Steve Sabol, who helped change the perception of the National Football League, and revolutionized the sports highlight package along the way, died today of brain cancer at the age of 69. Sabol’s father Ed founded NFL films in 1962, and hired his son—a film school student at the time—to be his cinematographer, shooting games around the league. Steve Sabol eventually became NFL Film’s president and chief creative force, crafting short documentaries that had a look and a tone more like popular art than mere sports reporting. In the ‘60s and ‘70s heyday of NFL Films, when the deep-voiced John Facenda was providing the narration and the Sabols were experimenting with how best to tell a story, the company defined fans’ memories of a game even more than the original broadcasts did. With the Super Bowl films in particular, Steve Sabol combined beautiful slow-motion photography, atmospheric editing, actual character arcs, and hardcore Xs-and-Os play-breakdowns in ways that ESPN and the like could stand to borrow more from even now. In short: The NFL Films’ documentaries were actual films, and incidentally served to make the increasingly popular National Football League seem more mythic. That Sabol’s contributions to sports and film have often gone under-recognized is in some ways a testament to his success, in that those NFL Films packages have become such a part of American popular culture that they almost seem like they sprung up whole.
For more on what Sabol’s NFL Films did so well, The A.V. Club invites you to revisit our 2006 Inventory, “The XII Greatest Super Bowl Highlight Films.” Also recommended: The NFL Network’s remembrance of Sabol’s life and art, available here.