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Monday, September 24, 2012

My 45 minutes with Steve Sabol

In February 2005, the Super Bowl was coming to Jacksonville.

Yes, that Jacksonville, as in Jacksonville, Fla., as in the biggest city per square mile in Florida Jacksonville.

And after covering the Jaguars for the second year I was working at the Palatka Daily News, I was excited to cover the big game. One problem -- my boss decided he wanted to cover the big game. Talk about being shot down in your hopes of doing great things.

So I wanted to contribute in some way to any Super Bowl coverage we would do. The problem was that my boss only put credentials in for himself and our photographer who was going up there to shoot the game. In other words, there was no backup plan or a backup pass for that matter in case something happened to him.

Greeeeeeeeat. But I was undaunted nonetheless. He could have the game, but I wanted to do one feature, something that would be interesting for our readers and might provide for great stories to put into our paper. And then I knew what I wanted to write about.

I knew that NFL Films was going to make the annual pilgrimage to the league's biggest game and I wanted to talk to the man who was at the forefront of NFL Films, the company's face. And though it was Ed Sabol who started NFL Films, it was his son Steve who took the company to the next level, pushing the brand on anyone and everyone within earshot. Though those in the know knew Ed Sabol and his contributions, most people knew his son as the embodiment of NFL Films. So I contacted NFL Films on the Monday of Super Bowl week, when things really began to warm up in northeastern Florida.

I got his secretary, who told me she would get a message to him. Well Tuesday came. No word yet. I called the offices in Mount Holly, N.J. again. And I got the same secretary. I told her I was wanting to talk to Steve Sabol about NFL Films and how things work during the week of the Super Bowl and actual game day. She apparently called in to Mr. Sabol's office to see if he was busy. He was and he couldn't get back to me, but he apparently told her to see about Wednesday.

I told her I was available, but I had a feeling she would tell me he would talk to me very early, which I really wasn't looking forward to.

"Can we make it late in the morning, like about 11 o'clock?" I asked. She checked with Sabol. All seemed fine. I left it at that.

Now you have to understand my routine and schedule. There are very few "9-to-5" jobs in the business, especially in the sports department where most of the local sports is taking place either in the late afternoon or in the early evening. So I have one of those schedules that has me going in at about 6 in the evening and leaving around 1:30 in the morning. Not exactly a "home-happy" schedule, but I was living with a girlfriend who worked at a sheriff's office from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. This was nirvana in that regard.

Well that early day, I didn't get to sleep until about 5:30 in the morning. Since my girlfriend was working a second job that had her jumping from her first job to the second in Jacksonville, I had really no way of being woken up other than maybe leave the television on, which I did.

Don't ask me how, but I woke up at about 10:05 a.m. on Wednesday, February 2, 2005. I was lacking from sleep and knew that I wasn't going to be at my best on 4 1/2 hours of sleep. Somehow, I dragged myself into a shower, got dressed and headed to the office. It was 10:50 a.m. Turned on the computer and looked on the Internet, waiting for the phone to ring.

I was anxious. C'mon phone ... ring already!! It was 11 a.m. Then it became 11:05, then 11:10. And suddenly my eyes got heavy from waiting. While there was a small amount of people in the newsroom at that hour, I literally dozed off waiting for a phone call. I was asleep literally in front of my computer for about five minutes. It was 11:15 and before I can get my bearings, there was the phone no more than a foot away from my desk and almost two feet from my ear. The red message light was blinking.

Oh f**kin' faaaaan-tastic! And I dreaded hitting the button and numerical code to hear the message, knowing it was Steve Sabol asking where the hell I was. But I did ... and it was Steve Sabol calling, leaving a very polite message and asking me if I could call him back as soon as possible. It was Wednesday after all and I knew that it was either that night or Thursday that he was getting on a plane and heading from Philadelphia to Jacksonville.

It took me about 45 seconds to a minute to get my bearings. Then I made the phone call back to NFL Films. The same secretary I talked to for two days answered and she knew to send me into Mr. Sabol's office.

"This is Steve Sabol," came an answer on the other end of the phone.

