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Ode to Steve Sabol: Honoring the heart and soul of NFL Films

  • By Andrea Kremer, Special to NFL.com
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I have had the sad misfortune of losing and eulogizing both my parents and now I find myself faced with doing the same for the man who was my first professional mentor and my dear friend, Steve Sabol. I have had the good fortune of working with arguably the two greatest storytelling producers of our generation, Steve and Dick Ebersol, but I can safely say that I would not be where I am today -- thriving in a 30-year career in sports -- without Steve Sabol, a man blessed with the ability to make you laugh and cry and believe that the game was truly ephemeral.

For all his prodigious talent, relentless work ethic, respected football acumen and incredible body of work, the best word I can think of to sum up Steve Sabol is beloved. So often the accolades paid to one upon death virtually canonize the person. With Steve, you have to be hard-pressed to find the proper way to express how he meant so much to so many. So please, allow me to pay homage to the man by indulging in a few Sabol stories:

» Steve hired me as the first female producer-director at NFL Films in 1984. Back then, most of "Editors' Row" was populated by men named Dave or Bob, so Steve, who was renowned for better recalling the down and distance of a play from the 1960s than the names of his producers, got it right much of the time by using one of those names. But then I came onto the scene. One day, I was walking down the hall and he was coming towards me and said, "Hello, Andee." Now mind you, my closest friends and family called me that growing up, but never an adult and certainly not a colleague. So I looked at him and replied, "Stephen, I realize it may be hard for you to realize that you hired a woman, but my name is Andrea." He let out that hearty laugh and from then on I was known as "Ahhhhhndrea" and our playful, wonderful relationship was born.

» Steve taught so many of us about storytelling and filmmaking. Back in the 1980s, our jobs required us to be like our own individual production companies. We did all the research, physically cut the film, sat at our moviolas, spliced and edited, wrote the copy, scored the music and supervised the audio mix. What an amazing way to learn. And Steve loved to teach and share his wisdom because he was the consummate filmmaker and a true artist, a passion he indulged even more late in life. We would joke that he could make a story out of someone using the lavatory. And he almost did! One game he was wearing a lavalliere microphone and went to use the "loo." As a joke, the sound engineer recorded the ... live effects. Always the filmmaker searching for the best sound, Steve even had to appreciate that one.

» Steve also was the consummate leader by example. As young producers, we'd often work seven days a week. One Saturday night, I was in the famous film vault, perched on a ladder, looking for a particular game canister and praying I wouldn't fall and be found buried under film cans Monday morning. I came out of the vault and remember looking down the darkened hall and one light was on -- in the office of Steve Sabol. There he was, hard at work, perched over his moviola, with index cards tacked on the walls around him. Steve was a copious clipper of quotes, ideas and memorable lines. He famously intoned to me once, "Ahhhhhndrea, if you must steal, steal from Tiffanys!"

» Steve was more baseball caps than baubles. (In fact, when Steve lost his hair during chemotherapy, Maryann Wenger from Films reached out around the league and each team sent Steve a unique hat, so he amassed quite a collection.) As for his sartorial splendor, his idea of dressing up was to throw a jacket over his rumpled shirt. If his father's calling card was red socks, Steve's was his ever-present sneakers -- even with tuxedo pants.

Andrea Kremer and Steve Sabol worked together at NFL Films from 1984 to 1989.
Andrea Kremer and Steve Sabol worked together at NFL Films from 1984 to 1989. (Courtesy of Andrea Kremer/)

» In 1986, Steve assigned me a project that had been germinating in his fertile imagination for years. It was called "Autumn Ritual," and I would be working with the finest filmmaker on the staff, Phil Tuckett. This film epitomized the essence of Steve Sabol's intellect and creativity. It was an avant-garde and imaginative look at football from vantage points outside the game -- politics, military, fashion, dance, anthropology, music, art, language. We interviewed coaches and players, but also characters such as G. Gordon Liddy, poet Allen Ginsberg, designer Bill Blass, Max Weinberg of E Street Band fame, pundit George Will, musician Philip Glass and anthropologist George Thomas Ainsworth Land, to name a few. To this day, my involvement in "Autumn Ritual" remains one of the proudest highlights of my career. It became a cult film and I've had people tell me they will watch it year after year at the onset of a season to remind them why they love the game of football. It was quintessential Steve Sabol. He was a creative visionary and he loved the game above all else and found ways to make you love it, too.

» Steve cultivated the ultimate team atmosphere at NFL Films. Even as it revolutionized sports television, created a new genre of filmmaking and production and promoted the sport he was devoted to, Steve was happiest running the company as it originated -- as a mom and pop organization. And in those days, we were the kids. We'd have our weekly screenings of "Inside the NFL" so that all the producers could review the phenomenal footage of the week. We had our yearly fantasy football draft way before it became popular. We even went and played paintball together. Several of us would gather at Steve's house during the playoffs to watch the games when we weren't working them. Eat and talk football. What was better than that? NFL Films was like graduate school for football and Professor Sabol was the Chairman of the department.

» In 1987, Steve decided he wanted something novel and different for his nationally syndicated show, "This is the NFL," so he offered the co-host position to a complete on-air novice and a woman, no less. Steve Sabol launched my television career. He later admitted he knew that by doing this he would lose me to another network, which he did two years later, but that the move was what was best for the show. And Steve always was about producing the best product.

Even after I left NFL Films for ESPN, Steve remained someone incredibly special to me personally and professionally. He grew close to my father and was there for me when he died. Steve supported me and has been an ever-present source of motivation to be my absolute best. I was proud and privileged to be his guest at the Hall of Fame last year when his father, the legendary Big Ed, was finally inducted. I believe the Hall should have emulated Steve Sabol's creative genius and in a first, inducted father and son together.

But Steve Sabol doesn't need a bust in Canton to be a Hall of Famer in my mind. And if you believe in such things, just envision Steve up in heaven, with John Facenda, the voice of God, by his side, telling stories to the angels. Please rest in peace, my beloved friend.

Go to iTunes.com/NFL and look for the song "A Hero Remembered." All NFL proceeds from the sale of the track will benefit the Jefferson Foundation for Brain Tumor Research in Steve's honor.

Andrea Kremer has been working in sports media since 1982 and is a two-time Emmy winner for her television work. She currently works on HBO's "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel" and is a special correspondent for NFL Network. Follow her on Twitter @Andrea_Kremer

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