This year’s “Hard Knocks” series with the Dallas Cowboys will mark the first time one of its teams is in the Hall of Fame game. It is fitting because the creator of the series was enshrined into the hall earlier this year.
“Hard Knocks,” which started 20 years ago, is one of Steve Sabol’s many legacies at NFL Films that continue to live on. Sabol, who was 69 when he died from brain cancer in 2012, is one of three contributors part of the hall’s 2020 Centennial Class, which honors 20 former players, coaches and contributors across all eras of the NFL’s first 100 years.
“I would like to think it’s no coincidence that this is the year that ‘Hard Knocks’ will be at the Hall of Fame. I think Steve is still watching over us,” said NFL Films’ Ken Rodgers, the senior coordinating producer of “Hard Knocks.”
Sabol joins his father Ed, who was enshrined in 2011, as the third father/son duo in Canton. They join Tim and Wellington Mara, owners of the New York Giants, and Art and Dan Rooney, owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sabol was recognized in April by the hall and will be included in the induction festivities on Aug. 7-8.
The Sabols never played or coached a down in the National Football League. But you can’t tell the history of the league without NFL Films’ role in making it the juggernaut it is today.
While it was Ed Sabol who persuaded Pete Rozelle in 1964 that the league needed its own film company to promote and document the game, it was Steve Sabol who was the creative force at NFL Films. He made the game and players appear larger than life through cinematography, slow motion replays, orchestral music and putting microphones on players and coaches.
Rodgers said when Ed Sabol was inducted, Steve saw that as the entire existence of NFL Films, including his career, being recognized. But for Rodgers and those who grew up watching NFL Films shows over the years, Steve Sabol’s induction makes things whole.
“It’s a two-headed monster. Someone creating a company would have just created a company that wouldn’t have done anything without Steve’s creative genius next to it,” he said. “If they didn’t happen together, the NFL wouldn’t be where it is today.
“The business decision to create NFL Films and lead the league into the television space pretty much created sports television. But then the creative style also invented what sports television is creatively today.”
Sabol went to Colorado College, where he was an All-Rocky Mountain Conference running back, and majored in art history. He began working at NFL Films in 1964 as a cinematographer and rose to president before he passed away.
During Sabol’s tenure, NFL Films won more than 100 Emmy Awards. That included 35 won by Sabol in writing, cinematography, editing, directing and producing, the most by anyone.
Sabol was also recognizable in front of the camera. He hosted some of “NFL Films” weekly series during the season, introduced Super Bowl highlight films as well as other company projects which aired frequently on ESPN before NFL Network started in 2003.
ESPN’s Chris Berman said having NFL Films programming served as a springboard to the network eventually airing games starting in 1987.
“NFL Films enabled us to be the destination for pro football fans certainly the first 15-20 years,” Berman said. “It worked hand in hand with our growth because we had the best in pro football, which was Steve Sabol at NFL Films, and I will always believe that.”
If there is one creation that shows Sabol’s philosophy toward film making and NFL Films, it is 1978’s “ Super Sunday with NFL Films,” which shows the entire process of how the Super Bowl 12 highlight film was produced, from camera placement to narrator John Facenda going over the script.
The most interesting part is Sabol discussing how he learned cubism from Picasso’s paintings and that he approaches cinematography from looking at things from different points of view.
“ Autumn Ritual, ” which was made in 1986, is a film that follows Sabol’s mandate that “maintain tradition by breaking tradition” because it shows how the NFL fits in with culture and other art forms. It might be the only time when the Reverend Jerry Falwell and rocker Ronnie James Dio appear in the same film and agree on something — their love of football.
“He never stopped loving football,” said Penny Ashman Sabol, Steve Sabol’s widow. “I think that apart from the influence he had on the way we watch football, I think the greatest thing about him is how much people loved him. He helped so many people start and build their careers that his legacy is all the people making great films and television shows.”
“Hard Knocks” ended up being one of Sabol’s proudest accomplishments because it showed how NFL Films adapted with the times. It could still tell a compelling story despite tight deadlines.
Sabol once described “Hard Knocks” as “building an airplane in flight. “We’re taking off, we’re not sure where it’s going to go and we hope we don’t crash. But that’s what makes it exciting.”
The series came along at the dawn of reality shows in 2001, but was more real life than “Survivor” because roster spots were at stake.
“You talk about reality shows – hell, this isn’t anyone getting voted off an island. This is careers at stake in the most highly competitive sports league in the world,” Sabol said in 2009 after the Cincinnati Bengals were selected as the featured team.
“What Hard Knocks proved more than any other program, maybe in our history, is that we are not one type of filmmaking company. We are filmmakers that can adapt to any style and format. On any network,” Rodgers said.
It will be an emotional trip when the “Hard Knocks” crew films at the hall and sees Sabol’s bust, but it will also be a celebration for those who continue to work at NFL Films and were impacted by him.
“Steve making it into the hall is for all of us who watched and worked at NFL films,” Rodgers said, “because Steve was the creative genius behind what we all fell in love with.”