Let’s face it, this column tends to do a lot of bitching about the state of pro football. In this light, I was served up an easy one this week with the abhorrent officiating, right up to the final play of last night’s game. But of course, I’ll take a pass on this low hanging fruit and, while the entire football world is going negative, I want to say something positive in the wake of the passing of Steve Sabol of NFL Films.
The basic thesis behind the Tuesday Morning Tailback in general is the opinion that, even though it is more popular than ever, the National Football League is past its peak by abandoning some of the fundamental elements that made it so great in the first place. This “golden age” of greatness was brought to my eyes and ears in large part through NFL films and the phenomenal art of Steve Sabol.
Aside from broadcasts of games, NFL Films was my eyes and ears to the beauty, majesty, and history of pro football. Growing up in the 1970s, there was no NFL Network or even ESPN and all the Sunday highlights were compressed into about 5 minutes on the late local news along with Howard Cosell’s halftime highlights on Monday Night Football. It wasn’t until the following Saturday afternoon that avid fans like myself would get to really see all the highlights from NFL Films in their unique, cinematic majesty. This half hour show, narrated by the great Harry Kalas, was the pre-cursor to the current Inside the NFL.
Through the years, starting in the mid 1960s, the vast majority of the historic moving images that are indelibly stamped in our memories were captured by this family-run business from South Jersey, founded by Steve’s father Ed Sabol. Beyond these images, NFL Films added the iconic sounds which gave their films an absolute edge, with the quirky, brass-filled bumper music, and more importantly the iconic voices they used for narration. Aside from Kalas, who was hired when he was an up-and-coming broadcaster for the Philadelphia Phillies, they enlisted another local Philadelphia talent, John Facenda, who Ed Sabol happened to overhear in a bar in 1965. Until his death in 1984, Facenda was THE voice of the NFL, often replicated to this day.
As for Steve Sabol himself, he was the single figure who tied the past and present together, as the mild-mannered host of the shows which highlighted this intense and hard-hitting game, which I’ve long contended is the greatest form of competitive sport in the history. With the advent of ESPN in the 1980s, some of the most enjoyable programming was the late night NFL Films specials, where Sabol would host from his quiet studio In Mount Laurel, New Jersey and bring viewers through space and time to all corners of the football universe.
To say that there will never be another Steve Sabol would be a terribly gross understatement. The real fear I have is that there is simply no longer room for modern-day equivalent geniuses like the Sabols and their incredible enterprise, as the NFL is now awash in corporate sponsorship, ratings obsession, and political correctness. And that fact makes Steve Sabol’s passing all the more tragic.
Tuesday Morning Tailback is a weekly article during football season which take a critical look at the NFL. We do this from the base belief that NFL football is the greatest game in the history of mankind, but some recent policies and the overall direction of the league has chipped away at this greatness. Our primary goal is to spark debate on these subjects, so please leave your own opinion on this article in the comment box below.