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Remembering Steve Sabol

One of the jobs I had in “a past life” was doing some technology work and training for NFL Films. I recently saw an article on the passing of Steve Sabol, and needed to take a moment and pause, reflect, and celebrate the life of a man I knew briefly in my career, but who left a lasting impact on me. I doubt he would’ve remembered me, but I definitely remembered him.

If you are a fan of the “mutant rugby” that Americans call Football, you need to thank Steve. The impact he had on promoting this game was unprecedented. He and his organization brought the drama, the conflict of Football, to television in a way that hadn’t been seen before. Some of the best camera operators worked at NFL Films, and week-after-week, they’d shoot plays at crazy frame rates – over 120fps – just to bring those creamy slow-motion shots you’re used to seeing. I still crave owning a high-frame-rate camera because of what I grew up watching from Steve.

Steve introduced the concept of metadata to me. Back in the 90’s, NFL Films was sitting on a HUGE library of film, dating back to something like 1947. He called for the creation of a computerized system to catalog, tag, and digitize this library, and his team created a custom system called SABRE. Using SABRE, an editor could search for all the clips of Green Bay Packers linebackers with cold breath at an away game, and SABRE would deliver a list of clips, with low-res proxie files ready to view. All the asset-management systems of today? Steve’s team had them beat back in 1999. I remember asking one of the production staff about my brother-in-law, who played for the Raiders, and within 5 minutes, he handed me a tape with all his highlights cut together.

Steve was also thinking about the future of broadcasting – the division I worked with was NFL Films Online – a team of people hired to create the next generation of NFL Films. A lot of those early attempts involved extending shows that were broadcast on ESPN or the big 4 networks. We would take a show brand, like Edge NFL Matchup on ESPN, and create original online content. Many of the traditional shows were limited to 24 minutes of on-air time, and couldn’t cover all the games, so our job was to bring the hosts in, let them talk about the games the same way they did on-air, and produce extended content that fans could watch on the web site. And, we had to do it at 1/25 the cost of the on-air version. I have memories of training the production staff how to use a virtual set system we set up in an old film storage room.  One of their virtual set designers was a 16 year old kid who impressed Steve enough to get a job.

One of the last projects I remember working on was a virtual set demo for an NFL Owner’s meeting in Baltimore. I had to tech-direct the demo, showing live internet streaming (with Steve holding a clock as “proof”!) from another part of the building. Steve was presenting his vision for “building the Brand online” and it worked – he convinced the owners to fund the project.

Steve was a class act, and what you saw in all those on-camera intros was what you got off-camera. He was a genuine, personable guy with a vision of what he wanted.


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