Guest author, Dave Steidel, had an opportunity to participate in one of NFL Films’s wonderful AFL documentaries. In the wake of the passing of NFL Films president, Steve Sabol, Steidel recalls his afternoon talking football in front of the camera.
As the football world mourns the passing of NFL Films icon Steve Sabol I am reminded of his greatness not only as the man who gave us all more hours than we care to admit in front of the TV watching his films but also for his modesty and unassuming nature.
A few years ago I was fortunate enough to have a book about my love for the AFL (Remember the AFL) published. The following summer out of the blue I received an email from Paul Camarata, one of the producers at NFL films informing me of an upcoming documentary about the AFL. He told me that Steve Sabol had my book and they were using it to help their research for the Full Color Football documentary they were working on. He ask me if I was interested in coming down to their headquarters in Mr. Laurel, New Jersey to be interviewed for the show. I could hardly contain myself!
Since I live only an hour and change from Mt. Laurel, which is just a stone’s throw south of Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Bridge, I made the drive down one morning. Driving into the complex I was amazed at what to me looked like the Emerald city – two large buildings stretched out over an industrial park site. Clearly I wasn’t in Kansas anymore! THIS WAS “THE N-F-L FILMS!!”
I was met at the reception desk by a great guy named David Plaut, one of the lead production managers, who took me up stairs to his office that housed nearly every bobble-head and sports figurine ever made and volumes of books piled nearly as high as the ceiling. After a short bit of ‘get to know you’ small talk Plaut took me on a private tour of the NFL Films complex. And it was every bit as awe-inspiring as a visit to Oz. We walked through the sound rooms where John Facenda and Harry Kalas recorded their shows, past the auditorium sized orchestra room where the Philadelphia Philharmonic often came to record the fantastic music that sends chills down my spine every time I watch any episode of NFL Films, visualizing Mike Garrett or Dickie Post jitter-bugging their way down field. Down the hall were the many screening rooms, every one equipped with what seemed like a thousand buttons to splice together the footage that the technicians were watching from four or five different movie sized screens. Every wall in the building was lined with larger than life posters of former and current players. Plaut, I later found out, worked for the Chargers in the AFL’s early years and even authored the book Chasing October about the 1962 Dodgers/Giants pennant race. It sits on my book shelf at home. I only found out about his writing it a week after my visit when I was looking for something to read and discovered his name on the book cover.
We ended the tour in an oval waiting room filled with display cases that included a Dallas Texans helmet autographed by Hank Stram and a museum of old football games that dated back to the fifties, maybe earlier. Beyond the ante-room was where we would be filming the interview for the Showtime documentary. It was Steve Sabol’s office. I can count on my one hand how many CEO’s of a major corporation would let anyone into their office when they out-of-town and still have enough fingers left to throw a pretty good pass. But this was NFL Films and this was Steve Sabol.
As I entered the office I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed. I was walking on hallowed ground – this was THE STEVE SABOL OF NFL FILMS – a legend, an icon, I was living the dream. But what impressed even more was the unassuming nature of the surroundings. It has been said that you can learn much about a man by what is in his office and on its walls. What I learned that day about Steve Sabol was that he was most assuredly an unassuming, genuine and earnest man. There was no board room table you may find in the office of Donald Trump. No intimidating, over-the-top desk that would dominate a room. There was no large cushy couch that would absorb you when you sat down either. At one end of the room sat a small round meeting table surrounded by run-of-the-mill chairs.
Sabol’s desk was a small peninsula type work table that jutted out from a nondescript book self and held in place at the other end by a pedestal under the table. It had no drawers and no decorative memorabilia to distract from the work or discussions at hand, only piles of papers, files and books. This was more than an office, this was a work room! This was where Sabol’s genius came to play. Football books abounded on the selves that seemed endless, and I was thrilled to see my book on a shelf by the window. But there was very little that was personal about this hub or that would depict Sabol as the icon I and millions of other fans believed him to be. Even his chair was just a simple swivel that was something less than the one I had in my den at home. However much I adored Steve Sabol for his work, I now admired him even more for what I saw as his simplistic character and uncompromising work ethic. I also remembered that that’s the same story his product always told.
I sat on a tall directors chair in Sabol’s office as Plaut and his camera crew filmed and asked me questions for nearly three hours. As we broke after the first hour I asked if they could direct me to the nearest facility. Plaut offered that Steve’s personal powder room was at the rear of his office and that I could use that. So here I am, this guy who got lucky in writing a book about my love for the AFL in the NFL films headquarters being interview for a show that includes Bill Belichick, John Madden, Dan Rather, Rex Ryan, Larry Eisenhower and the like and now I’m standing here relieving myself in Steve Sabol’s personal commode. It was surreal to say the least and this humble AFL fan was feeling truly blessed and on top of the world!
To this day when I talk to others about my chance of a lifetime experience I always tell them how impressed I was with the fact that Steve Sabol, loved and idolized by millions, had such a plain office with little notoriety. My guess is that while he knew what he and his company was and had grown into – he was first and foremost his father’s son, and always – a passionate football fan! I loved the man for what he did and for what he stood for and only wish I could have met him to shake his hand and say ‘Thank-you’ that day in Mt. Laurel. Unfortunately he was away on a vacation. But knowing that he actually knew who I was and the thrill of being in his office that one day is a memory that will always be cherished.
RIP Steve, you were the best and you gave us all a treasure chest of memories that will live forever!