Tuesday, August 16, 2011

No Holds Barred - Ed Sabol inducted into Football HOF

Me and movie star Dad getting ready for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's induction.
by Blair Sabol

I was heavily warned about Canton Ohio. From the lousy water to the rotten humidity to the horrendous food (mostly Jimmy Dean sausage and no fresh vegetables). I came prepared and brought my own rations of seaweed power bars, bottled water, hair straightening spray and waterproof makeup. I packed like I was going camping in India. I was going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame to see my 95-year-old father Ed Sabol (founder of NFL Films) get inducted into the class of 2011. My brother Steve (president of NFL Films) was to be his presenter (click here for background story).

Ed and Steve Sabol at the Gold Jacket Ceremony assisted by Patrick Halbe.
It was going to be an emotional family affair to say the least. But to be honest I have never been a football fan. I never attended any games and stopped going to Super Bowls long ago. I only loved watching NFL Films' versions of the sport. They made it into hollywood epics that I and many others could appreciate. So being at Canton I was clueless as to who and what the other inductees were about. (except of course, Deion Sanders). I wasn't even sure what the entire Hall of Fame experience was suppose to be about either. I soon learned.

I arrived with my wheelchair-bound father at the Akron airport looking like Beverly Hillbillies. Lots of necessary gear for my Dad ... maybe too much gear. But the "limo" that HOF sent to greet us was a smallish "complimentary SUV" and we ended up having to make many trips to-ing and fro-ing to the hotel.

Immediately my judgment meter was activated. I figured the "Jaws" mantra for the entire weekend would be "I think we need a bigger boat" ... if not a bigger town. At the hotel I managed to get past the screw up room bookings and the actual rooms; vintage 1958 with stained bedspreads and spotted carpeting, no mini bar and spare amenities. "Welcome fruit baskets" were nonexistent (remember, no fruit in Canton). Immediately I flew into "Diva mode." Not a good tactic. I soon realized that the HOF has little to do with the NFL and that they operate on a lean and mean budget. Everyone (limo drivers, organizers, escorts, crowd controllers) are all Canton volunteers. Ironically as the weekend went on, these Cantonese volunteers became THE stars in their ability to handle the many player/participant ego eruptions that ensued.
Ed  greeting his real fans.
Working the fan line.
Whenever I got in or out of the hotel elevators it became a powerful "meet and greet" with all the old guard athletes. It was an extraordinary feeling of intimacy to see Troy Aikman looking confused, Deacon Jones holding forth on prostate cancer, "Mean Joe Green" looking to shake any hand, and Jack Youngblood looking to light his cigar. Talk about instant accessibility and no security.

The room service was awful but you had "dinner and a show" at any time and in any hallway with these iconic personalities. Meanwhile, my Dad (by the way the OLDEST HOF inductee) insisted on being wheeled to the barricaded fan line which surrounded the hotel entrance. He loved it and signed as many helmets, cards and memorabilia as he could. These fans were not the typical Hollywood TMZ collection of stalkers, losers and perverts.
Sanders and Sabol (in his notorious red socks).
Hall of Fame old-timers taking a break.
They were mostly wholesome fathers and sons who drove from far and wide to do this annual pilgrimage and shake the hands of their heroes. Actually the HOF is a big father and son event and though many of them will go off and sell their hauls on EBAY, it was still moving to see. My Dad and many of the older players were the only ones to "work the line." The fans told me that most of the younger and newer pro legends ignored them completely or wanted money up front!!!! For me, watching these fans getting acknowledged by few and dissed by many was the most heart stirring and heart breaking sight of all.

During the day my earnest and accommodating escort Gayle tried to get me to go to the HOF fashion show luncheon. I simply couldn't fathom the likes of THAT!!!! Instead I made her find me a Starbucks (23 minutes outside of town) and then did the First Ladies Library Museum. It was a great old building (President McKinley's original residence) filled with second rate relics; a few pieces of White House china and some of Betty Ford's old coats. I bailed quickly.
In front of the First Ladies Library. In front of Dr. Bob's home.
I decided to visit "Dr. Bob's" (founder of AA) house/museum/shrine in Akron. Clearly this was hallow grounds (like the Pro Football Hall of Fame). I came too early for a tour but peeked through the windows and saw the famous "coffee pot" and typewriter and upstairs room and balcony where he housed many addicts. I did this trek in honor of all my wonderful AA friends who insisted I go (though I am not in the" program") since many never could. It was compelling.

