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Rico Labbe's World Cup

(By David Azia - AP)

ESPN's World Cup coverage will begin Friday morning with an opening piece featuring scenes from just about every nook of South Africa, narrated by actor Djimon Hounsou. That open was co-produced and edited by Rico Labbe. And Rico Labbe used to play for the Washington Redskins.

There, I went from the World Cup to the Redskins in three sentences. Knew I could do it.

In all seriousness, Labbe was a star athlete from the District, an All-Met from Archbishop Carroll who became a standout safety at Boston College, eventually becoming a captain and later entering the school's Hall of Fame. And he was picked by then-Redskins GM Charlie Casserly in the fourth round of the 1990 draft, one round before a guy named Brian Mitchell.

Labbe spent training camp with guys like Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders, future Hall of Famers like Darrell Green and Art Monk, the guys he had grown up watching.

"It was the part of my life when football meant everything, you lived breathed and ate football," Labbe told me. "The thing that I remember the most is the camaraderie between players. The games were fun, but the camaraderie was it, in the trenches with your boys, you and them against the world. Those were good times."

Labbe was considered a strong candidate for a roster spot during training camp, but was cut the same September day as future Vikings head coach Mike Tice, and then landed on the Redskins' practice squad for most of the 1990 season.

When he was released from the Skins' practice squad he wound up signing with the Green Bay Packers, for whom he made his NFL debut. He was on Green Bay's practice squad the next year, until he injured his hamstring and was released, going on to play briefly in the World League of American Football with the Orlando Thunder.

After another hamstring injury it became clear the football thing wasn't going to happen. Labbe had lived near Carroll in the District, and he got to be friendly with one of his older neighbors, guy named James Brown. Labbe would wash his car, go to Brown's parents' houses, talk about the sports television industry. J.B. later became the first person to interview Labbe after he was drafted by the Skins, and he was one of Labbe's first sources of advice as his playing career wound down.

"This is your book of life; you'll always look back at this chapter, but there are more chapters going forward," J.B. told him.

Brown put Labbe - who had studied broadcast journalism at Boston College - in touch with his agent, who helped line up several interviews. The ex-safety was eventually hired by ABC as a production assistant, booking hotel rooms for the traveling college football crews, producing early-'90s graphics and learning the sports TV business.

And from there, things went quickly. Within a few years, Labbe was a producer/director, working on anything from bowling to the Harlem Globetrotters to college basketball to the NHL. In the late 1990s, he left ABC and moved to Canada, working on things like music videos, commercials and movie trailers. By 2001 he had moved back to D.C. and was doing a lot of high-end promo work for ESPN as a freelancer, doing the opens for NBA broadcasts, college sports events and Sunday Night Football.

He founded Victory Pictures with Mike Sciallis, and they did many of the high-end opens for ESPN's Monday Night Football franchise, coming up with the creative concepts, choosing the music, interviewing and filming the players and editing the final product.

And they were then asked to do huge chunks of the promo work for ESPN's 2010 World Cup coverage, which led to three separate trips to South Africa and weeks of travel all over that country.

"All I can say is it was the most amazing thing I've encountered in my life, what we got to do and what we got to see and what we got to be a part of," the 42-year old told me before departing for his latest trip, which will keep him in South Africa for the duration of the tournament. "We were out in the bush staying in huts and tents....met kings and queens of tribes, were welcomed into homes in the second-biggest slum in the world....Everything we did and saw was just amazing."

Labbe and Sciallis did the opens both for Friday's opener and for the U.S.'s first game on Saturday, which features Martin Sheen and Terence stamp. They'll do many more of these in days to come. They're doing about a dozen "Voices of South Africa" human-interest pieces for ESPN. They're supposed to film a music video with Ziggy Marley.

"It's the biggest thing we've ever done," he said of the next month.

And so, did he imagine this life when he was a struggling young safety with the Redskins?

"Dude, never in a million years would I have conceived of this," Labbe told me. "I always knew I wanted to be in this field, but this? Never conceived of it. It's expanded my horizons, expanded what I think. I realize that this world of sports, it's not just about football."

By Dan Steinberg  |  June 11, 2010; 12:41 AM ET
Categories:  Redskins , Soccer  
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Nice piece, Dan. JB was probably the best person in the world for Labbe to turn to for mentoring advice. Wilbon once noted (and I'm not looking it up, so this is a rough quote) that JB was one of the top prep basketball players in the country, and that he basically "said no to the NBA when he said yes to Harvard." Looking back at his career, I'd say he made the right decision.

Also, Djimon Hounsou, Martin Sheen and Terence Stamp - that's some top-notch voiceover talent right there. I mean, where do you go from there? To kick it up a notch, you'd need Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, and Patrick Stewart...

Posted by: EdTheRed | June 11, 2010 9:09 AM | Report abuse

I can't resist....
Rico Suave!

Posted by: DocHolliday1906 | June 11, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Excellent work, Dan. Enjoyed this a lot.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | June 11, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

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