Steve Sabol was -- and is -- the guiding light behind the NFL's narrative. (Scott Halleran/Getty Imaes)
Steve Sabol passed away a year ago this week. The longtime president of NFL Films died on Sept. 18, 2012, of the brain tumor that had been diagnosed 18 months before, after he was hospitalized for a seizure. It is not an overstatement to say that Sabol did as much to forward the NFL's presence as anyone else in the league's long history. With his father, Ed, the younger Sabol wove an irresistible web of film, music and narration to establish the narrative and mythology of a game that was made for television but didn't really know it until the Sabols started their work.
Chris Barlow has been with NFL Films for 25 years. Or, as he told me, "It's my 25th football season" with the company. He's a senior producer with Films, and one of the two co-heads running the company's third installment of its A Football Life series, along with fellow senior producer Keith Cossrow. He is one of many whose mission is now to continue the Films message in an era when instant information has taken the shine off the myth. The company's A Football Life documentary series is very important to the company in that regard.
Sabol had a unique gift for getting the most out of his subjects without descending into "gotcha" journalism -- his final player interview was conducted with Tom Brady for ESPN's The Brady Six series. Sabol was the one who knew what questions to ask Brady about how it felt to drop to 199th in the 2000 NFL draft, and it should come as no surprise that Sabol was the one to capture what might be the enduring image of Brady -- when the now uber-famous quarterback broke down in tears when recalling how it felt to be with his family on that day. That vignette is part of the Football Life documentary on Steve Sabol, and it personifies, as much as anything, what the series is all about.
Barlow told me about the thought process behind A Football Life, and where it is now.
"It goes back to 2011, when the network came to us and said that they were interested in starting a documentary series. Obviously, we were thrilled with that, because it's been the hallmark of our programming for years. We had done a couple of hour-long shows every year for a number of years, but we've taken that to a new level in the last three years. This is the wheelhouse of NFL Films -- this kind of storytelling."
Moreover, the quantity has increased. There were nine episodes in that first year, 13 last season and 22 this time. The most important episode in the entire series just might be the one on Steve Sabol, because when you talk to anyone at NFL Films, it's clear that nobody has made a more lasting impression.
"It all stems from Steve," Barlow said. "His imprint was on this from the beginning, and it's still there. The people who worked under him -- most of the decisions we make today are done with ... 'What would Steve do?' He's going to guide this place forever."
Howard Katz guides Films on a day-to-day basis now, but it's still all about Steve Sabol, and that was evident in the time and care put into his Football Life. Appropriate, since Sabol unwittingly came up with the series title when he was talking to SI's Peter King (now, of course, TheMMQB.com's Big Kahuna) about the life he had led.
"For a company that prides itself on telling good stories,'' Sabol told King, "this is one hell of a story. Dad makes the Hall of Fame. Son's going to be his presenter. Son gets a brain tumor. Now the story is, Is the son going to be there? Will the son make it? Who knows? I could be around until the Super Bowl in New York . But I've had a lot of time to think ...
"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. That life cannot be better than the one I've lived down here, the football life. It's been perfect."
Barlow's thoughts on a few of the shows that have already aired, and a few more that are on the way:
On LaDainian Tomlinson, and whether he knew about his family's history: "I think he knew some, but when he and Chris Tomlinson got together on that land, on that Tomlinson Hill, and Chris was able to fill in some holes for him ... he was able to tell him, 'Your ancestors built this house in the 19th century. And when LaDainian learned that one of his ancestors was able to purchase land, and how few African-Americans at the time were able to do that, you could see what an impact that had on him. He was learning about his family's history as we were making the film."
On Don Shula, and whether the Films crew ever decides to bypass a subject because it's been covered too often: "I would say it's rare we would do that, because we're always trying to unearth a new angle. A new story, something that people don't know. And we were able to do that with Shula. Most people know about the perfect season and the most wins ever, but there was a lot about what drove him, and you mentioned his relationship with his family. That was new to a lot of people.
On Steve Sabol: "That was really difficult to produce for everyone involved. Those of us who worked on it probably saw it about 40 times through the making of it, and it doesn't get any easier to watch. It was kind of a surreal experience, making a film of someone you were so close to, who had such an impact on your life. The emotional impact that film had on the people who made it -- I would think it was greater than in any film they will ever make.
"There's two parts of Steve's story that I don't know if a whole lot of people know. Steve's love for art -- and I'm not talking about football art, but art in general -- he got that from his mother, who was big in the Philadelphia art circles when Steve was growing up. Steve went to college and became an art major, and he tried to take the things he learned in his study at Colorado College and transfer that to football. If you've been to Films, you've seen the artwork that adorns our hallways. Steve created a lot of that out of his house. He was in a lot of art galleries in the last few years of his life with his artwork, and it was a combination of pop culture and football. He had a unique way of combining the two and creating these beautiful pieces of art, and I think that's going to surprise a lot of people.
