Sunday, March 27, 2011

Steve Sabol and my APSE Award

The news struck with the impact of a hit Dick Butkus or Ray Nitschke would have put on some unfortunate ballcarrier back in the day in a film clip that likely would have been produced by Steve Sabol (above), the president of NFL Films.

Sabol, 68, was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, discovered after he suffered a seizure earlier this month. He is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy treatment.

Upon hearing about this, I was immediately taken back to my days as a young sportswriter with the assignment of spending a day at NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, N.J., minutes outside Philadelphia.

The point man and central figure during my visit was Sabol, who gave me a personal guided tour of the facility (there were no PR people, assistants or interns involved), regaled me with a bottomless pit of stories and patiently answered every one of my questions.

He took me around to meet many of the high-ranking producers and filmmakers, who contributed their own stories, mostly about how NFL Films rose from a small family business -- started by Steve's father, Ed, a recent inductee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Steve will surely follow -- to the league-licensed giant it became, whose material is the backbone of the NFL Network and its never-ending supply of highlight footage.

Sabol proudly took me into "The Wine Cellar," a huge warehouse that was the home of rows upon rows of shelves upon shelves of reel-to-reel tapes of every play of every NFL game going back to the 1950s, and some games as far back as the 1930s.

It was shortly after the death of the legendary John Facenda, the original voice of NFL Films. Back in Sabol's office, he reached into a huge box of cassette tapes sent to him from everywhere from people hoping to be the next Facenda. Sabol mentioned one tape sent from a priest, who said, "John Facenda is said to be 'The voice of God.' Well, I AM the voice of God, and I'd be the perfect voice for your films." "He wasn't bad," Sabol laughed.

The hours flew by, and gave a twenty-something sportswriter an unforgettable treat. To this day, it's one of the best memories of my journalism career.

Inspired by Sabol's infectious personality, enthusiasm and energy, and having grown up glued to the TV anytime one of NFL Films' shows aired, I wrote an in-depth feature in the Morristown (N.J.) Daily Record, titled "The Men Who Film The Game." It was well-received -- so much so it was honored for an Associated Press Sports Editors Award in the category of best feature story for a medium-sized newspaper.

I sent Sabol a note, thanking him for the experience and time spent with me, and sharing the exciting news of the award. A couple of weeks later, I received a post card -- on the front, a melange of NFL images and Emmy Awards, and on the back, in red flair markings, "CONGRATULATIONS! -- Steve"

In an e-mail sent to the NFL Films staff this week, published in part in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sabol sounded as resilient as he could possibly be, despite the seriousness of his condition.

"The doctors told me to make progress," he wrote. "I just have to 'move the chains' and keep making first downs. Thank you all for your support and encouragement. It means a great deal to me. I am calm and collected but very determined.

"Don't give away my parking space!"

The NFL Films staff would do well to listen.

Best wishes, Steve.


From the Inquirer:

Well wishes can be e-mailed to Sabol at:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My interview with Lawrence Taylor

The year was 1981. I was studying communications at William Paterson University, and we were producing a news show that was broadcast on local access. We were all huge sports fans, and wrote to the Giants, asking if we could come to practice one day at Giants Stadium to interview some players for our show (I had already starting working as a part-time sportswriter at my first newspaper, the Morristown (N.J.) Daily Record, and had the correct contact info). To our mild surprise, they said yes.

I remember walking into what seemed like a cavernous locker room. I'm sure three college students with a huge honking video camera sort of stood out. We wandered around the center of the room for a few moments, not even realizing we weren't supposed to be there until someone came over and let us know that.

Not just anyone, but Giants head coach Ray Perkins, who walked purposely up to us and in his Alabama drawl said, "Can I help you?" He directed us to the "waiting area," which had a leather sofa and a couple of chairs, where we waited for our interview subjects. We asked for quarterback Scott Brunner (Phil Simms was battling one of his many injuries), kicker Joe Danelo and rookie linebacker and top draft pick Lawrence Taylor.

I don't really remember the questions and answers, and I'm sure the tape no longer exists, but what I do remember was how shy and unassuming Taylor was during our interview. He was very quiet and soft-spoken, and had not yet assumed his "LT" alter ego.

As Giants fans, we were all thrilled by the experience, and as Taylor developed into perhaps the most feared defensive player in the history of the game, we got a kick out of saying "we knew him when."

Trouble away from football would find Taylor plenty of times throughout his career. I know that most of us had tended to wink and forgive him for many of those past transgressions. Even an NFL Films piece on Taylor, produced after his retirement in 1993, referred to his "off-the-field problems," and included a quote from him on life as a retired NFL legend:

"As time goes by," he said, behind a shot of a happy-looking Taylor with his wife and three children, "it's made it easier to transition away from LT and back to Lawrence Taylor. I don't want it to get to a point where I start to get a big head about myself."

We still revered him. Several of my friends and I piled into a car and drove from New Jersey to Canton, Ohio for his induction into the Hall of Fame. We enjoyed watching him on "The Sopranos," playing himself and hearing Tony call him "Lawrence of the Meadowlands," and his appearance at Giants Stadium on Phil Simms night, wearing No. 56 and catching a long pass from Simms to a standing ovation. His stature as one of the greatest Giants ever swept most of the unsavory stuff under the rug, and we were more than happy to hold the brooms, and sincerely hoped he could get his personal life figured out -- maybe as much for our sake as his.