"Mark Blumenthal from the Palatka Daily News in Florida. Nice to finally catch up with you. How are you doing this morning?

"I'm doing fine. Making final arrangements here before heading down your way for the Super Bowl."

I asked how much time we had to talk. He was willing to give me a half hour. I wasn't sure 30 minutes was going to sufficiently be enough to hear him talk about NFL Films. What I did was put the onus on his telling of how NFL Films came about, how it evolved and what he does for Super Bowl week with the crew of cameramen and editors.

So I asked him about the very beginning and how it all came about. Steve Sabol was a fabulous football player in high school in the late 1950s and he eventually went on to Colorado College in Colorado Springs. His father pretty much taped everything he did on and off the football field, and from there, Ed Sabol had a passion to film football as a real profession. The New York Giants and Green Bay Packers were playing at Yankee Stadium in the 1962 NFL Championship and Ed Sabol was one of a handful of people who put in a bid for the game.

"There wasn't much interest in taping the 1962 NFL Championship," Steve started. "There were only four bidders. They were all separate film companies and the price for the previous year's NFL Championship (between the same two teams) was $1,500. Then my dad, who really wanted to do the taping, doubled the bid and we got it for $3,000. My mom said he was not very smart, but he didn't care and he wanted to do it."

The problem, though, according to Sabol, was his dad's lack of any big-time film work. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle took a look at Ed Sabol's resume and knew he may have had a little problem.

"Pete Rozelle was excited that someone would open the bid that high," Steve said. "Then he read my dad's resume -- under 'experience' was 'filming my 14-year-old son.' Rozelle was concerned. My dad was selling overcoats, but he could sell his passion. He wanted to make football films desperately. So over a four-martini lunch, he convinced Pete to get him to film the game and the beginning of a long relationship between Pete and my dad began."

And it was that $3,000 investment to do the '62 title game that was the start of what would be a major film industry. Meanwhile, Steve Sabol was still in Colorado, finishing up his sophomore year at Colorado College with the team's final game against Idaho State.

"My father told me, 'You've been out there and all you've done in that time is go to movies and play football,'" Sabol said. "So I quit school and came home (to New Jersey) to help him. It took two to three years to develop a style for our films. The first film we did was with John Facenda (the legendary Philadelphia-based broadcaster with the passionately deep voice) and it was shot in slow motion. It took a while to do what people recognize as 'theatrical.'"

Sabol is one of very few people who was able to attend the first 46 Super Bowls. And he has long-lasting memories of those games, including the first one at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs, a game most people didn't even think was going to be close and figured to be a Packers blowout that January afternoon in 1967.

"The game was pretty hyped up," he said. "It was a carnival ... a freak show. The stadium wasn't filled because everyone thought it was going to be a 70-0 win for the Packers. There wasn't a sense of real competition, but (Packers coach) Vince Lombari was really nervous. He didn't want to play the game initially. Frank Gifford tells the story that he interviewed Lombardi before the game and that his clothing was so wet and he was shaking like a leaf. He felt if he lost, the whole Packer legacy would be ruined."

And though most people point to Super Bowl III when the New York Jets of the American Football League stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Colts at the Orange Bowl in 1969, Sabol was quick to say Super Bowl IV between the Minnesota Vikings and Chiefs in 1970 was a bigger game for a bigger reason.

"When the Jets beat the Colts the year before, everyone thought it was a fluke," Sabol said. "But in Super Bowl IV, parity was born out. The Vikings were a 14-point favorite over the Chiefs. There was no equality between the two leagues, but that game was a butt-whippin' (a 23-7 Chiefs win). (Coach) Hank Stram's Chiefs were one of the greatest teams of the modern era, but for some reason they are forgotten. They had a Hall of Fame quarterback (game MVP Len Dawson), linebacker (Bobby Bell), a great wide receiver in Otis Taylor and a fine defense headed by Buck Buchanan and Johnny Robinson."

That game highlighted the quirks and sounds of Stram, who was miked up, giving the famous lines "Keep matriculating the ball down the field Lenny," "Let me ask you something Mr. Official. How can six of you miss a call like that?" and the famous "65-toss power trap" that led to Mike Garrett scoring a touchdown and Stram yelping wildly on the sideline, repeating the scoring play over again and yelling, "Atta way boys!"

