I stuck out my hand each of the last two times I saw Steve Sabol, and both times he just shook his head and pulled me in close for a hug. The visionary behind NFL Films had been living with a brain tumor since March 2011, and he was bald from chemotherapy and radiation treatments. As we sat together in his office in southern New Jersey in a month after his diagnosis, he said, "So they talk about heaven, and I don't know what is waiting for me up there. But I can tell you this: Nothing will happen up there that can duplicate my life down here. Nothing. That life cannot be better than the one I've lived, the football life."
Tributes to Sabol (near right, with his father, Ed, who founded NFL Films in 1962), who died on Sept. 18 at age 69, have rightfully noted how ahead of his time he was. In 1966, when he was 24, he made the landmark documentary They Call It Pro Football, a film so moving, it made Vince Lombardi cry. Sabol's decision to mike players during games, beginning in the '70s, humanized the NFL's players and coaches. His affection for the slo-mo spiral became the game's art-house shot. In '84, Sabol created the first X's-and-O's show, Monday Night Matchup, because he thought fans wanted more detail; now there are many such shows.
What made Sabol great was his passion for detail. When he was filming a Packers practice one day in '67, he heard Lombardi gruffly order that a stray dog be taken off the field. Years later Sabol went on a long riff to author David Maraniss about the great voices of history and how Lombardi had one, and it helped him run his team.
"Steve's genius," former Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall, one of Sabol's early subjects, told me last week, "was showing America what a football player really was like, what his life was like. I think that made America like football players, and like football."
No one over the past 50 years—no player, coach or commissioner—made America love it more than Sabol.