The Ute Pass fault slices down the Rockies just to the northeast of Pikes Peak and directly in to Colorado Springs, Colo. Every eon or so, the earth moves and most of the knowledgeable people at tiny Colorado College, which happens to nestle near the base of Pikes Peak, are at least intellectually prepared for a tremor or two. But something happened to them in the fall of 1960—it was so quiet at first they were not even aware of it—for which they were quite unprepared. That was the enrollment of a little fellow named Stephen Douglas Sabol, freshly arrived at Colorado College from Villanova, Pa. to play football. If mountains did not move at first, they would shortly.
Now, it is not as though football or even fame was new to CC, as intimates call the college. It is only that not much had happened since 1928, when 10,000 or so people used to pile into Washburn Stadium to see Dutch Clark do his stuff. It was stimulating. It was great. It was also brief. Clark graduated, and the seating capacity of Washburn Stadium has been shrinking ever since. Last summer another chunk of seats was ripped out, leaving 2,500. Those who craved for action on Saturday afternoons got into the habit of hiking 12 miles up the road to watch the Air Force Academy teams play.
Nevertheless, football was what Sabol had in mind when he got to Colorado Springs, and if he could do nothing to check the school's emphasis on de-emphasis he could do the next best thing and become college football's greatest living advertisement for himself. In the last three years Stephen Douglas Sabol, better known because of his own press-agentry as Steve (Sudden Death) Sabol, has had a roaring good time perpetrating the idea that he is slightly more talented than Jimmy Brown.
Sudden Death was named All-Rocky Mountain Conference fullback the year before last, but there are pro scouts who have been known to ignore a full season of Rocky Mountain football and not miss a thing. Still, Sudden Death does not blush at his own high assessment of himself ("I'm not to be taken seriously," he tells anyone who is inclined to be specific), and the fact is that Brown, Cookie Gilchrist and Bronko Nagurski stuffed into the same uniform could not touch his publicity.
November 22, 1965
With his own good money Sudden Death has paid for newspaper advertisements, colored postcards, brochures, T shirts, lapel buttons and pencils—on which are written such legends as "The Prince of Pigskin Pageantry now at the Pinnacle of his Power," and "one of the most mysterious, awesome living beings of all times." He has sent out news releases reporting the incredible accomplishments of Sudden Death Sabol on the football field—with sidebars describing his colorful campus life—and it is testament to his ability that sports editors swallowed his releases gladly, never realizing that Sabol was spoofing.
On the surface, CC is not the right place for the likes of Sabol. He had intended to go to Harvard—Norman Mailer's alma mater—after graduating third in his class from prep school but, he recalls happily, "I blew the college boards, and to ease the snub from Harvard made a tour of Europe." It was in Amsterdam that a letter from his mother arrived informing him of his acceptance by Colorado College, among other places. As Sabol was a football nut (he can rattle off the names of obscure halfbacks who played at the turn of the century), instant thoughts like "Dutch Clark, mountains—great," rattled through his mind, and that was that for Sabol.
Sabol arrived, uncharacteristically, with no fanfare. "In fact," he says recalling his first freshman practice, "the coach looked at me as if I were a side dish he hadn't ordered." Sabot's problem then was that there were only 170 pounds of him, and the coaches, for the most part, ignored him. "If there's one thing I can't stand," said Sabol, "it's not being noticed."
Sabol's first gambit was to change his home town from Villanova to Coaltown Township, Pa., a nonexistent locality that had the ring of solid football country to it. "Everybody knows that western Pennsylvania is where the studs come from," he said. "I've never even seen a coal mine, but if the coaches thought I'd been rubbing shoulders with guys like Mike Ditka and Leon Hart they'd have to start thinking. You know, I carried it off all season and nobody caught on. Guys would come up and ask me why I hadn't got a big scholarship from Notre Dame or Ohio State or someplace, and I'd say, 'Aw, I was just third-string.' "
While he impressed his colleagues, Sabol remained unnoticed by the coaches through the entire freshman year. Figuring he had been too subtle, he was ready with a veritable blitz of eye-catchers by the time the sophomore season rolled in. He informed one and all that he was from Possum Trot, Miss, ("now, who could ignore anyone from a place called Possum Trot?" he reasoned) and then went to work on his name, which was honorable enough but lacked the ring of greatness. "I wanted something really lethal," he said, "like Sudden Death—hey, yeah, Sudden Death! Fits my initials, too." It is recorded that on the program for the next game CC had a third-string fullback called Sudden Death Sabol. That wasn't all that was in the program. "Coach Jerry Carle [CC's head coach] wishes Sudden Death Sabol a successful season," read a modest ad—paid for by Stephen Douglas Sabol.
