For a period of about two years I had the chance to be a press photographer for the NFL, specifically with the Cincinnati Bengals. As a decent fan of the team, and avid photography, I thought this would be fun — how many people get to say they’ve been on a pro football field, amongst the players, hearing the grunts and groans, feeling the impact of their speed and strength. So when my friend C. Trent Rosecrans (sports writer, receiver of infamous rant, magnificent beard grower) asked if I’d be interested in taking photos for his new venture he was calling CNati. The chance to be on the field, doing something I loved, with a more artistic flare was too great an opportunity to pass up, so obviously I said yes.
So what was it like being an NFL photographer? For one, I did not feel like I belonged — other than that I was a white man. All the other photographers had several cameras bodies, various tripods and monopods, a veritable feast of insanely huge zoom lens, all given to them from their respective news outlets. All I had was a slow shutter 1Ds with a few zoom lenses (16-35mm, 35-70mm, and 70-200mm), which I had to swap when I felt like it (rather than have a camera body for each). But this forced me to get creative, to not just cover field action, but cover the players, their interactions with coaches (like this shot of Mike Zimmer absolutely verbally destroying a disinterested Tank Johnson, which is easily my personal favorite from my entire time shooting).
For every home game I was mailed a photo pass. Then early Sunday morning I’d arrive at Paul Brown Stadium, flash my pass to security to gain access, and proceed to the bowels of the stadium to check-in at the photography room (which was across from the player locker room) — where I would get a red vest, leave my laptop, and setup my camera gear. Then I’d travel upstairs to the press level and grab some breakfast, where’d I see people like Boomer Esiason, Phil Simms, Brian Billick, Joe Buck, etc, eating piles of eggs and bacon. After that I’d wander a bit, and start to make my way to the field.
It was very surreal to have that much freedom around something that felt so removed and distant. To have players that close. To hear what they were saying. To watch and hear them violently slam into each over and over. And I did all I could to capture my own personal wonderment in my photos, a true fan delivering what all fans would love to witness.
When the game began, I frantically moved around, vying for spots on the field to get angles and coverage, strategically using lenses for the situations in front of me. During halftime I rush to find the best photos and send a few to Trent to update his coverage. And quickly grab lunch; a few Cincinnati style chili Cheese Coneys, which was provided for free in the room by Gold Star Chili. I do not love Cincinnati style-chili, despite having it numerous times. But I was hungry enough to power through a pound of cheese and a bad hot dog. There was not much time to do all of this before quickly getting back on the field and repeating my dance.
By the time a game was over, I was exhausted and exhilarated. I packed up all my gear and made my way to the press box area to finish finding and editing photos, uploading them, and providing a link to Trent for his story, all while looking out at an empty stadium, a vast and desolate cathedral worshiping the excesses of American exceptionalism.
While it only lasted for 2 years, it was truly an unexpected and unimaginable experience that few people ever get to witness or partake.