The Struggle Was Epic

Steve Sabol is in my thoughts:


NFL Films president Steve Sabol will undergo radiation and chemotherapy treatment after doctors discovered a tumor on the left side of his brain. NFL Films released a statement Friday about the 68-year-old Sabol, who was hospitalized March 5 in Kansas City, Mo., after suffering a seizure.

Having written some about moving away from football, it's only right that I remember how the game's history drew me in. My sense is that baseball, college basketball and boxing all have more illustrious histories then football. But NFL Films, under the Sabol and his Dad, were able to take that history and turn it into an Olympian narrative. 


In Baltimore, they showed NFL FIlms for an hour before the pre-game show. This was before everyone had cable, and so if you loved football, you generally watched NFL Films. The result was that by the time I was, say, 12 I knew the names and careers of players that I'd never seen--Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, Fred Biletnikoff, Dick "Night Train" Lane, Joe Kapp and Pat Fisher. So when I watched the actual games, I was actually watching the latest chapter in a seemingly ancient saga. 

Like I said, surely other sports had as much--if not more--narrative material. But NFL Films really excelled at leveraging that material. I can't say how much they helped the NFL's rise to dominance. I can only say that Sabol captured me. This goes beyond football. The real message, for me, was that any narrative, rightly infused, can be rendered epic. 

I wish the best for Sabol and his family. He changed my life.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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