It was that 30-minute highlight real that put NFL Films and Super Bowl chronicling on the map forever. But that day at New Orleans' Tulane Stadium came at a high price. Sabol told me about the experience of being in New Orleans for the first time during the first full week of January 1970 and how awful it was.

"We had 20 rooms booked at our hotel and to show the clout the game had back then, they canceled 10 of the rooms because of a dry cleaners convention," he said vividly remembering that week as if it were only yesterday. "One of our assistant cameramen was a doctor. He got us rooms at a charity hospital, so 15 people were staying at the hospital. The worst thing that happened was our main camerman shared a room with a guy brought in because of a heart problem and the guy died in the middle of the night. The cameraman was so upset, he didn't want to shoot the game, but he took time to get over what happened and he was professional about it. However, he was still so distraught that he shot the first quarter in the wrong camera speed and didn't realize it. And that was my initial experience in New Orleans."

And Sabol minced no words when it came to New Orleans -- he wasn't a fan of the Crescent City whatsoever.

"It's a horrible place. We've been robbed three times there," Sabol said less than seven months before the tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina. "We had 10 (crew) people who suffered food poisoning one year. It's awful, it's seedy and it's the kind of place you'll see Lee Harvey Oswald in the corner of a bar. My hotel room was robbed and for Super Bowl XV in 1981, our equipment was stolen."

Sabol had a favorite place for Super Bowls. To him, it was a no-brainer.

"Los Angeles," he told me. "They start the game in the daytime at 3 p.m. and the Rose Bowl has a beautiful backdrop to it. The crowd blends right into the field of play. There's no sights of ambulences or forklifts in the background. L.A. is a big city that can handle the game."

But his mind wandered back to another Super Bowl in New Orleans at Tulane Stadium, the place they held the game before the Superdome was erected. It was Super Bowl IX between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Vikings, a game won by the Steelers, 16-7, for their first title on a grey, yucky day with game-time temperatures at 46 degrees.

"It was colder than what the temperature actually was," he said. "I was wearing an Air Force jacket that I had to buy two days before the game because it was so cold that week in New Orleans."

Before there was ESPN to show all those amazing Super Bowl films, Sabol and his father found various "venues" to show the artsy films the two of them made.

"I remember so distinctly the first seven, eight, nine years of NFL Films, the only way we could show games was if you were a member of the Rotary Club or the Kiwanis Club or the Elks Lodge," he said. "We do a 16-mm film and take it to various conventions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was underground film. We were strictly a mom-and-pop company. If we had a championship game (to show), you'd call to get the game and we'd bring along Frank Gifford or Don Meredith or Pat Summerall to show the film.

"Then when we got to TV, it would be shown at 6 in the morning when our audiences were milkmen, bartenders, parking-lot attendants -- people who were up late or getting up early. Then ESPN came along and spread the films out in various times and we became nationally recognized."

For the first Super Bowl, Sabol said there were 20 employees at the L.A. Coliseum to do the filming. For Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, there were over 100 people going. He told me what he did was allow the cameramen there shooting the game to be their own "artists" and to "create" their art on film.

"I was a cameraman and I don't believe in overdirection," he told me. "I talk to them briefly and then send them off to do the game. It's like sending 13 artists out there and each comes back with their own interpretation of what they see. Then, after the game, it's up to myself and editors to take the tape and present the story in an enlightening and entertaining way."

It wasn't a surprise to me that college kids wanted to make their mark shooting NFL games. And again, Steve Sabol let me in on the secret.

"To work with us, they have to work as an intern first," he said. "We must get 350 to 400 applications from people, then another 200 for internships. It's like getting into Harvard. It's flattering to get all the letters."

And with those he had on staff,  he took them under a precious wing and let them know it's OK to fail as long as they understood what it was they were doing.

"If you see them trying and they're not the best at what they do, but they get along with people, we give them a shot. It's like a football player who may not run the 40 that fast or have a great vertical leap, but if they are a good person and willing to work hard, you put them in talent coordination. It takes a while to become a talented filmmaker."

