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:

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