The actual house is in a humble little neighborhood with cobblestone streets. There was no "Dr. Bob" boutique or gift shop.
So we left and I requested we go immediately to the HOF museum gift shop so I could shamelessly consume every item with my Dad's name on it. It was a terrific museum store loaded with everything from T shirts to jewelry to shot glasses engraved with all the names and insignias.

Before the" yellow jacket" dinner (every inductee gets a giant ring, a yellow jacket and a bronze bust ... remember this is a high end fraternity of "brothers") we gathered in the lobby and I started to understand "the occasion." This is a ritualistic HOMETOWN celebration. It had none of the glitzy slick-ery of the Super Bowls.
My favorite part of the Hall of Fame.
Super Bowls are overhyped expensive and corporate spectacles. They are soul-less. The HOF is all about heart and the real football fans and the town of Canton. Canton craves intimacy with their star players and for the most part they get it. Professional hospitality and "service" doesn't exist but HUMILITY does. For instance a cheerleader ended up doing my hair, and my Dad was cared for by one of the parade float driver's wives. To be an HOF Parade float driver is a high honor and one that is looked forward to with relish annually.

For Canton it is all "hands on" from an era of Americana long gone. Originally I thought it would end up feeling like a Coen Brothers film but it never did. Yes, the Canton hotels are incompetent and overwhelmed but the Cantonese end up killing you with kindness and genuine pride. So who can knock that? The HOF parade on Saturday is the largest non holiday parade in the country.

My brother Steve and I stood in for my Dad by sitting on the back of a Volkswagen convertible in 95 degree heat and dog's breath humidity for two and a half hours. We rode in between a person in a frankfurter suit and another one dressed as a frog while a giant spinning beaver was in front of us.
Me and Steve in the parade car.
The pig in a car in front of us.
The frog behind us.
More heat stroke parade characters. My Dad's fans.
The heart and soul of Canton at parade.
Genteel reserved seat crowd at the parade.
Cross-section of the Canton parade spectators.
Oscar the Grouch coming around the corner at the parade.
True Canton-ese fans along the parade route.
The hit of the parade: the twirling beaver.
The giant beaver got a standing ovation For what I don't know but even I ended up applauding it. Even though my brother and I both felt nauseous in twenty minutes, the overjoyed and screaming crowd got us through. We were originally held up for an hour when some participant fell off a float (heat stroke) and a car stalled out on a sidewalk. At times it felt like the ill-fated Kennedy Dallas Motorcade when people shouted to us from grassy knolls and others from high atop "depository" buildings.

Most of the viewers had camped out all night for this sighting. Steve had an NFL Films camera crew shoot the crowds and they went crazy. At the conclusion after climbing out of the back of the car I had to go on a ton of Advil a day to get over the body spasms. Who knew you had to be in shape to sit on the back of a car and wave????
The end of the Parade.
As for the actual induction ceremony (saturday night) ... I managed to walk down the green (not red) carpet with NBC sports commentator Andrea Kremer. She's actually one of my favorite "old timers" and one of the first women to report sports on TV. At least Andrea graciously acknowledged and waved to all her cat callers.

Back stage I met up with the infamous Redskin coach George Allen's writer/daughter Jennifer Allen Richard (author of the wonderful Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach's Daughter) who touchingly shared "father/daughter" stories with me.
Ed Sabol actually STANDS for his induction.
Luckily my Dad was first up and he insisted on a brief 3-minute acceptance speech. Ed Sabol understands the audience's post card attention span. When he was finished my family decided to wait politely to exit till after the second honoree Richard Dent spoke. We got trapped with his 26-30 minute "thank you." And unfortunately so did every inductee take that terminal amount of time.

