Originally posted on Philly Sports Live  |  Last updated 9/18/12

In 1986 I was a young 24 year-old working my first “good” job for the Pennsylvania state government. My boss was a respected elected official up for re-election.

This one particular evening in October, I found myself at a dinner meeting with my boss, his wife and a local business man at a restaurant on Lancaster Avenue along the Main Line. Dinner and the meeting had concluded and I looked to the folks around the table attempting to make my exit. I had a wife and 9 month-old son at home, my first of three children.

My boss looked at me and said, “Stay a few minutes. I got somebody meeting us for drinks.” I wasn’t terribly thrilled as it had already been a long day.

A few moments later a very tall, good-looking gentleman approached my boss at our table and very gregariously slapped him on the back and announced his entrance. It was a distinctive voice. One I had heard many, many times.

My boss turned to me and said, “Oh Mike, this is . . .” I stopped him. “You’re Steve Sabol,” I said. “Very good, young man. You watch NFL Films.”

Sabol sat down at our table and spent the next 45 minutes trying to talk “shop” and politics with my boss, the elected representative, but every chance I could interject I’d bring it back to sports, football and the NFL.

While I had seen dozens and dozens of episodes of “NFL Films” segments on TV, in that 45 minutes I learned more about the evolution of the concept than I ever knew, or probably cared about before.  It was fascinating because to hear Sabol tell the story in that rich voice you had heard on TV was all the more dynamic. I heard the praise he heaped upon his father: the early days of the NFL, his travels to stadiums across the league far and wide, and the icons of the sport he met. I was humbled by his admiration that I had pursued communications.

In those 45 minutes I literally got a compacted history of the evolution of one of the most vibrant, innovative, impactful concepts in modern 20th century sports media.

Steve Sabol, the man who became the creative genius of his father’s 1962 company, passed away on Tuesday, September 18 at the age of 69 after a battle with brain tumors and cancer.

Born in Moorestown, New Jersey on October 2, 1942, Steve Sabol became the main cameraman for his father, Ed’s company shortly after attending Colorado College where he played football.  A Little known detail about Sabol was the fact he contracted a strain of hepatitis while in college which left him weak and physically drained, but he fought back from it to win the title of “Mr. Philadelphia” in a bodybuilding contest in the early 1960’s. It was just after that, he teamed-up with his father.

Ed Sabol’s NFL Films company is the stuff of legend and a true “American dream;” the entrepreneurship being conceived allegedly over a 4-martini lunch between Ed Sabol and then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle prior to the 1962 NFL Championship game between the Packers and Giants.

While his father Ed had the concept, it took the creativity of Steve to add to each production the voices (legendary Philadelphia broadcasters John Facenda and later Harry Kalas), orchestra music, epic slow-motion angles, and clips no other television station had in their vault. Those are the productions we all remember and, to this day, even recite.

You couldn’t take your eyes off of an NFL Films production. If they produced it, the game had to be good. Not so fast. Famed ESPN broadcaster in his own right, Chris Berman was quoted in a New York Times article today as saying:

“. . . the Sabols could make a 49-14 game ‘seem like some kind of epic Greek tragedy.’”

To his credit Steve Sabol won 35 Emmys. NFL Films has 107 to date.

I must say, I am very pleased I did not leave that dinner meeting in October 1986 early. Steve Sabol was a gentleman . . . a true gentle giant. He lit-up a room with his smile and he was incredibly quick thinking . . . and, yes I gleaned this all in 45 minutes – a 45 minutes I have never forgotten. That’s how you just know you’re in the presence of someone uniquely special.

Rest peacefully Steve Sabol knowing you changed American sports and the NFL as we know it!

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