"My God, Coach Carle's a regular Bear Bryant," said Sabol. "About the last thing he'd do is wish me a successful season. But a lot of people took it seriously. I thought it was all pretty funny."
Fortunately, Carle, as befits a man with no scholarships to give away, is a man of some humor and actually managed a chuckle or two. Unfortunately, the ad did not do much for Sabol's status on the team, and he remained rooted on the bench. "My 170 pounds," he said, "just didn't seem to go with a player called Sudden Death."
Nevertheless, there it was in the final program of the season: "Coach Jerry Carle congratulates Sudden Death Sabol on a fantastic season."
That summer Sabol stayed in Colorado Springs and stuffed himself and, to make sure all that food sat right, worked hard on weights and the isometric bar. When he showed up for fall football Carle could hardly believe what he saw. Sudden Death had put 40 pounds on his frame, all of it hard. As a budding press agent, Sabol now had something solid to work with.
Sabol's junior year was big. Tentative stabs at press-agentry turned into full-blown hokum, spilling over to both local and Denver papers. One ad informed a startled public, "The Possum Trot Chamber of Commerce extends its wishes for a successful season to its favorite son—Sudden Death Sabol." Another advertisement included a picture of Sabol in a football uniform, age 10, in Philadelphia, where he had played on a midget-league team called the Little Quakers. Then came 100 T shirts made up with a drawing of a possum and the inscription: "I'm a little Possum Trotter." He gave half of them away and sold the rest for $1 apiece.
To alleviate the tedium of football practice, which he describes as a "period of intense boredom punctuated by moments of acute fear," Sabol began writing the game program himself, and he did a column for the school newspaper entitled, Here's a Lot from Possum Trot. In between times, Sabol assumed the duties of team cheerleader and began plastering the walls of the locker room with posters and slogans and slipping fight songs on the record player. The climax came when Sabol shipped a press release off to the rival Concordia team's home-town paper (Concordia was unbeaten at the time). "Sudden Death says CC will crush them," was one quote.
Concordia's game plan was simple—break Sabol's neck. "I loved it," he said. "Makes the game more personal. This one big end was particularly anxious to break something—he seemed infinitely capable of it, too, so at half time I go up to the referee and, putting on my choirboy look, say: 'Mr. Referee, sir, that end, well, I hate to say it, but he's playing sort of dirty and I wish you'd watch him.' So on the first play I asked the quarterback to call my number on an end sweep. Sure enough, this big oaf really clobbers me. I whisper in his ear, 'You're nothing but chicken——' Naturally, he takes a swing, and there's the ref standing right there, throwing down his hanky and yelling, 'You're out of the game.' " Colorado College won 13-0.
Aside from the fun and frolic, Sabol was not spoofing at all about playing the game. He had learned how to punt a ball 39.8 yards a try (he prefers to quote his average as over 40), and he rushed at opposing linemen effectively enough to average 4.5 yards a carry (the statistic comes out 6.2 for anyone who does not have records to check Sabol). Whatever the figure was, it was good enough for All-Conference status, and CC won four games, or about two more than it normally did.
While Sabol likes to think of himself as the "Caucasian Cassius Clay" ("you'd be surprised how stimulating it is to lip off," he said), his teammates took him seriously enough to elect him captain for his senior year. The news was carried on the wires, and it brought a letter from a disc jockey in, of all places, Possum Trot. There really is such a place, but it is in Tennessee, not Mississippi. "That was fine by me," said Sabol. "I always had a sneaking hunch I wanted to come from Tennessee, anyway."
In the fall of 1964, Sabol showed up promptly, but it was obvious that something was wrong. The most dynamic athlete of modern times was listless and tired. The coaching staff soon found out why. Sabol had been hospitalized almost all summer with hepatitis.
Back to Villanova went Sudden Death, unknown and unappreciated outside of Possum Trot and the Rocky Mountains. When his strength returned he took a job coaching the Little Quakers but, by his figuring, the year was a washout. Then Carle called. Sudden Death, he said, was eligible for another year.
