I never met Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, but I was saddened to read of his death, of brain cancer on Wednesday, September 19. I had known his name since college, and in a way, I felt I’d known him.
In a strange recess of my mind, Sabol always represented the road not taken.
I came out of Northwestern University in 1969 with a degree in radio, television, and film. As many girls did, I married within a few months of graduation and spent the next years following my husband around the country as he fulfilled his military obligation and working in small broadcast stations wherever we went. This turned out fine—I loved my husband, he survived the Army, and we are still married. But years later I began to wonder what might have happened if I’d done something else, gone off on my own.
I had some knowledge of film and a deeper knowledge of my beloved Green Bay Packers. What if I had applied for a job at NFL Films? At an interview, I would probably have met Sabol, who worked for the company founded by his father, Ed. I think NFL Films was a pretty small company back then, but I still might have been hired–most likely as a clerk or researcher rather than a cinematographer–since the times mandated more opportunities for women. What, then, would Sabol have been to me? Boss? Mentor? Friend?
I actually did a paper on Sabol when I was at Northwestern, for a class called Mass Media and Society. We studied The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, by Daniel Boorstin (1962, and still in print in a fiftieth anniversary edition). Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to describe a happening that is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned or incited it. It overshadows spontaneous events because it is more dramatic and widely disseminated to media.
My paper postulated that Sabol was a human pseudo-event. I’d read an article in the November 22, 1965, Sports Illustrated, in which Tom Brody described Sabol as “college football’s greatest living advertisement for himself.” As a football player at Colorado College, Steve created his own publicity campaign. He invented a nickname that fit his initials—“Sudden Death” Sabol. He changed his official hometown from Villanova, Pennsylvania, to the more rugged- sounding Coaltown Township and later to Possum Trot, Mississippi. He paid for ads in the game programs. One read, “Coach Jerry Carle congratulates Sudden Death Sabol on a fantastic season” –although Sabol had languished on the bench that year. Eventually, Steve became an All-Conference player, and he let the world know—sending out his own press releases with padded statistics.
I received an A and developed a life-long desire to meet that entertaining man. I still have that paper, laboriously typed on Eaton’s Corrasable Bond. I would have brought it to my interview at NFL Films. Who knows, it might have gotten me in.
As poet Robert Frost wrote in his classic The Road Not Taken,
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
If I’d gotten that job, where would I be now?