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Starkey: NFL Films followed brilliant script

| Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Ed Sabol (right) poses with a bust of himself and his presenter Steve Sabol during induction ceremonies at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in Canton, Ohio. NFL Films president Steve Sabol died from brain cancer. He was 69. The NFL said Sabol died Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, 18 months after he was diagnosed with a tumor on the left side of his brain. (AP)

Cue voice of God, aka John Facenda): Cliff Harris celebrated the kicker's misfortunes with glee, but No. 58, Jack Lambert, quickly came to the rescue.

If that NFL Films classic — the documentary of Super Bowl X — came on right now, tell me you wouldn't watch to the end, even if you'd seen it 37 times before.

I'd watch it, too. That and dozens of others, from bloopers to “The Magic Bean” to just about anything produced in the 1960s and '70s by NFL Films, which lost its creative light Tuesday when Steve Sabol died of brain cancer at age 69.

Sabol wrote the brilliant scripts, and in that way, his legacy compares to Myron Cope's: Both will be remembered for so many things, including their gregarious personalities, but their true talent was writing.

(Cue voice of God, as camera pans to Johnny Unitas running onto the field) … With his famous passing arm no more than a tattered memory, he could offer only a fighting heart and a will to win.

I've spent a tragic portion of my existence watching those shows. NFL Films was the first enterprise to take sports fans where we all wanted to go: down where the players and coaches roam.

As I wrote this at a South Hills coffee shop, I asked a random 50-something man if he remembered watching NFL Films.

“I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in Greensburg, where football was huge,” said Vince Rause of Mt. Lebanon. “You watched NFL Films, and it became more than sports. It was like mythology, like a hero story. It's not a game you try to win; it's part of a saga.”

Sabol wrote elegantly, sparsely, humorously ...

Far, far away, in a kingdom on the coast, there was a little prince who made a mighty boast. I'll throw that bean he said, and straight I'll make it go. There's no doubt about it, said the boy named Broadway Joe.

Most importantly, Sabol knew he wasn't the show.

“He reminded me of a great songwriter,” said Greg Cosell, executive producer at NFL Films. “He was able to say something profound in as few words as possible. He understood that in a visual medium, you want visuals to truly tell the story. The words still mean a lot, but they shouldn't overwhelm the visuals.”

Could somebody please hand that quote to everybody working in sports television these days?

Sabol's father, Ed, founded NFL Films. Facenda, a Philadelphia newsman, became the voice many of us periodically will summon until the day we die. So it's easy to forget the quality of the lyrics ...

If Miami's offense was dead, its defense, like Edgar Allan Poe's tell-tale heart, was still beating, keeping the Dolphins' hopes for victory alive.

Cosell, a respected NFL analyst and nephew of iconic broadcaster Howard Cosell, was at his NFL Films office Wednesday dealing with heartbreak but forging ahead. The way Steve Sabol always did. Steve was his mentor. They worked together for 30 years.

“It's a tough time around here,” Cosell said. “But knowing Steve, he'd think it was great this happened during football season because people could focus on football instead of worrying about him.”

My lone interaction with Steve Sabol occurred in 2005, upon the death of ex-Kansas City Chiefs coach Hank Stram. I wondered if Sabol would take my call. Turned out I couldn't get him off the phone. He told of how he and his father had visited Stram at the Chiefs' hotel in New Orleans, the day before Super Bowl IV, to ask if he'd wear a mic during the game.

“If The Mentor is going to wear a microphone for NFL Films,” Stram told them, referring to himself, “some coin of realm is going to have to change hands. The Mentor wants some dead presidents.”

Ed Sabol offered $250, to which the always-dapper Stram responded, “Two hundred and fifty dollars won't even pay for The Mentor's dry cleaning.”

The sides agreed on $750. Stram delivered an Academy Award-worthy performance.

I told Cosell of my conversation with Steve Sabol and how Sabol recounted with boyish enthusiasm a story he must have told 500 times prior.

“And you know what?” Cosell said. “He probably enjoyed that conversation more than you did.”


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