He was “The Tot from Possum Trot.” “The Prince of Pigskin Pageantry.” “Sudden Death Sabol.”
He was college football’s greatest living advertisement for himself.
He was Stephen Douglas Sabol.
When Sabol died in 2012 at the age of 69 from complications associated with brain cancer, a part of Americana died as well. His dedication to preserving the sport of football through images — unmatched by any other artist — will live on in history like da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Michelangelo’s “David.”
He was, for many of us, the creative magic behind NFL Films. Sabol and his father, Ed, gave the world Football Follies, Top Tens and Fabulous Finishes. They were great storytellers and mythmakers. I will remember both Sabols — especially Steve — fondly when the NFL regular season kicks off this Thursday.
Steve Sabol was already a legend in his own spectacularly clever mind when he arrived on the campus of Colorado College in the summer of 1960. He became so famous, in fact, that Sports Illustrated wrote a feature story on him for its Nov. 22, 1965 issue.
I had the opportunity to interview Sabol for The Gazette in 2002. He returned my interview request by calling me one morning from his NFL Films offices in Mt. Laurel, N.J. We talked for an hour or so. He was as zany on the phone as he was in all the host of all those NFL Films features.
Sabol’s ties to the Pikes Peak region are cemented in history. He was bright-eyed and full of wondrous ideas as a CC student. By the time he left college he had elevated himself to one of the most storied and iconic football players in the history of any sport. Sabol’s final year at Colorado College was 1965.
A running back, Sabol had fond memories of his days at the school. He was inducted into its hall of fame in 2001. Former Tigers coach Jerry Carle (who died in 2014 at the age of 90) was his presenter.
“The experience at Colorado College was terrific,” Sabol told me. “What a great place. We had tremendous diversity on the football team. We had a lot of junior college transfers, which was odd for those days. The guy in the locker next to me was married and had six children. It was a very motley crew. There are so many great stories about the players who were there.”
As a player, Sabol was good, but certainly not as great as the legend he created for himself. A hard runner — an All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference 210-pound fullback for the Tigers following his junior year when he gained 350 yards — he was his own press agency and seemed to enjoy perpetuating the myth that he was slightly better than legendary Jim Brown. He also punted for the Tigers, averaging 39.5 yards per kick, and was named team co-captain his senior year.
With his own money, Sabol paid for newspaper advertisements, postcards, brochures, T-shirts, lapel buttons and pencils; on which were written: “The Prince of Pigskin Pageantry now at the Pinnacle of his Power.”
One of Sabol’s press releases, sent to newspapers in Colorado Springs and Denver, read: “The Possum Trot Chamber of Commerce extends its wishes for a successful season to its favorite son — Sudden Death Sabol.”
“Now, who could ignore anyone from a place called Possum Trot?” Sabol told me.
Following his senior season with the Tigers, he made up a picture of himself signing with the Cleveland Browns for $375,000.
Sabol, who also referred to himself as the “Caucasian Cassius Clay,” liked getting in the minds of opposing teams. He posted a sign near the visitor’s locker room at Washburn Field meant to frighten low-altitude opponents. It read “Washburn Field, altitude 7,989 feet.” A plaque in the locker room explained that Morris Washburn, whom Washburn Field is named for, “...had his lungs explode due to a lack of oxygen during a soccer match with Denver University in 1901.”
Sabol remained full of energy and was not easily swayed during his career at NFL Films. He was well-spoken, but simple to understand. He was detail-oriented, yet his recollection of the past was embellished with years. He got excited over a great tackle or one-handed catch. He understood that football games are not won or lost because of one play.
When he wasn’t studying art or promoting himself, Sabol spent a lot of his time at Colorado College learning football plays from Carle. “He was so creative and so inventive,” Sabol said of Carle. “He gave me a tremendous technical background for football. A lot of the stuff that we do on NFL Films first appeared on the field at Colorado College.”
Sabol occasionally returned to Colorado Springs. In 1997, he was Frank Flood’s presenter (Flood was Carle’s longtime assistant) when the coach was inducted into the Colorado College Hall of Fame. Flood and Carle were guests of Sabol’s at Super Bowls.
Sabol was one of a handful of people who attended every Super Bowl.
Sadly, Colorado College killed its football program in 2008. Washburn Field, once home to one of the most storied football players in history, is now a gathering place for the school’s lacrosse, soccer and rugby teams.
“It’s like having a family member die,” Sabol said. “It’s hurtful. It’s shameful. It’s outrageous. You’re talking about a program that goes back 140 years. Just to have it torched like this, there should be a special circle in hell reserved for the people who made this decision.”
The opposite of hell, according to Sabol, must have been a football stadium. In one of his last statements, released by NFL Films shortly before he died, Sabol was quoted as saying.
“So they talk about heaven, and I don’t know what is waiting for me up there. But I can tell you this: Nothing will happen up there that can duplicate my life down here. That life cannot be better than the one I’ve lived down here, the football life. It’s been perfect.”
The Tot from Possum Trot. Sudden Death Sable. A Colorado College legend and a football icon. Steve Sabol will forever live on film and in football lore.
Danny Summers has been covering sports at all levels in the Pikes Peak region since 2001. Send your story ideas and feedback to email@example.com.