Posted by: trevormeers | September 25, 2012

The Pirate of Autumn

We can give Steve Sabol the credit for making generations of men feel tougher thanks to the simple act of breathing.

Not just any breathing, of course. But slow, purposeful exhalations on days when a man’s breath rolls from his nostrils like the venting of some furnace smoldering within a leviathan intent on breathing fire down on everything in its path.

If that sounds a little overwrought, then you must not be a fan of Steve Sabol and the brand of sports documentaries he produced over several decades of running NFL Films with his father, Ed. The junior Sabol passed away a couple of weeks ago at the age of 69, and knowledgeable football fans across the nation began mourning one of the greatest makers of legend that America has known.

What John Ford did for John Wayne, Sabol did for football. He was the man behind all those classic NFL movies in which everything takes place in ultra slow motion, the narration is always in John Facenda’s godlike tones and, of course, it’s generally 10 below so that the players’ very breath becomes a character as it billows over the line of scrimmage. That was the look everyone one of us could replicate as kids, even those of us who went to tiny schools where the only football helmets were props in the drama closet. We didn’t need a stadium, a team or even a football to create our own Ice Bowl effect. We could go out at night and stand on that thin edge where shadow meets yard light. Finding just the right spot, we’d silhouette ourselves and slowly breathe out, painting the perfect image of a hero who scoffs at the elements.

Some have called Sabol the most influential man in the history of the NFL, thanks to his films’ ability to lionize the league during its ascendency in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. His dramatic scripts became so iconic, in fact, that phrases like “the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field” have entered the pop culture. Only thing is, no one ever uttered that tundra line in a Sabol film. But just like phrases that people think must come from the Bible, even if they don’t, the frozen tundra has gone down as something Sabol must have written for Facenda to say. Because, really, who else could have?

NFL Films painted a world irresistible to fans craving the kind of adventure that daily life rarely provides. The films delivered a decisive verdict in every installment, free of the gray ambiguity that haunts so many workaday lives.

In Sabol’s universe, there was never a simple football play. Instead, as the quarterback walked ever so slowly toward the line of scrimmage, Facenda announced that “an entire season’s work rests on a single play.” Every spiral pass took long minutes to complete its flight, soaring over the field as 22 men skirmished below, the camera ignoring their clashings until it followed the ball into a receiver’s hands. The music was unapologetically cinematic. Even today, when the production of most TV football games could leave you thinking you stumbled into a dance party, NFL Films laid down a soundtrack that would fit a submarine movie as easily as a sporting event. Even the groundskeepers had jobs laden with drama, what with the grass clippings flying from their mowers in super slo-mo and the painter spraying the lines of battle onto the grass. I’ve never wanted to chalk a line so badly as when watching NFL Films.

Sabol wrote something of his own eulogy when he said of John Facenda, “John may have made a game seem more important than it was because he read lines with a dramatic directness.”

True, but it was Sabol’s words that Facenda voiced, and Sabol’s images that Facenda narrated. One of Sabol’s greatest classics was the following poem he penned as a tribute to the autumn wind that scours gridirons from the Pee Wee fields in the suburbs to Lambeau itself. It’s a fitting tribute, a perfect example of Sabol’s knack for making us feel like even a September walk around the neighborhood is an epic battle with a willfull force of nature promising to raid every village it happens upon. And for that, all of us average guys can say thanks to Steve Sabol with all the passion of a linebacker filling the sky with the hot breath of competition.

(If there just haven’t been enough goosebumps in your day so far, you can hear John Facenda himself reading the poem here.)

  • The Autumn Wind is a pirate
    Blustering in from sea
    With a rollicking song he sweeps along
    swaggering boisterously
    His face is weather beaten
    He wears a hooded sash
    With his silver hat about his head
    And a bristly black moustache
    He growls as he storms the country
    A villain big and bold
    And the trees all shake and quiver and quake
    As he robs them of their gold
    The Autumn wind is a Raider
    Pillaging just for fun
    He’ll knock you ’round and upside down
    And laugh when he’s conquered and won.
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