It was beyond the 30 minutes I was allotted to chat with him by now. And I heard this man talk about his passion like a big-time director would. What Scorsese, Spielberg and Cameron were to the big screen, Steve Sabol was to the small screen. And unlike those other big-time directors, Sabol never had to give a directorial cue to his "actors." I asked him if he had done anything that wasn't football-related.

"I did a film for NASA on the 10th anniversary of man landing on the moon (in 1979), and they wanted me to make the film equivalent to what it's like when the Dallas Cowboys won a big game. That was fun."

Ultimately, I heard something from Steve Sabol that I could relate to -- he couldn't really do anything else other than the craft he became famous for doing.

"I love the job of making movies, but I'm not a director that wants to expand beyond football," he said. "I'm a one-trick pony and I love football."

I could've talked to Steve Sabol into the afternoon hours about the technology that made his job better and easier over the years or about the rise of the Steelers and San Francisco 49ers dynasties or even the budding dynasty of the New England Patriots. But ultimately, he saw the clock on his wall in his office.

"I have to cut this short because I have a flight to catch," he said. "Anything else?"

"Well, one thing," I said. "How long do you see yourself doing this for?"

He wasn't hesitant about his answer one bit.

"I hope I can keep doing this as long as I'm coherent and can make good film," he said. "Picasso and Matisse painted into their 80s. I hope I can do the same thing."

And that was it. I thanked him. He was gracious in saying I was welcome. And he was off to Philly Airport to head to Jacksonville to work on the filming of Super Bowl XXXIX, a game that I eventually got to cover when my boss got double pneumonia that week. It was a heck of a thrill that I hope I'll do again in my lifetime.

I never saw Steve Sabol at the Super Bowl, but that was OK. He was busy doing what he was there to do and I was as well.

Sabol wanted to do his craft into his 80s like Picasso and Matisse. Unfortunately on September 18, 2012, he lost his 18-month battle with brain cancer, only two weeks from his 70th birthday. It gave me a chance to reflect on that late morning in February 2005 when I got to hear him talk about his passion in a 45-minute phone conversation that I no doubt could've heard all day. By the end of the conversation, I was convinced the man had a story for every occasion, no matter where he was or what audience he was in front of.

To this day, he's the most interesting sports figure I ever interviewed. It will not be the same to watch any archived NFL Films on ESPN or the NFL Network, which began broadcasting in 2005. Steve Sabol will always be the face of NFL Films, even though it was his father who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011 and Steve Sabol gave the speech, even as he was fighting brain cancer, wanting badly to do that one task.

Someday, Steve Sabol will join his dad there even though he won't be able to celebrate it.

He proved to me he was a Hall of Fame person that morning. And his work will live on forever through NFL Films. Because that combined group of young and veteran cameramen and editors are as passionate and dedicated as Steve Sabol was.

And that, my friends, is one hell of a legacy to leave behind.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The best high school football player I ever saw

Rivalry football games can be fun to cover. Lord knows how many rivalry games I've covered over the years -- from Toms River South-Lakewood (started in 1920) to St. Augustine-Palatka (started in 1921) though my experience with that latter game was a one-sided affair in 2009 (St. Augustine killed Palatka, 62-6).

In 2000, the rivalry between private-school based Gulliver Prep of Miami and public-school Key West was a strong one, especially in baseball. That spring, Gulliver beat Key West for the District 16-3A baseball championship.

And though the two schools were not in the same district in football that fall, the rivalry proved to be a fierce one nonetheless. Such was the case on Friday, September 8, 2000 at Tommy Roberts Memorial Stadium.

I was one year into working at the Key West Citizen and had pretty much understood how things worked there. In that fall of 2000, I got to cover Key West High's football team. The year before, I pretty much had the night off while my assistant covered Key West High's games. It was all good and dandy, but I was really the person in charge of the place as the sports editor and now that he was gone and moved on to another venture, I got to take over the job of covering all the Conchs' games both home and away. It also didn't hurt that we did not have a Saturday newspaper, so there was no pressure to write a story and get a paper out that night. This was before the Cooke family who took over ownership thought we were ready to publish seven days a week, a bad mistake in judgment as far as I was concerned.

