For the longest time, when someone would suggest to Sabol that he deserved to be in Canton, he would quickly shoot down the idea. He'd say the Hall of Fame ought to be a players-only club. Maybe he really believed that, or maybe it was just a defense mechanism he used to deal with the fact that he wasn't in.
Either way, he doesn't believe it anymore, and the people who worked for him at NFL Films never believed it, and neither did I. Saturday's honor was long, long overdue.
During his brief but poignant acceptance speech Saturday at Fawcett Stadium, Sabol thanked all of the people who have worked at NFL Films over the years.
"This honor really goes to NFL Films," he said. "I just happen to be accepting all the accolades and all of the other things that go with it. I've been very, very happy and very proud to have been your boss for all these years. You're a great bunch of people, dedicated and loyal and hard-working, and you're the reason I'm sitting up here."
At the after-party for Big Ed in the NFL Films Theater inside the Hall of Fame, each table had as its centerpiece one of the 105 Emmys that NFL Films has won over the years.
"When you looked at the things we did, you said, 'Boy, those people really cared about what they were doing,' " said Phil Tuckett, who was hired by Sabol in 1970 after getting cut by the San Diego Chargers as a wide receiver. He spent 36 years with the company as a cameraman, producer and writer and flew in from his home in Utah for Sabol's induction. "There could be some mistakes, some sloppiness, other things. But you always felt the passion coming through.
"That's the greatest testament in the world to Ed and [his son] Steve and a group of people who were on their game and in the zone. I just felt for years and years we were in the zone. We didn't make many mistakes. We failed sometimes. But we didn't allow for failure and we didn't program ourselves for failure. We were shooting for the passion coming through every single time. Ed set the tone."
Ed Sabol had a saying that he drummed into all of the people who worked for him at NFL Films: Finish like a pro.
That mandate served Tuckett and NFL Films well in November 1978 when he was shooting a Giants-Eagles game at Giants Stadium. With less than 30 seconds left in the game, the Giants had the ball and a five-point lead.
All quarterback Joe Pisarcik had to do was take a knee to clinch the victory. CBS, which was broadcasting the game, already was rolling the credits. Many of the other cameramen and photographers there that day were putting away their equipment and calling it a day. But not Tuckett. He moved down behind the Eagles' end zone and kept shooting.
As everyone knows, Pisarcik didn't take a knee. He handed the ball off to fullback Larry Csonka. Or tried to. The handoff was botched, the ball fell loose and Eagles cornerback Herm Edwards picked it up in stride and raced 26 yards right toward Tuckett for an improbable game-winning touchdown that would become forever known as the Miracle in the Meadowlands.
Tuckett still remembers the short, sweet note Sabol left on his desk the next day. It said, "Great [bleeping] shot - Big Ed."
Tuckett, who won 16 of those 105 Emmys, left NFL Films in 2007. Big Ed flew in from his home in Arizona to say goodbye to him on his last day. On Saturday, Tuckett was in Canton to return the favor.
"After I got cut by the Chargers in 1970, Big Ed said, 'Come with me and you'll have a job for life that you'll love,' " Tuckett said. "How often does that happen in your life when someone makes you a promise, especially one as audacious as that, that actually comes true?
"No matter what I do the rest of my life, I'll always be the guy that Big Ed promised success and long-lasting enjoyment. He promised me that, then kept his promise."