I mean NO disrespect, but the HOF presentation needs to take some pointers from The Oscars. There should be a red lighted 3-minute limit for ALL acceptance speeches. Even ESPN announcer Chris Berman looked like he had sweated and exploded through ten shirts by the end of the show's broadcast.
Steve Sabol about to go on and Deion texting his baby mamas??? NBC Sports commentator Andrea Kremer and NFL Films head cameraman Donny Marx.
Frank Gifford, Steve Sabol, and Herb Siegel. Steve Sabol and Sterling Sharpe.
Herb and Jeanne Siegel.
Me and Deion Sanders. Me with Bill Siegel and  Fox News commentator Monica Crowley.
Ed Sabol, Steve Sabol, and Sterling Sharpe.
The program was deadly and too long. As for my reaction to Mr. "Primetime" Deion Sanders: I honor his popularity and charisma (his triple tented post ceremony party consisted of Snoop Dog and Ice-T ... we just had the immediate family and a small group of pals in a room near the HOF Museum gift shop). But frankly going around the event with his 12 deep entourage of videographers was a bit much.

It's clear he has gone from player to performer and enough already. His dancing theatrics got old quickly in person. By now everyone understands that the HOF is about fan contact and "SIGNAGE." Sanders refused to sign much of anything for anybody because "that is being done by another part of his organization." And everybody gets PAID for that.

One of many baby mamas in the lobby.
Shannon Sharpe and brother Sterling embrace.
Most of the inductees had their brothers, sons or coaches present their awards. Sanders had his AGENT do all the intros!!!! That said it all. As for the rest of the honorees ... thanking your third grade teachers," baby mamas," current wives and other women who gave you your "pain meds in the middle of the night" to a national viewing audience and a stadium of hundreds is frankly embarrassing.

Speaking of "baby mamas" and wives ... I must say the nightly lobby scene of the player's female companions was jaw dropping. Forget the Kardashians, I have never seen so much sparkling bling, giant boobs 'n booty, and stiletto heels all in one place.

As for the players themselves I have never seen so many crippled bear claws for hands (donning so many giant Super Bowl rings), hobbled hips, crumpled knees and bent over backs. It was touching to witness after hours all these "fallen gladiators" hanging onto each other for dear life and mingling with the Canton worshippers.

By the way there was no question that the "money shot" of the weekend was Shannon Sharpe accepting the jacket from his brother Sterling. They dissolved into each other's humongous arms in tears. And so did the crowd.

The final morning I read how Snooki and the South Jersey Shore gang had grabbed the greatest amount of TV viewing audience. That along with the world economy collapsing and some Ohio native going on a deadly shooting rampage didn't disturb my cushy Canton cocoon of authentic family values.

Before I left I decided to visit my Dad's "head" in the HOF Hall of Busts. I was afraid the room would look like a setting from The Planet of The Apes masks. But "The Hall " was impressive. Dad's bust kinda looked like David Susskind. I patted his head and bowed mine in his honor. (Thank God Deion did NOT keep his infamous dew wrap on his bust). Later I insisted on having my picture taken in front of O.J. Simpson's bust. A whole gaggle of observing fans booed me for it. I was taken with their reaction.

By the time I left I was slowly broken down by the whole heart and soul of the entire weekend. As "they "say I came to Canton with major ATTITUDE and I left with a lot of down-on-my-knees GRATITUDE.
Me at the Hall of Fame. Dad makes it!!!
Pro Football Hall of fame "bust room."
Me and my Dad Ed's HOF bust.
Me and Dad's banner tribute. Me and OJ Simpson's HOF bust.
By the way, on my way to the airport I managed to squeeze one more trip to the HOF Museum gift shop (remember I am NOT a football fan but a shopping addict) and went to my Dad's "section" and it said "SOLD OUT" (obviously I did my share). I was THRILLED since no other inductee was ... not even Neon Deion!!!

Ed Sabol not only finally "made it" as "King of Football Films"but now he is "King of football Merch." Long may he reign!!!!!!
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