One project that was new to me for the 2000 high school season was not only putting the preseason tab together, but I was in charge of putting together an eight-page tab for every week of the season. All I know was the Citizen was going to sell this sport to the hilt and it was my duty to make sure the paper looked something close to beautiful. And for the second week of the season, the highlight game was the one at Tommy Roberts between Gulliver Prep and Key West.

Just the week before, Key West showed up at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale and destroyed Class 6A Stoneman Douglas High, 41-13. These Conchs were a veteran team, led by senior quarterback James "Rock" Osborne, senior wide receiver-cornerback Colton Butler, senior lineman Patrick Lewin and junior linebacker Justin Duck. This was a very good Key West High team.

And the team the Conchs were facing was pretty darned good, too. Quarterback Buck Ortega was a senior and the son of former Miami Dolphins player Ralph Ortega. He was being looked at seriously by the University of Miami. Markus Jones was a solid running back that helped to balance out the offense.

But the best player on the field for either side was a senior named Sean Taylor. Taylor was a running back who also could play wide receiver, but his talent was as a cornerback, the young man Gulliver put on the other team's best receiver. But Taylor had not played the week before and Gulliver suffered an opening-game loss.

Now the 1-0 Conchs and the 0-1 Raiders were about to get it on at Tommy Roberts. I had heard so much about Sean Taylor. His coach, Steve Howey, told me he was being recruited by a number of schools -- Miami, Iowa State, Iowa, North Carolina State and Florida. You don't get mail from the big boys unless you're really, really good. So I was looking forward to this matchup since I never had the opportunity to see the game the year before, mainly due to the fact that my megalomaniacal assistant was persistent about covering Key West High football, so I let him. This is the same guy who told me "not to change the statistics" from the big Key West-Glades Central game in '99 because the statistician who covered Key West High "has done their stats for years!" 

Well guess what big guy? So have I! My attitude basically to my big boy assistant with the little boy attitude was "f*ck yourself." I honestly couldn't wait for him to move on, finding out later that I beat him out for the sports editor's job that summer. So working with him for the short amount of time that I did was a very uncomfortable experience.

With the door wide open now for myself to go cover this team without his aggrevation to deal with, I was looking forward to the Conchs' season. The opener in Fort Lauderdale was an awesome display of great balanced football on the offense and defense. This game against Gulliver was going to present a challenge and find out how good this Key West team really was early on.

Arriving early at Tommy Roberts -- which was no more than about five minutes from the apartment complex I was living at on Duck Avenue with my girlfriend at the time -- I could see the stands filling up on the Conchs' side. If there is one thing that those Key Westers are known for, it's their hometown pride. Tourist town? Absolutely! I tell anyone who thinks about visiting Key West to go and enjoy the experience of a lifetime. But this town comes out for its own and does so in a very boastful away. It's one of the things I took away from Key West when I left eventually in June 2002.

Those fans were there to watch their Conchs in action. They were also there to watch this great player in Sean Taylor. How good a player could he be?

From my view in the press box, I got to see the pre-game pomp and circumstance of the two teams coming out in dramatic ways, the coin toss and the loud, positive display put on around me and below me from the Key West High faithful.

And it was obvious from the start the Conchs' defense of assistant coach Pat Freeman was ready. Each time a running back touched the ball, there was a Conch defender there to lay him out or stop him from getting any momentum. I found out later from head coach Greg Kremer that six players were "halfway to three-quarters healthy" due to a flu bug that was going around at the school.

What kept the Conchs from doing any damage was the punting of Peter Simon, who was averaging 33 yards per kick. But the Conchs were playing a beautiful game of ball control. With Osborne calling the signals and the running backs doing their job, they were chewing up the clock and keeping Ortega from doing his job offensively. In the first 24 minutes of the game, the Conchs picked up 11 first downs. You'd think they would dominate this matchup.

