Commentary

Steve Sabol helped make football art

Groundbreaking NFL Films president revolutionized how we consume the sport

Originally Published: September 18, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Like most football fans, I grew up watching NFL Films.

The pictures, the storylines, the commentary and presentation brought fans closer to the game. Then there was the music. Every time NFL Films put together an album of the music it played behind their stories, I purchased it. Too bad my collection is on vinyl, and I didn't keep an old record player to replay my memories.

[+] EnlargeSteve Sabol
AP Photo/Daniel HulshizerSteve Sabol won 35 Emmys for his NFL Films work.

In fact, I may go out and buy a turntable because Steve Sabol passed away Tuesday at the age of 69 after a battle with cancer. Steve Sabol and his father, Ed, turned pro football into an art form.

I can't think of opera without having memories of background music used by NFL Films. I can't watch a crazy fumble or wild play without remembering Mel Blanc's voice narrating an NFL bloopers reel. I can't think about Lambeau Field or the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Oakland Raiders without hearing John Facenda, who had one of the greatest voices ever.

For all of that, I am indebted to the Sabol family. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I wasn't much into traditional arts. Opera wasn't for me. Neither was classical music. As you can see from the current "This is Sports Center'' commercial, I'm not into Bach.

In 2007, though, I felt my indebtedness was repaid. I spent an entire evening with Steve Sabol at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I've known him for years, but this night was special. I was receiving the McCann Award, which is voted on by writers around the country. Sabol received the broadcast honors for that year.

Both of us were able to share that special moment as we became part of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

We had time to talk about how his father, Ed, needed to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, as well. As fate would have it, I had the honor of being part of the meeting in which that eventually happened.

Let me tell you an inside story, though. I was such a fan of the work of NFL Films, I wanted to be able to do similar production. At the conclusion of a broadcasting class at Duquesne University, I was asked to do a video project. My offering wasn't much different from what NFL Films was doing. I put picture and words to music. I just didn't do it as well as Sabol's team.

After a year of working part-time for ESPN in the mid-1990s, I was asked to take over the pro football notebook, Inside the Huddle. There I was able to put pictures to words and share NFL stories, trends and insights. To this day, I still do the things I learned watching NFL Films when I appear on TV.

I just leave out the music. On the day we lost an icon in Steve Sabol, I thank him and his family for taking me Inside The Huddle.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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