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McGrath: NFL Films’ Steve Sabol exalted pro football, ignored its realities

The late Steve Sabol creative force behind NFL Films played huge role elevating pro football incolossus it has become. |

The late Steve Sabol, the creative force behind NFL Films, played a huge role in elevating pro football into the colossus it has become. | Getty Images

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Updated: October 24, 2012 6:30AM

One of the tools that’s useful
in assessing the Hall of Fame worthiness of a baseball great is this question: Can a history of the game be written without mentioning him?

I have no say in who enters the pro football shrine in Canton, Ohio, but a football version of the Hall question crossed my mind with the recent news of Steve Sabol’s death from brain cancer at 69. As the creative force and visionary thinker behind NFL Films, Sabol probably had as much to do with elevating pro football into the sports/entertainment colossus it has become as any of the founding fathers or legendary players.

Think about it. Before there was ‘‘Monday Night Football,’’ ‘‘Sunday Night Football,’’ ‘‘Thursday Night Football,’’ fantasy football or endless footage of the NFL on the ESPN shows, NFL Films and its various highlight packages were all a fan had to satisfy his or her cravings between Sundays. If America’s appetite for football is insatiable — and it appears to be — Steve Sabol and NFL Films are at least partly responsible.

Message and medium were a perfect fit. To Sabol, pro football was wondrous spectacle, pure theater, and he had the tools to tell its stories within that context: majestically long, spiraling passes soaring through the air, jitterbugging runs unfolding in super-slow motion over a thumping background of rousing military music and the stentorian baritone of John Facenda delivering a dramatic narration from an impossibly overwrought script.

‘‘The frozen tundra of Lambeau Field’’ has been part of NFL lore since before Chris Berman was born.

Football fans ate it up, the whole package. NFL Films became the most effective marketing tool in the history of sports, while its lone client became the No. 1 sports enterprise in the nation, if not the world.

It didn’t matter that the star of a highlights package Monday might have been arrested Tuesday for excessive celebration or that an entire Al Davis documentary could be produced with no mention of his costly, debilitating legal battles with various commissioners and his brother owners. Those were real-world stories. NFL Films was in the business of mythmaking, and it was really good at it.

I didn’t really know Sabol, but it was fun being around him when he’d come to San Francisco with the 49ers riding high in the 1980s. The stories he told in conversation were as elaborate as those he produced for his company. He had his favorites among the players, the coaches and the games, but the tales he most enjoyed sharing involved the savvy a photographer had demonstrated in getting into position for a particularly gripping shot or the enterprise required to hustle film back to world headquarters in Mount Laurel, N.J., in those pre-satellite, pre-digital days.

Sabol had the gleam of a true believer in his eyes. He clearly loved what he did, and his enthusiasm was contagious. Bill Walsh, the Steve Sabol of the 49ers as a visionary thinker, could be a dour, single-minded guy in the midst of a playoff run, but even he found it hard not to smile in Sabol’s exuberant presence.

The problem with myths, however well-meaning, is that reality tends to overtake them. Would Tiger Woods have fallen so far if he hadn’t worked so hard to craft the image of a committed family man? Football, despite its exalted place in the culture, has a similarly vulnerable underbelly.

Brutally jarring hits and high-speed collisions have been an undeniable part of the allure of the game and a popular staple of NFL Films since its humble beginnings. We long have suspected — and now know — this crowd-pleasing violence can take a life-altering toll on dispensers and recipients alike. The NFL’s head-in-the-sand obstinacy in refusing to face this reality is about to be exposed.

‘‘Head Games,’’ coming soon to a theater near you and to a screening at Joe’s Bar on Weed Street on Monday, takes a documentary look at the work researchers at the Boston University Brain Research Center have been doing to demonstrate the links between concussions, irreversible brain damage and even death.

Commissioner Roger Goodell’s clumsy handling of the dispute with NFL officials looks like artful diplomacy compared to his blank-faced dismissal of the suggestion that football is hazardous to its players’ health.

The producer of ‘‘Head Games’’ is Steve James, a gifted filmmaker best-known for the classic ‘‘Hoop Dreams.’’ James is the Sabol of documentarians, with one notable difference: He’s more interested in truth than in myth.

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