The problem, though, was the Conchs kept coming up short on their drives. And this included the first drive of the evening ... and how Gulliver scored off of it.

Osborne had taken the Conchs down the field masterfully on that first drive and had taken them to Gulliver's 38. It looked like a well-oiled machine rolling along. But from the 38, Osborne rolled to his left. He spotted an open receiver back toward the middle, so awkwardly, he fired a pass.

And there was Sean Taylor. Deion Sanders would have been impressed with what happened after he picked the pass off. Taylor started heading toward the Conchs' sideline, but realized he had no blockers and a pair of speedy Conchs in front of him. So he back-tracked. He weaved his way around a couple of teammates who were getting in the way of Conchs players, then managed to find the sidelines. From there, Taylor, who would also win the state 2A 100-meter dash later in the spring, turned on the afterburners. No Conchs player was going to stop him and even if they did, Taylor found blockers to run past.

Taylor hit paydirt. The touchown went for 78 yards, but it may as well have been close to 110 with all the running he did on that particular play. Simon kicked the extra point and the Raiders had a 7-0 lead.

For the rest of the first half, Gulliver's offense was anemic because the Conchs' defense was simply frustrating Ortega and both the passing and running games.

But the scoreboard read Gulliver ahead 7-0 after one half of play. And as I talked to the longtime help working in the press box, I can see there was a combination of both concern and confidence. The touchdown really was "a fluke," they felt, and the way the defense was playing, there was no doubt Key West would figure it out on offense eventually. And I felt it, too. The problem I was having was how long could the Conchs keep Ortega and Taylor down on offense. This Gulliver team was far from mediocre. It sure didn't look like a run-of-the-mill football team that would go 6-4 at best.

The third quarter, though, was more of the same as the first half. The Conchs continued to clamp down on the Raider offense. Though not quite visible, Ortega was becoming frustrated. Key West's defense and Freeman had done their homework and were keeping this battle to a 7-0 score. Defense was going to dictate this affair.

The Raiders didn't pick up their first first down until Jones got loose for an 11-yard gain with 3:37 to go in the third quarter. In the first half of the game, Key West ran 39 plays -- 39 plays! Gulliver ran exactly eight. Gulliver had a grand total of minus-18 yards on offense. The Conchs were more than doing their job on defense and yet, they still couldn't score. Even with Jones' 11-yard gain on one play, the rest of the quarter saw the Raiders lose eight yards.

So going into the fourth quarter, the Raiders had a total of minus-15 yards. Now all Key West needed to do was find a way to get into the end zone. And they did on the one mistake Simon made punting -- an abyssmal 2-yard attempt that allowed Key West to start at the Gulliver 36 late in the third quarter.

This time, the Conchs were not going to fail. Osborne handed off to both his running backs -- fullback Adron Barnes and tailback Mike Edwards. In five plays, they had the ball at the Gulliver 10. On the next play, Edwards handed off to Barnes, who powered his way through the equally tough Gulliver defense to score. When Max Labrada kicked the extra point, the game was tied at 7-7 with 7:41 left to play.

Finally! There was momentum. Now the Conchs and their defense with a five-man front were playing at even ground again. And once again after the kickoff, they were stopping Ortega and the ground game. It got to third down. Freeman would say after the game that he knew what was coming.

The play Howey called was "143 pass." On the play, the wide receiver on the left side starts out, stops, then starts again like it's a down-and-out pattern. Ortega dropped back to pass and none of the five Conch players on the line were getting to the quarterback. With his protection there, Ortega -- who had completed just one pass for the night for zero yards -- let the pigskin fly.

The pass had to be perfect. The catch had to be in the right spot. That's because even the coverage was pretty darned good by Butler.

But when the young man at the end of the pass play is Sean Taylor, you could pretty much call it game, set, match. Taylor ran underneath the pass with the precision of Willie Mays catching Vic Wertz's 450-foot shot at the Polo Grounds in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series. The pass landed beautifully in his hands.

He was gone for a 67-yard touchdown. So, too, was the tie game with 6:36 left.