Sabol made straight for the Philadelphia Athletic Club and began huffing over the weights. He huffed so hard he boosted his weight from 180 back to 212 pounds, all with the encouragement of fellow club members Buddy Rogers and the then reigning Mr. America, Val Vasilieff. Both were impressed by the way Sabol's muscles began to bulge in the appropriate places. They urged him to enter the local body-beautiful contest. Sabol was game. He strutted and flexed and "Damned if I didn't win it. Do you know I'm actually Mr. Philadelphia now?"
Being named Mr. Philadelphia is not an honor Sabol is likely to exploit lightly, and what followed was 8-by-10 photographs showing himself all aripple and holding a spear. Underneath were his name and these modest words: "Acclaimed as the greatest new adventure hero of the year." The adventure hero was an inspiration derived from his enormous comic-book collection, featuring such alltime favorites as Mr. America and Batman. The pictures were immediately dispatched to editors, press agents and fans. (He has the mailing addresses of influential people well cataloged.)
Sabol considered this not a bad start on the year, but the nagging suspicion that some people back in Colorado were forgetting him gave Sudden Death a slight ulcer and fresh determination to do something about it. He dashed off to a printer and had stationery made with "Universal International" engraved on the letterhead and wrote: "You have been placed on Steve Sabol's mailing list and thus will be able to follow his movie career." Next came the information that Steve Sabol had been cast as a supporting actor in Universal's forthcoming film. Black Horse Troop ("I got the name from a march by John Philip Sousa"), starring William Holden, Steve McQueen and Eva Marie Saint—no less. The letter was stamped "Approved for immediate release by order of Central Casting." Sabol just happened to have such a stamp handy.
Using the instincts of a good press agent, Sabol did not send the letters to Colorado newsmen, who were developing the ability to smell synthetics. Instead they went to friends in Colorado Springs who were most likely to leak the news in the right places. It worked. Local columnists fell over themselves informing their readers that Sudden Death Sabol was Hollywood's newest star. "I must have had a hundred calls from people wanting to know if it's true Steve McQueen is really a fink," said Sabol. "I told them, 'Naw, he's really a great guy.'"
Last summer Sabol made another grand tour of Europe, and it was in Madrid that he was inspired anew. El Cordobés, the current rage in bull fighting circles, had picture postcards of himself placed all over Spain. Thought Sabol: "Now, that's class." First thing he did when he returned home was to shell out $55 (financial support comes from his father) for a couple of crates of color postcards with himself in football togs. On the top at the back is:
STEVE "SUDDEN DEATH" SABOL
All-Time, All-Rocky Mountain football great
On the bottom it says simply: "The Prince of Pigskin Pageantry."
In September, Sabol came back to Colorado Springs in style—driving a flashy maroon convertible—and took up residence in a modest five-room apartment that goes for $200 a month and that he shares with no one. "I have this imagination, you see," says Sabol, "and it works better when I'm alone." Not that he is lonely. On the walls are huge pop art paintings of The Phantom, Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician, compliments of his mother. There is also a picture of Sudden Death signing with the Cleveland Browns for $375,000.
One of Sabol's favorite pictures has him surrounded by Alex Webster, Frank Clifford and Del Shofner with the inscription: "We need Sudden Death." The fact is, pro football may get him after he graduates next June if he can swing a job with his father, who produces the official color films of the National Football League's championship games.
"Football is such a great game," says Sabol, "but football players are so dull. I remember this one pregame film showing Mike Ditka demolishing some guy. Now, this is a great player. He's brutal. So do you know what he says when the commentator asks him to say something about the play? He sort of paws the ground, drops his head and says, 'Ah, I was lucky.' Now, surely after a guy makes a great play like Ditka did he can come up with something more colorful than that. Maybe they'll let me write stuff for the players and get them to say it on the shows. You know what I'd have Ditka say? 'Look at him. He's still breathing!' or something real colorful like that."
Sabol was elected co-captain of this year's team, which had a 3-5 record. He ran for 332 yards and punted at the usual plus 40 (37.8) clip and, though his coach's best wishes no longer appeared in the program, psychological warfare was big again at CC. There was, for instance, a plaque prepared for the visiting team's dressing room that read:
This field is named in honor of Morris Washburn, who perished when his lungs exploded from a lack of oxygen during a soccer match with Denver University, 1901.
Immediately outside was a sign giving the altitude of Colorado Springs: 7,989 feet (an exaggeration by 2,089 feet). Carle blanched and suggested that the plaque might be unethical.
"Too bad," said Sabol. "Would have been colorful."