Even after brain cancer stole both his mobility and his instantly recognizable nasal voice, Steve Sabol would occasionally roll his wheelchair through NFL Films' corridors, adding art or a newly discovered artifact to the walls, checking in on a Hard Knocks soundtrack, leaving inspirational messages for producers he'd helped prepare for a day they understood was coming too soon.
"When he was dying, I came in and he'd left this note on my desk," said Keith Cossrow, a senior coordinating producer for the iconic company Sabol and his father built. "It said, `There's no future in any job. The future lies in the man who holds the job.'"
For the 300 employees of NFL Films, the future arrived on Sept. 18, 2012. Sabol, whose father, Ed, was then 96 and ailing in Arizona, died that day at 69. After 50 years, there was no founding-family member guiding the company that bore the clear and distinctively creative imprint of the Sabols, and in particular Steve.
Yet despite the dire predictions that followed the death of the creative dynamo behind NFL Films' revolutionary success, the quality and quantity of work has continued to expand.
In 2013, NFL Films received a record 24 Sports-Emmy nominations. There were 18 more in 2016, another 21 in 2017. The workload keeps growing, with documentaries and football-related content for, among others, ESPN, NBC, Fox, HBO, Showtime, Amazon and the NFL Network.
"People wrote our obituary when Steve got sick and again when he died," said Cossrow. "There was a feeling from some people that we were slowly being eaten alive by all the changes in technology, that we were dinosaurs. … But the people at the NFL from the commissioner on down made the same judgment: There's no reason to change anything."
There are several reasons NFL Films has successfully transitioned from the Sabol era — a half-century's foundation of excellence on the creative side, stable leadership from NFL broadcasting chief Howard Katz on the business side, young producers dedicated to the company's traditions but unafraid to experiment, and, maybe most significantly, the tangible legacy of Steve Sabol.
NFL Films was built on the Sabols' passion for football and their devotion to story-telling. And in the South Jersey offices and studios where he spent so much of his life and into which he poured so much of himself, Steve Sabol's story goes on.
"A lot of people around here were raised on his hip," said Vince Caputo, who heads the audio department. "They gleaned a lot of what he liked and didn't like. That knowledge isn't going to go away. Steve is still present in so many ways."
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An 8-foot-tall bronze statue of a young Sabol, camera jauntily perched on a shoulder, has stood since 2014 at the Mount Laurel headquarters' entrance. Though associates believe he'd have been embarrassed by the garish homage, the monument acts as a symbol of Sabol's ongoing influence.
"We miss his presence, of course," said Kelly Viseltear, vice president for budgets and production management. "But he's never really left. You can feel it. The producers Steve taught carry his vision every day. And they put it into the mind-sets of each new producer that comes through. We don't skip a beat."
That tutelage, according to Ken Rodgers, senior coordinating producer, made the post-Sabol transition as smooth as an NFL Films edit.
"Steve allowed us to train under him," Rodgers said. "Not just when he was sick for those 18 months, but the years leading up to that, He became an artist-in-residence here rather than the president of NFL Films. A lot of the business aspects he transitioned to other people. He started to do the things he enjoyed rather than the things he had to do. Howard Katz was running the business side. On our side, he entrusted several producers with the creative vision."
Sabol's corner office has been left virtually undisturbed. His detailed files on players past and present are sourced constantly. The 35 Emmys he won — a third of NFL Films' 105 — fill the display cases. Every hallway is a football museum he curated, its walls teeming with artwork, photos, front pages, historical artifacts, even the collages he created in his home studio.
"One weekend I was sitting in a conference room watching a game and Steve comes walking through. He's wearing a bathing suit and he's carrying two paintings that he's going to hang on a wall," recalled Cossrow. "He looks in and says, `OK, when I'm dead, make sure this is part of the documentary about me.'"
The decor reflected Sabol's love of football and art so thoroughly that after he died some said being in the building was like being in someone's home when they were away.
"This is Steve's house," said Caputo.
In 2002, when NFL Films moved into its new, $45 million, 200,000-square-foot facility in a suburban corporate park near Route 38, Sabol's hallways served as directional guides.
