There are winners and losers.
It’s why I’ve always loved sports stories, because at the end of the day someone steps off the field victorious and the other with a new set of challenges ahead of them.
And no matter what the outcome, each team, player, coach and school learns something.
Sports is one of the most valuable place to learn as a visual storyteller.
You are constantly challenged to make something new out of a game that millions of people have already seen.
You have to stretch your storytelling muscles to the brink of failure to show people what is is like to have a 200 lb. safety knock you out cold and to get right back up and do it all over again.
You have to explain the complex stories on and off the field, because, like politics, nothing is what it seems — especially in the NCAA.
From a barely-experience high school kid to a teacher at the University of Florida, sports has been my common theme each step of my career.
It began when I emailed Bobby Bowden at 16 asking to shoot the Garnet and Gold spring practice (calm down Gator fans, UF was on a hot streak and there was no way I was getting into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium). He graciously allowed me to shoot two seasons of FSU football while I was still in high school, which got me my first job at The Orlando Sentinel and then, at 17, ESPN.
When I arrived at UF as a wide-eyed freshman, I quickly got word of GatorBait Magazine and had the opportunity to shoot for Marty Cohen.
Five years later, more than 60 football games, 75 basketball, I forgot how many baseball games and countless other sports, tournaments, award ceremonies, press conferences and more than 200,000 images — this was as hands on as it gets.
All of this came with some hard lessons learned, and I want to share a few of them with you.
First, and most importantly, it happened does not make it a story.
Just because 90,000 fans gather in Gainesville a few times a year to watch players hit each other does not make that a story. The winner and loser is not the story. The game is not the story. It happened does not make it a story — it’s the people, the players, the fans, the atmosphere, the baby gator’s first home football game, the mom who gave up everything to watch her son, who’s worked his entire life, to play on Florida Field.
Those are the stories.
Second, produce on the field not in an office.
Time is always of the essence in sports. Even the time it takes to go from the sidelines to the photo work room is a lost opportunity. So even if I have to take an iPhone photo of the back of my camera to be able to tweet out a picture, the time saved is worth it.
The most viral photo I ever shot of Gator sports was not of a player at all. It was of a sign last season that said, “We want Bama LOL JK.”
It was tweeted and retweeted more than a half a million times — easily 10x more than anything else I’ve ever put online. Why? Because it was instant. It was in the middle of the Georgia Southern game and it told the story of the anguish that Gator fans were going through at that moment. Time is of the essence when you have instant replay and live-tweeting reporters, show them what happened in the moment and produce on the field.
Third, if there is a pack of photographers, stay away from them.
In the third quarter of the UF/Kentucky game in 2009, Tim Tebow was knocked out as cold as you could get knocked out. He sat on the sidelines the rest of the game in a daze that made Keith Richards look like a clear thinker.
There were roving packs of photographers trying to get behind the bench to shoot Tebow, then they quickly moved onto the next hot topic — how would John Brantley hold up as quarterback. I quickly made three or four images of Brantley and then stayed away from the pack to focus on the Tebow story. During the fourth quarter, Tebow was throwing up and was quietly taken out of the stadium, and we didn’t miss a moment as he was carted away (one of the most somber moments I’ve ever shot on the sidelines).
Generally, if you can shoot something different and tell a story, you will come out a winner from a game, and this is a lesson that has stuck with me for ever — even though its a blast to hang out and chat with your fellow photographer buddies on the sidelines, that is what the local pub is for after a long night shooting.
The most rewarding aspect of being apart of shooting sports is not the access to players, coaches and teams, but the friends you make along the way. We are all in the whirlwind group of roadies, stadium junkies, adrenaline-seeking, deadline-bending addicts that love to tell stories. And when you’ve seen the guts of a stadium workroom, you’ve seen them all. So at the end of the long days when you're sore, smelly and sweaty, you can always look to a good editor and fellow photographer for a cold beer.
Sports has been and will always be the training ground for my career in storytelling and the lessons that I’ve learned I can proudly share with thousands of young journalists every year.
Even in my short time covering the Gators, I’ve had assistants go on to do work for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Miami Herald and countless other publications.
So even as the players graduate and the coaches change and the coverage looks a little different digitally than the way it used to be…
We will always been learning on the sidelines.