Steve Sabol’s Colorful Life Story Includes Inventing Own ‘Sudden Death’ Nickname, Unique Hometown


The football world learned of the unfortunate death of NFL Films president Steve Sabol on Wednesday. Sabol was a film legend, but long before he solidified himself as such, he was also a college football standout at Colorado College.

Sabol was an All-Rocky Mountain Conference fullback during his playing days, but he was also a rather interesting character. Sports Illustrated's Tom C. Brody described Sabol back in 1965 as "college football's greatest living advertisement for himself."

You see, Sabol gave himself the nickname "Sudden Death," and once claimed to be better than Jim Brown. This all led to a persona that received tons of publicity, regardless of Sabol's on-field production. In fact, according to Brody, Sabol would literally promote himself with his own money.

"With his own good money Sudden Death has paid for newspaper advertisements, colored postcards, brochures, T shirts, lapel buttons and pencils — on which are written such legends as 'The Prince of Pigskin Pageantry now at the Pinnacle of his Power,' and 'one of the most mysterious, awesome living beings of all times,'" Brody wrote of Sabol in 1965. "He has sent out news releases reporting the incredible accomplishments of Sudden Death Sabol on the football field — with sidebars describing his colorful campus life — and it is testament to his ability that sports editors swallowed his releases gladly, never realizing that Sabol was spoofing."

Sabol was a rather small guy, only about 170 pounds when he first laced them up at Colorado College. Because of that, he was initially overlooked when it came to his on-field potential, and thus he decided to generate some more fanfare. Before coining his own "Sudden Death" nickname, he changed his hometown from Villanova to Coaltown Township, Pa.

"Everybody knows that western Pennsylvania is where the studs come from," Sabol told Brody. "I've never even seen a coal mine, but if the coaches thought I'd been rubbing shoulders with guys like Mike Ditka and Leon Hart they'd have to start thinking. You know, I carried it off all season and nobody caught on. Guys would come up and ask me why I hadn't got a big scholarship from Notre Dame or Ohio State or someplace, and I'd say, 'Aw, I was just third-string.'"

Still unnoticed, however, Sabol again changed his hometown, deciding to tell people that he was from Possum Trot, Miss.

"Now, who could ignore anyone from a place called Possum Trot?" he reportedly reasoned.

Sabol adopted the "Sudden Death" alias soon thereafter, and then put on 40 pounds, which captured the attention of coach Jerry Carle. It didn't stop Sabol from self-promoting, though, as he began writing the game program himself, did a column for the school newspaper called "Here's a Lot from Possum Trot," and continue to run advertisements.

Brody said at the time of his article that pro football might get Sabol when he graduates, and boy, was he right? Sabol was a film pioneer, earning 35 Emmys for writing, cinematography, editing, directing and producing while turning NFL Films into a major company.

Clearly, though, Sabol had his eye on such entertainment before his playing days were even over.

"Football is such a great game," Sabol told Brody in '65, "but football players are so dull. I remember this one pregame film showing Mike Ditka demolishing some guy. Now, this is a great player. He's brutal. So do you know what he says when the commentator asks him to say something about the play? He sort of paws the ground, drops his head and says, 'Ah, I was lucky.' Now, surely after a guy makes a great play like Ditka did he can come up with something more colorful than that. Maybe they'll let me write stuff for the players and get them to say it on the shows. You know what I'd have Ditka say? 'Look at him. He's still breathing!' or something real colorful like that."

For many reasons, Sabol could actually look back on his own life and say, "mission accomplished."

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Steve Sabol's Colorful Life Story Includes Inventing Own 'Sudden Death' Nickname, Unique Hometown

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And there he goes…

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