"People would say, `Go down to the Lombardi photo and turn left,'" said Viseltear. "Then one day you'd come in and he'd have changed the entire wall. His design eye was amazing. All the new things were beautiful and perfectly placed. But nobody knew how to get around the hallways."
Several of Sabol's notes and memos can still be seen in the offices of the stable of senior producers and executives he personally groomed — Cossrow, Rodgers, Ross Ketover, Chris Barlow, Pat Kelleher.
If "What would Steve do?" had been NFL Films' motto before his departure, it's become a mantra in the years since.
"Steve was arguably the most creative mind in sports television, so you always wanted to know what he thought," said Ketover, senior executive who now heads the company. "His instincts for an edit, for the tone of the piece or a piece of music were better than anyone I ever met. When Steve was here and when he wasn't, we had that motto: What would Steve do? We still think about that whenever we're putting a show together."
Not long before he passed, Sabol gathered the creative and business leadership together. By then he'd developed aphasia — an impairment of one's speaking ability. Still, he managed to convey his feelings.
"When he died, it caused us to sputter personally. But company-wise and professionally, things went smoothly," Rodgers said. "At that meeting he told us how much he trusted us and how confident he was that we'd keep doing things the way we had for five decades with respect to creativity and pushing envelopes."
Ed Sabol died in 2015. His wife of 74 years, Audrey, and daughter, Blair, are still alive. Steve's only child, Casey, operates a music business in California. Still, many at NFL Films continue to believe it's a family-run business.
"We've always been close here, so when Steve died, it felt like his sons and daughters had inherited the family business," said Cossrow, "and that now was the time to make the family proud."
The essence of NFL Films' success is implied in its name, the twin passions of football and film, that led to the company's founding in 1962, but the continuity of its staff and vision can't be overlooked, employees said.
"We're like the Steelers," Cossrow said. "We don't go for the splashy, high-priced free-agent very often. We build from within. Most of us have been here 20, 30, 40 years. We have a system we're comfortable with."
The 18 months between Sabol's diagnosis and death were as busy as they were difficult. The NFL Network was demanding more content. Hard Knocks, HBO's candid look at one team's training camp, was beginning to take off. A deep-dive series for NBC Sports called Turning Point was starting up. The number of documentaries in the acclaimed A Football Life series was expanding.
"We were just too busy to think, `Our boss is sick. Our boss is dying,'" said Cossrow. "One of the last times I ever met with Steve, I brought him a lineup for that season's A Football Life. He said, "Jesus Christ, how are you guys going to do all this?' Steve had a certain ways of articulating things even in his reduced state."
Much of the grieving took place during production of the 2013 episode of A Football Life that was a heartfelt elegy for Sabol. Its final act in particular, an examination of the relationship between father and son tied to Ed Sabol's Pro Football Hall of Fame induction, was an emotional experience for all.
In that summer of 2011, Steve Sabol could hardly speak. Recording a tribute to his father proved both painstaking and liberating.
"It always made me happy was that Steve got to see Ed go into Hall," said Rodgers. "That was a capstone for both of them. But Steve had begun to lose his ability to put sentences together when we were working on the induction speech. He gave it on video and when he got out what he wanted to say, you could see it was an emotional catharsis for him. He needed to do that one more thing. Now he could allow nature to take its course."
Next year will mark the NFL's 100th season, an event NFL Films has been gearing up for, an event the Sabols would have loved.
"Steve has been a big part of all our conversations about the 100th," said Maryann Wimberly, who heads the Player and Talent Department. "We think of him whenever we talk about the stories we can tell, the way we'll tell them."
And so the business that grew out of a father's interest in filming his son's Haverford School football games moves on through its second half-century facing challenges that were unimaginable in 1962.
"The sports media world is so different now," Rodgers said. "It's up to us to try to find new ways to tell stories. A lot of people think we're only about slow-motion shots of spiraling footballs. But the fact is we invented reality documentary-style sports TV with Hard Knocks. And we're trying to be at the forefront in places like Amazon and Facebook."
On a recent afternoon, Steve Sabol's statue shimmered and sparkled in a relentless afternoon sun, a vision that might have inspired one of those poetic overlays he wrote for his groundbreaking films:
The August sun was a demon,
Setting the bronze ablaze.
The hero's face fixed a distant place
As it shone through the searing haze.