Pigskin Poet: Steve Sabol Dies After Battle With Brain Cancer

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 18, 2012

Steve SabolNFL Films president Steve Sabol passed away Tuesday morning after an 18-month struggle with brain cancer. He was 69.

We don't get too emotional around here at the Cold, Hard Football Facts world headquarters. But the death of Sabol is a tough one, even if not a surprise. His physical demise over the past year was well known.

Count me among the millions who, yes, love football because of the impact of Sabol and his father, NFL Films founder Ed Sabol.

He was the multimedia pigskin poet, a man who wrapped beautiful words and beautiful images around a violent, bloody game and packaged it in ways that enraptued sports fans. 

The "Autumn Wind is a Pirate" episode of NFL Films remains one of the best thngs ever written about football. My understanding is that Sabol personally wrote the script.

I had the good fortune to meet Sabol once. He invited me down to NFL Films and came to greet me in his office. CHFF stories covered the walls of his office, complete with highlights and hand-written notes.

I realized we had "made it," if you will, at that moment, knowing that the man who had infuenced so much of my life took time to study my work. 

At a time when hockey, baseball and football fought for the interest of a young boy in Boston, it was the artistry of the Sabols and NFL Films that proved the determining factor.

Super Bowl XIV between the Steelers and L.A. Rams was played on Jan. 20, 1980, my 10th birthday. The scene at the Rose Bowl that day was majestic, with the bright Southern California winter sun glittering off 100,000 silver streamers in the hands of fans in the stands. It was a live spectacle in every sense of the word.

It was even better on NFL Films.

The spectacle of sunny kickoff descended into twilight with the game in the balance, when Terry Bradshaw unleashed his patented Super Bowl bombs under the lights, lifting the Steelers to their fourth championship in six years.

The Washington Redskins of the 1980s are still my favorite team. I was in the throes of young football lust at the time and they were the most colorful and most dominant team of those years, in the wake of the Pittsburgh dynasty. Still one of the more fascinating teams in football history.

Those Redskins were, as we wrote years ago, "The Last Old School Team."

The origins of the Cold, Hard Football Facts can be traced to the Dolphins-Redskins game in Super Bowl XVII: I sat in my room the days before the game, calculating stats for each team on graph paper, hoping to find ways that my beloved Redskins would win, which they did ... and in grand fashion.

It was the fourth quarter. It was fourth and inches. The Redskins trailed 17-13. The entire world knew that John Riggins, the Diesel, was getting the football. He busted off left tackle, behind Russ Grimm and Joe Jacoby, and rumbled for a 43-yard touchdown and what proved the game-winning score. It was a perfect punctuation mark for the Diesel and the Hogs.

It was brilliant watching it unfold as a boy.

It never gets old on NFL Films.

Sabol's championship team captured it all, from the shaking timbers of the old RFK in the momentously giddy NFC title game win over the Cowboys that year, to the deisel horns echoing as Riggins rumbled over another helpless opponent, to that thunderous touchdown run through the arms of Miami's overmatched Don McNeal in the Super Bowl.

It was beautiful to watch in the winter of 1983. Those experiences that influence my life, and millions of others, 30 years later live on in the visual poetry of the late Steve Sabol today.

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