the producers could go over highlights from the previous week.
Long story short, football was a way of life at NFL Films. Sabol’s team played fantasy football before it became a nationwide trend, played paintball, and watched postseason football games at his residence when the schedule allowed it.
“Eat and talk football—what was better than that?” Kremer wrote in 2012. “NFL Films was like graduate school for football and Professor Sabol was the chairman of the department.”
One year after Kremer’s Autumn Ritual made a big splash among football fans, Sabol made her the female co-host of This is the NFL. It was a move that helped get Kremer’s television career off the ground.
Sabol knew all along that Kremer taking center stage on This is the NFL was a big risk—he could potentially lose her to another network.
Sabol’s worst fear came true when Kremer became ESPN’s pioneer female correspondent in 1989. Kremer went on to work for ESPN for the next 17 years before becoming a sideline reporter for NBC.
Nonetheless, making Andrea Kremer a This is the NFL co-host was the best move Steve Sabol could have made at the time. He was instrumental in making Kremer a household name among sports fans over the long haul.
The Colorado College Athletics Hall of Fame inducted Steve Sabol in 2001—his 37th anniversary at NFL Films.
That same year, NFL Films created a new genre known as reality sports television. Steve Sabol and his crew filmed an HBO reality TV series that featured the Super Bowl XXXV champions, the Baltimore Ravens, at training camp.
HBO Hard Knocks was officially born at the turn of the 21st century.
When NFL Network, the 24/7 pro football cable network, came into existence in 2003, its creators asked NFL Films to spice up programming.
Before long, Steve Sabol and his team had created timeless football programs such as America’s Game, A Football Life, and NFL Top 100—shows that captured the imagination of NFL Network viewers everywhere.
The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded Ed and Steve Sabol the Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 2003.
Ed Sabol became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 2011. His son, Steve, was his presenter.
“Let me tell you about my dad,” Steve said. “He was a loving father. He was a generous boss. He was a leader. He was a dreamer. But most of all, he was the funniest man I’ve ever known.”
Andrea Kremer—the first female co-host of This is the NFL in 1987—was Steve’s guest when his father Ed earned his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH.
Kremer and Sabol remained close friends off the air. They had maintained their friendship from the time Kremer left for ESPN in 1989 until the day Steve tragically passed away in 2012. In fact, Steve had a tight bond with Kremer’s father and Sabol consoled Andrea when he died.
“Even after I left NFL Films for ESPN, Steve remained someone incredibly special to me personally and professionally,” Kremer wrote on NFL.com in 2012.
Sabol and Kremer certainly had come a long way since Steve called her “Andee” when she started out at NFL Films in the early 1980s.
NFL Films continued gaining traction well into the 21st century. Alas, Steve Sabol passed away just seven years before the National Football League celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Steve Sabol’s Death
Sadly, Steve Sabol passed away due to brain cancer on September 18, 2012. He was 69 years old.
Sabol’s doctors discovered a tumor on his brain’s left side in the spring of 2011. He had a seizure prior to his cancer’s discovery.
NFL Films continued to innovate and create unparalleled breakthroughs in sports filmmaking in the years after Steve Sabol’s death.
— Amir Alhaj | ASM | International PR Consultant ℠ (@AmirAlhaj_ph) September 19, 2022
The network launched All Or Nothing, the ultimate in-access coverage of NFL teams ever created and a collaboration between NFL Films and Amazon, in 2016.
For the show’s premiere, NFL Films’ camera crews covered the Arizona Cardinals throughout the entire 2016 NFL season. Even if there were no live cameramen around, remote cameras and wires captured the Cardinals’ season off the gridiron.
NFL Films collaborated with ESPN+ to create the hit football documentary series Peyton’s Places hosted by legendary quarterback Peyton Manning in 2019. The show has garnered good ratings and is currently in its third season.
NFL Films’ other noteworthy projects include:
- The Tuck Rule
- NFL Icons: For the Love of the Game
- Vince’s Places: From Peyton’s Playbook
- Abby’s Places: From Peyton’s Playbook
- Eli’s Places: From Peyton’s Playbook
- Papi’s Places: From Peyton’s Playbook
- Rowdy’s Places: From Peyton’s Playbook
- Earnin’ It: The NFL’s Forward Progress
- Terry Bradshaw: Going Deep
- Joe Montana: Cool Under Pressure
- Inside the NFL, NFL All Access
- The Great Brady Heist
- Deion’s Double Play
- The Two Bills, Namath
- Road to the Super Bowl
- Four Falls of Buffalo
- Elway to Marino
- Belichick & Saban
NFL Films has won 131 Sports Emmy Awards to date, making it the most revered sports filmmaking company in the world.
Steve Sabol alone won 35 Emmys throughout his career at NFL Films, which spanned almost 50 years.
Sabol was also a highly acclaimed collage artist whose artwork was featured at the ArtExpo, the Avant Gallery, the Govinda Gallery, the Milan Gallery, and the Garth Davidson Gallery.
NFL Films currently occupies a 200,000-square-foot state-of-the-art production facility in Mount Laurel, NJ.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH inducted Steve Sabol posthumously in the summer of 2021. Sabol was a part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020.
Former Kansas City Chiefs president, general manager, and CEO Carl Peterson was part of the Centennial Slate Blue-Ribbon Panel that whittled down the original 300 candidates for the Class of 2020 to 20.
According to The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan, Sabol and Peterson began their almost five-decade friendship in an unusual and awkward fashion.
Peterson was a Philadelphia Eagles assistant coach in 1976. He stood next to Sabol while he was filming on the sidelines.
Out of nowhere, a player fell out of bounds and plowed into Peterson and Sabol, who both fell down. Peterson and Sabol became friends after the incident.
Peterson visited Sabol at the hospital several days before he passed away in the fall of 2012. Peterson vowed he would get Sabol into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Carl Peterson made good on his promise some nine years later.
“I always refer to him as the Steven Spielberg of the NFL,” Peterson told Kaplan in the summer of 2021. “His creativity was just extraordinary.”
Steve Sabol is also a member of the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame and Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Sabol left behind his wife, Penny, and their son, Casey. Penny designed and drew graphics at NFL Films.