That sinking feeling came about the entire enthusiastic crowd at Tommy Roberts all at once. And an offense that had struggled all night, committing three turnovers, one that led to the other Gulliver score, was having to try to ramp it up again after they had scored on the previous possession.

One touchdown was needed. And things looked good early on as Edwards picked up a first down to keep the Conchs rolling. But soon enough, the drive stopped thanks to a pair of penalties, forcing Edwards to punt it away. Gulliver had the ball at its own 31 with 4:01 left and Key West had three timeouts remaining. The Conchs continued to make stops on the first two plays, forcing Gulliver into a third-and-14 situation at the 27.

I'll be honest -- it was looking good that Key West was going to get the ball back just one more time. Ortega went back and once again, Key West defenders were on him like flypaper. They had Ortega bottled up, but it was only a moment. Ortega slid free and found a hole. When he barreled in at the 41, he had gained the necessary 14 yards for the first down.

It was deflating for the Conchs. They had to exhaust timeouts. And they never recovered. After masterfully holding down the vaunted Gulliver attack, the Raiders found a way to get the job done. They collected three more first downs and ran the clock out for the 14-7 victory.

After having minus-15 yards of offense until the backbreaker touchdown from Ortega to Taylor, the Raiders finished the game with 98 yards, including just 31 yards on the ground in 28 attempts.

The Conchs, who had 236 yards of offense for the game, did everything to win the game -- except outscore Gulliver's Raiders. The dejected looks walking away from the midfield handshakes after the game pretty much summed it all up. Fans were equally as dejected. They had this so-called "state power" within its grasp and couldn't reel the Raiders in.

But that's football ... one play can decide a game.

"Key West's defensive game plan was excellent," Howey said afterward. "I know if I were them, I'd be proud of the way my kids played defense. They were sending a lot of people at us. We're glad to come away with the victory."

And then Howey stated the obvious to me afterward.

"Taylor can do it all. He's a big-time player. The two touchdowns he scored tonight were both beautiful."

That was an understatement. When it was all said and done, I came off the field realizing I did see something special that night at Tommy Roberts Stadium. Key West went on from there to finish that season 7-3 and earn a postseason spot where the Conchs got creamed in their first game against state power Rockledge.

And Gulliver? They took that unimpressive performance that they made into a victory and turned it into a winning streak. The Raiders would win 14 straight games and finish the season as the state 2A champions, going 14-1.

As for Taylor, he stayed in the city of Miami, played for the Hurricanes and became an All-American cornerback as part of two Miami teams that went to national championship games, winning in his freshman year against Nebraska. Taylor declared for the NFL draft after his junior season and was drafted in 2004 by the Washington Redskins. Though a problem child to begin his career, Taylor was starting to figure it out as a player. His future -- as I saw it when he was a senior in high school -- was pretty darned bright.

But he got injured in the 2007 season while tied for the league lead in interceptions with five, forcing him to miss two weeks as he recovered from the injury. Back home in Miami in the early morning of November 26, 2007, Taylor and his girlfriend, the niece of actor Andy Garcia, were awakened by intruders in their home. Taylor went out to find who was there and was shot in the femoral artery by one of the suspects. Taylor was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, but had lost a significant amount of blood and had gone into a coma, reportedly his heart stopping twice during surgery. He came out of the surgery that afternoon, but it didn't look good.

Taylor was pronounced dead on November 27, 2007 at 3:30 a.m. He was only 24 years old.

I've seen a lot of good football players on the high school level over the years. I saw Keith Elias star at Lacey High School. I saw Joey Struyf at Marathon High dominate like a man among boys until injuries set him back at Florida International. And one night in 2001 in Riviera Beach, I saw a Suncoast High two-way senior star named Devin Hester dominate Key West like I've never seen a player dominate a team in my life.

But the best high school football player I have covered in 28 years was Sean Taylor. He had mad talent both offensively and defensively. He had swag, too, but not ever over-the-top swag. I knew when I left Tommy Roberts Memorial Stadium that September 8, 2000, I saw a player who was going to dominate the sport for years to come until a callous act ended all that.

I'm proud to say I saw him in person do the kind of damage that he did that night in a rivalry game.

It was truly amazing to watch.