"There's also a line in the film about the man who became the NFL's great mythmaker -- the first myth he ever made was about himself. He had a lot of fun when he went to college -- he's from the Philadelphia area, but he didn't think that would look good in a football program. So, he told people that he was from Coaltown, Pa., which sounded like the rough and rugged guys from Western Pennsylvania. But that got kinda boring after a while, so then, he decided that he was from Possum Trot, Mississippi, and he could do this because he was creating the football programs. Sports Illustrated actually did a four-page spread on him ("The Fearless Tot from Possum Trot") when he was in college, and it was something you look back on and see that he was building his brand back then.
"And another assist from Peter King -- when Steve let Peter know that he was sick, he wanted to hear from people, and he got thousands and thousands of e-mails from fans in the 18 months he lived after his seizure. Steve gave us access to them, and we went through them all. We invited several of those people to come to Films and share their stories about the impact Steve had on their lives. We've said that this film is told by the people who knew Steve best, and it's also from the people who didn't know him at all."
On Darrelle Revis, and doing a Football Life episode on a current player: "We spent a lot of time with him over the summer during his rehab [from knee surgery]. It was a huge transitional time for him -- dealing with the injury, going from the Jets to Tampa. He had already established himself as a great shutdown cornerback, mentioned with the likes of Deion Sanders early in his career -- the kind of player who can take away half a field. And now, he's got to deal with coming back from a severe injury, and he was back for Week 1. So, he was very gracious to spend a lot of time with NFL Network this summer, tracking his quest to get back on the field. And now that it's happened, we figured it was a good time to ... like I've said before, we want to keep the umbrella pretty big with this series. So yes, his career's not done, but he's already done some incredible things, and he's got this hurdle to overcome. We wanted to see what it's like for him to have to face that challenge.
On Derrick Thomas: "Early in his career, a lot of people and even he ... he was the next Lawrence Taylor. There's the famous clip where he's in his car, and he turns to the camera and says something to the effect of, 'L.T.? The 1990s belong to D.T.'
"Marty Schottenheimer said that if you're looking for an edge rusher who's going to go after the quarterback, he's the prototype. He probably had the quickest first step off the line of scrimmage in NFL history. Neal Smith says in the film that he would play left defensive end, and Derrick would be that outside linebacker on the right, and Neal said that he switched from putting his right hand on the ground to his left hand on the ground, and he didn't watch the snap -- he watched Derrick. When Derrick moved, that's when he moved, because that's how fast Derrick was getting off the line."
On Matt Millen, and the complications of a full-range documentary about a guy who has had his foibles, but also works for the NFL Network: "Yeah -- I ended up producing that film myself, so I'm very familiar with it, and we're in the finishing stages of it now. Matt was extremely honest with us, and we spent more time in Detroit than in any of his other stops. Because it is a fascinating part of his career. He really was one of the ultimate winners on the field in NFL history -- he had four Super Bowl rings with three different franchises (Raiders, 49ers, Redskins), and he was an All-American at Penn State. So, when you look at football resumes, it's hard to top his. He knew he was taking a risk when he went to Detroit, because he had never done [personnel] before. He was successful as an announcer -- he was set to take over for John Madden as the top guy when Madden retired. Most people would not have given that up, but there are a couple of things that came out in the film.
First, Matt's a fighter. One of his producers at FOX told us that 'Matt defines his life by wins and losses.' He sees his life in black-and-white, and broadcasting is gray. It drove Matt nuts. He would finish a game, and he hadn't won or lost. Most people would say that he had the greatest job in the world, but Steve Sabol asked him about that in 2001 as he was going to Detroit. And Matt said, 'That's why I had to get back [in football]. You don't win or lose [in broadcasting]. And that competition -- once you've had a taste of it, it's really hard to replace. I think that explains why he went to Detroit.
"It's a really complicated story. Matt was a great interview, extremely forthright and very honest. And that comes out in the film. One of the reasons we wanted to make this film is that younger people remember him as the guy who ran the Lions. But he also had a career as a player that most people would be thrilled with."
Here's the entire Football Life schedule for the third season. Some future dates are subject to change, and we'll circle back with Barlow down the road to talk about the episodes that are currently in production.
- Sept. 3 – LaDainian Tomlinson
- Sept. 10 – Don Shula
- Sept. 17 – Darrelle Revis
- Sept. 24 – Derrick Thomas
- Oct. 1 – Steve Sabol
- Oct. 8 – Matt Millen
- Oct. 15 – Michael Strahan
- Oct. 22 – Pat Summerall
- Oct. 29 – Warren Sapp
- Nov. 5 – Randall Cunningham
- Nov. 12 – Cris Carter
- Nov. 19 – The Forward Pass
- Nov. 26 – Steve Gleason
- Dec. 3 – The Great Wall of Dallas
- Dec. 10 – The 1993 Houston Oilers
- Dec. 17 – Marty Schottenheimer
- Dec. 24 – Vince Lombardi, Part 1
- Dec. 31 – Vince Lombardi, Part 2
- Jan. 7 – Tiki & Ronde Barber
- Jan. 14 – Dick Butkus & Gale Sayers
- Jan. 21 – Doug Williams
- Jan. 28 – Jerry Rice