I never met Steve Sabol, but I wish I could have worked for him. His father, Ed, founded NFL Films, but Steve defined what it became: the finest cinematic reflection of a sport in absolute totality, consciously designed to amplify an intellectual viewing experience through emotional means. If that sounds unnecessarily complicated and verbose — fine. It’s still the truth. With the possible exception of Pete Rozelle, no other men influenced the way casual audiences think about football as deeply as Ed and Steve Sabol. And while it was the father who built the foundation, it was the son who erected the superstructure.
What is one to make of a Jewish person who is fascinated by Adolf Hitler? How do we comprehend a man who goes out of his way to study the most hated thing he can imagine? In 99.9 percent of all possible scenarios, such paradoxical absorption would be dark and meaningful. It would be twisted and bizarre, and it would be perceived as the ultimate manifestation of self-loathing. Unless, of course, the Jewish person in question was Al Davis. Then it makes perfect sense. Of course Al Davis was interested in the Nazis. Of course he was. Somehow, it would have been more surprising if he hadn’t been.
They hanged Bubba Smith in effigy at Notre Dame. This was before he tore apart cans of low-calorie beer with his bare hands, before he showed up on Vega$ and Taxi and Hart to Hart and Eight is Enough, before he played a Bunyan-esque police officer in a film series that evolved from a low-IQ spoof into the pinnacle of '80s Hollywood vapidity. This was in 1966, before we learned to love Moses Hightower, and Bubba Smith was a 6-foot-8 defensive lineman who wore size 52 suits, tossed around blockers like feather pillows, and played for the blackest major college program in America. It was the week before the most famous tie game in history — Michigan State 10, Notre Dame 10 — and at a South Bend pep rally, Bubba’s likeness was hung next to a sign reading, “LYNCH ‘EM.”