This week, Taylor received six years probation for a sex crime with a minor, and is now a registered sex offender. He said a prostitute visiting him in a hotel room told him she was 19, when she was in fact 16. Instead of being contrite and apologetic, he was combative and clueless during an interview with Fox News. Two quotes stand out:

"It's the world of prostitution. You never know what you're going to get. Is is going to be a pretty girl or an ugly girl or whatever it's going to be."

And ...

"I don't card 'em. I don't ask for a birth certificate."

Apparently, the transition from LT to Lawrence Taylor hasn't gone so well. Or perhaps they're one and the same. Hard to believe this is the same guy who once spoke so quietly I could barely hear him.

I can't speak for all Giants fans, but to me, this is the tipping point. Sex offender. Bad guy. I don't know if I can ever think of him any other way again.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Seeding is believing

If this is the year of final-second brainlock, head-scratching officiating and Gus Johnson earplugs in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, it's also the year of the double-digit seed, as no less than four teams seeded 10th or higher have danced their way into the Sweet 16.

Marquette (above, 10th), Florida State (10th) VCU (11th) and Richmond (12th) are all still alive, marking the second-most double-digit seeds to have gone this far since the 64-team format was introduced in 1985.

This is about the time you should be asking, "When was the most?" Funny you should ask, as this is also about the time for us to tell you the record is five double-digit teams in the Sweet 16, accomplished during March Madness in 1999.

Gonzaga (10th), Miami, Ohio (10th), Purdue (10th), Southwest Missouri State (12th) and Oklahoma (13th) were among the final 16 teams that year. Unfortunately for the underdogs, only Gonzaga made it to the Elite Eight, and subsequently lost to Richard Hamilton and eventual NCAA champion UConn -- a little something for this year's upstarts to chew on this weekend.

We do know that at least one double-digit seed is guaranteed a spot in the Elite Eight, as Florida State and VCU will face each other in the Southwest Region semifinals. The other two survivors will have the cards stacked against them: Marquette has No. 2-seed North Carolina, while Richmond squares off with No. 1-seed Kansas.

There have been 12 times since 1985 that at least three double-digit teams made it to the Sweet 16. Here's a closer look:

1985 / 3 / Kentucky (12), Auburn (11), Boston College (11)
1986 / 3 / LSU (11), Cleveland State (14), DePaul (12)
1988 / 3 / Washington (11), Valparaiso (13), West Virginia (10)
1991 / 3 / Connecticut (11), Temple (10), Eastern Michigan (12)
1997 / 3 / Providence (10), Tennessee-Chattanooga (14), Texas (10)
1998 / 3 / Washington (11), West Virginia (10), Valparaiso (13)
1999 / 5 / Southwest Missouri State (12), Purdue (10), Oklahoma (13), Miami, Ohio (10), Gonzaga (10)
2001 / 3 / Gonzaga (12), Temple (11), Georgetown (10)
2002 / 3 / Kent State (10), Missouri (12), Southern Illinois (11)
2008 / 3 / Villanova (12), Davidson (10), Western Kentucky (12)
2010 / 3 / St. Mary's (10), Washington (11), Cornell (12)
2011 / 4 / Marquette (11), Florida State (10), VCU (11), Richmond (12).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Maybe not so dumb, after all

After watching sports all my life, it's amazing enough to see something you've never seen before. But to see something you've never seen before twice within moments of each other, especially with one incident more inexplicable than the one before, well, that's something else again. A perfect storm.

It's even more amazing, inspiring, even, when the perpetrator of said most inexplicable act might even be able to turn it into a life lesson.

You may not know the name Nasir Robinson (above, left), and hopefully for his sake, the junior from the University of Pittsburgh won't find himself rubbing elbows in perpetuity with the likes of Bill Buckner, Chris Webber, Steve Bartman and Fred Merkle when it comes to being in the wrong place at the wrong time in sport annals. But this morning, Robinson's definitely in the same room.

With 1.4 seconds left in Pitt's NCAA tournament game against giant-killer Butler Saturday night, Robinson was standing as a defender while Pitt teammate Gilbert Brown hit the first of two free throws to tie the game 70-70. Seconds earlier, Brown had been the victim of a mind-boggling foul by Butler's Shelvin Mack, who bumped Brown at midcourt with Butler holding a one-point lead.

Now, it looked like Butler would pay the price for such a mindless act with Pitt at the line with a chance to somehow steal the game. And after Brown sunk the first free throw, at least this would be decided in overtime.

That is, until Brown missed the second shot, which put Robinson in the spotlight. The rebound came down to Butler's Matt Howard (above, right), who only had to hoist a full-court prayer, and make it, and do it all in 0.8 seconds for the game NOT to go into OT.

Which is what should have happened, until Robinson's left arm, for some reason, came down on Howard's right arm. Foul. Butler's Howard to the line, and one free throw later, it was over, as the Bulldogs escaped with a 71-7o win.

That all brings us back to my earlier point, which is why Robinson might be able to sneak out the back door before Bartman offers to buy a round for the house.

"I take the blame, man. I take the blame for the loss," Robinson told the Associated Press afterward. "I've been playing basketball my whole life and I know I shouldn't have done that. It was a stupid play. It wasn't the ref's fault. It was my fault."

The fact Robinson was able to face the criticism and spotlight he never wanted speaks volumes for his maturity and accountability. It's hard to fathom now, but one day he may be able to look back and say the experience helped him.

He's only a junior, so he'll get another chance next season on the basketball court, and then for the rest of his life off it.

I'm rooting for him. And you should too.