Steve Sabol, an art history major and football star in college who combined those two passions to help transform the family business, NFL Films, into a modern mythmaking marvel, died Tuesday at 69.
Sabol had been battling brain cancer since 2011. An inoperable tumor had been discovered just days after his father, Ed, the NFL Films founder, was elected to Pro Football's Hall of Fame.
A lifelong Philadelphia-area resident who never lost his accent or his boyish idealism, Sabol forever changed the way Americans view their sports.
The theatrical instincts that grew out of his love of movies altered what had been a mundane business of filming sports highlights into an acclaimed art form, one that 50 years after NFL Films' birth is universally imitated.
"We all realized pretty quickly that Steve was the force behind what we were doing here," Hank McElwee, NFL Films' director of cinematography, said earlier this year.
"Big Ed had the idea and he sold the owners on it, but when it came to the actual vision of this company, without a doubt it was Steve. Steve saw things in a unique way that every network is copying right now."
Combining classical scores, poetic scripts, and the "Voice of God" narrations that John Facenda embodied with a variety of serious filmmaking techniques, NFL Films won critical praise, widespread popularity and scores of Emmy Awards.
Sabol, a kind of Renaissance man who brought those sensibilities to the brutish sport, was honored himself with 35 Emmys in a variety of disciplines - writing, editing, directing, cinematography and producing.
One of the poems Sabol wrote, "The Autumn Wind," accompanied a short 1974 film on the era's villainous Oakland Raiders that would become one of NFL Films signature pieces.
"The Autumn Wind is a Raider," Facenda says in a dramatic voice-over as slow-motion hits depict the team's ferocity, "pillaging just for fun. He'll knock you round and upside down and laugh when he's conquered and won."
"Steve Sabol was the creative genius behind the remarkable work of NFL Films," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "Steve's passion for football was matched by his incredible talent and energy. Steve's legacy will be part of the NFL forever."
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said Sabol was one of the most "influential and innovative" people in the NFL.
"Football benefited so much from his unique vision and incredible ability to bring fans closer to the action," Lurie said. "He was also a joy to be around, an endless source of energy and ideas."
Sabol was associated with football as long as he could remember. As a youngster growing up, he tried out for and made the Little Quakers, a traveling all-star team. In fact, those games with the Little Quakers inadvertently inspired NFL Films.
"My father had been given a 16-millimeter camera by his mother-in-law," Sabol recalled in a 2009 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. "He took that thing everywhere. So when I started to play football he would come to the games and film them."
That practice continued when Sabol played for the Haverford School. In 1962 he was at Colorado College of Mines, where he was an all-conference fullback, when his father, who not long before had been an overcoat salesman, purchased the rights to that year's NFL championship game for $3,000.
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