STEVE SABOL freely used the word "mythologize" to describe what he and NFL Films did for the National Football League. He was right, too. The common understanding of the word "myth" these days somehow connotes to "false," which is the problem. Not to go all Merriam-Webster on you, but this is the real definition of "myth":
"a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon"
This is exactly what Steve Sabol did. He wrote stories, with words and video and sound and music. He opened up a sporting culture to an entire nation. He told people about something he loved. That much was always obvious.
Sabol died Tuesday at the age of 69, about a year-and-a-half after being diagnosed with brain cancer. He helped to found NFL Films with his father, Ed, and worked there for a half-century. In that time, he did every job in the building and won Emmys for doing every job in the building. He filmed. He wrote. He edited. He directed. He produced. He innovated in his sleep - slow-motion, microphones on coaches and players, all of those scenes behind the scenes. Sabol did it first and he did it best and he trained hundreds of people to do it the same way. It is all part of a stunning professional life.
But he loved football. That really should be the first line of the obituary. It is the underpinning of everything that happened thereafter. Sabol was a trained artist, and he obviously had an eye, and an ear, and skill with words. But without his passion for the subject matter, the result would have been hollow. It never was, though.
Because he loved it, he wanted other people to love it the same way. Because he loved it, he wanted other people to see it the same way. When I watched his work, I always thought that was the genesis of everything he did. Ball in the air, slow-motion, the spiral perfect, the laces spinning past, once, twice, three times, four times. And even though there was often the accompaniment of lush orchestral music, the effect was as if Sabol was somewhere silently in the background saying, "Hey, you've got to see this."
He loved the game and he loved quality. That should be the second line of the obit. It was forever the takeaway from an NFL Films production. When they were working on a project, they threw people at it and they threw equipment at it and they threw money at it - and the result was quality that has stood up over decades. The technology has improved over time, everything has improved, but you can sit in front of an HD television today and watch something NFL Films shot in the late '60s and still be mesmerized by how good it looks.
There have been controversies about that in recent years, about trying to find a way to do it cheaper - and, well, fine. But that is not what the great stories are about. Myths are enormous things, and cheap does not endure. Steve Sabol will endure.
Because this is the other thing Sabol always understood: that we all just want a peek behind the curtain sometimes. The NFL has always been full of hidebound people, and of fiefdoms, and trying to convince those in power to allow cameras in pregame locker rooms and microphones on coaches prowling the sidelines - in effect, to give up a measure of control - was real work. But it was great work.
The truth is, even though journalists write about the business of the sport, and some of the dark side, most fans do not care. Their commitment to the game is emotional. They do not seek news as much as they seek some small measure of inclusion. Sabol got that inherently. He would shoot it in color and slow it down as much as he could and accompany it with the crash of helmets and bathe the whole thing in a symphony of strings - but in the end, all he was doing was giving you a peek behind that curtain. From the Frozen Tundra to Hank Stram and the 65 toss power trap, he was offering you a glimpse of what you already thought you knew, but really didn't.
What Steve Sabol did was big and loud and bold and forever.
Mythology, then? Damn right.
What a legacy.