Episode 36- The Photograph That Got Away

The Photograph That Got Away

So, from 1995 until 2016, photography was my primary income source and the primary income source of our household between Elizabeth and I, both being a full-time photographer. That shifted a bunch for two to three years in terms of what we’ve been working on. So, the photography part of our career has dropped way down as the masterminds, the coaching, consulting, and the books has risen up. But I get asked all the time, is there a photograph that got away? Is there a picture that you really want to make that for one reason or the other just didn’t happen and there is a story to it ? And there’s obviously a ton of those. If you think about how many times it happened. So I may do a segment every once a while for the photograph that got away and tell the story about it. Let me tell one particular one right now and shoutout to my friend, Indian native Josh Brown who I told the story to and love it. Gary Brackett, a guy who is a friend and who plays with the Indianapolis Colts, who is a part of this is as well. So, here’s the story in terms of this photograph that got away.

I grew up as a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan. I won’t go deep into that, but it was my team. It’s always been my team. And then I got the opportunity, for many years, to photograph them. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh and I photographed their home games, tons of their road games, lots of playoff games. But before we moved to Pittsburg, occasionally I’ll get the Steelers assignment from out-of-town game. We lived in Indiana, so I’ll cover them in the playoffs versus the Titans or sometimes in St. Louis versus the Rams or around the country. I was photographing the Indianapolis Colts in 2015 and this is when they were probably the best team in the league. There were 13 and 0 and they’re on their way to what seemed to be an inevitable Super Bowl win and possibly undefeated season. But they lost after 13 games. They want to get by the first round by the playoffs and the Steelers win the wildcard game and Steelers were not supposed to make the game that year. They came back, won 4 games in a row, one wildcard game and all of a sudden, they were the lowest seed going to Indianapolis playing the highest seeds in Indianapolis Colts, and that was my gig photograph. 

So, I am torn here because I’m a Steeler fan. I want to see the Steelers in the Super Bowl for the first time in 25 years, but the same time if they lost, if they happen to lose which I will be so bummed about. I still get the photograph of the Colts go on to the championship game and probably the Super Bowl. So, I showed up to the RCA dome in Indianapolis and I photographed the Colt – Steelers game maybe about two months earlier on a Monday night game and the Colts destroyed the Steelers. So, nobody gave the Steelers a chance this game. I show up and for good luck and nobody knew this. I wore my Antoine Randall L jersey underneath my sweater as good luck for the Steelers. See now, you’re journalists and you are supposed to be impartial, but I had to have that on, you have to support my team. So, I was outside the Steelers locker room before the game started and the doors come busting open. The first one out his Antoine Randall and he yells “Were back!” I knew at that moment, I think they have a little different attitude than the last time, and from the very beginning you get the feeling that this is different type game. The Steelers took the ball at the kickoff drove right down the field scored the easy touchdown drive just seamless. They stopped the Colts and the next drive, came right down the field again scored another touchdown 14 – Nothing. Steelers midway through it lose midway through the first quarter and all of a sudden, this place is stunned. Everybody is stunned and they can’t believe it. I don’t think the Colts been losing hardly at all that season. Now they around 14 – Nothing in the first quarter at home and the Steeler is like a totally different team. So I’m jacked up. I never thought of being jacked up to not be able to shoot Super Bowl, but this is my team. That’s what I really want to have was the Steelers to win. So, I kind of stayed steady for the first half. I think it was 14 – 3 the Steelers are winning the half time and everybody there was nervous. This was the end. 

Some point the third quarter; the Steelers drive down. They scored another touchdown. It is 21 – 3.  I got a picture of Jerome Bettis spiking the ball right in front of me as they scored the touchdown and the same frame that I got, the guy with the Sports Illustrated was next to me, got almost the exact same frame. Mine went to _______ press and his went to the cover of Sports Illustrated. So, talk about opportunity lose. I got the same picture, but I didn’t get the same play. It was pretty cool though me having the same exact image. It was 21 – 3. It looks like a definite Steelers victory at this point, but then at the end of third quarter, Peyton Manning finally comes alive, he hooks up with Dallas Clark for the tight end for like 50-yard touchdown I think was. Again, right in front of me. I was in the end zone. It is 21 – 10 Steelers and now the Colts have life. 

The 4th quarter was just the most bizarre like gut wrenching quarter I remember photographing because it was so emotional. The crowd, the noise, just attention that building I photograph everything you can imagine, and I was up there. That was top 10 in terms of just emotional, tense moments, 45 minutes that I remember and shooting. What happened was about 10 minutes left in the game. I really think this game is going so slow. Now I’m a fan at this point. I just want the Steelers to hold up and to win this game. I do not want to shoot the champions game. I want to be watching on TV next week when the Steelers play the Broncos because I was so ready for the Steelers to move on and roof over the Super Bowl. I am not sure what the scores at this point, we’re about six minutes left. Peyton Manning was trying to drive down the field and one of his passes were deflected and ______ look like he got an interception from it, I scoop it up and the game is over at that point. If he makes that interception, the Steelers run the clock out and they do this long review. They review that and it was non-interception of the ball. It hit the ground somehow. Colts retain possession and there was a lot of controversy about this play while the replay says that it never hit the ground, but so be it. Now the Colts have the ball and they quickly take that momentum. go down, score the touchdown. They then give two-point conversion. All of a sudden, we got ball game, it is 21-18. Steelers only up by three, and the momentum is totally on the cold side. So, I’m really nervous at this point, as are most of the Steeler fans that are in the crowd. While they’re watching it slip away. 

So, the Colts kick off the Steelers. The place is a madhouse and I believe they stop the Steelers at 3 and a half as they had no chance the momentum was completely gone. They kicked off to the Colts. The cults have a chance now to either tie the game or to win it and have one of the best comebacks in playoff history to my sadness. But what happens, the Steelers just dominated on defense. They just sacked Manning a couple of times. And on 4th down, sacked Peyton Manning right near the end zone and it appears like the game is over. 

There’s two minutes left, I believe, and so the game is essentially over. And I get the picture of the sack. I think it was Joey Porter on top of Manning. That’s the picture that is going to be the cover. I have it all planned out my head how it was gonna work in terms of layout on the paper for the next day. So, I am the only photographer shooting this game. Steelers still have the ball at the goal line and are up by three. So, my job now as a journalist is to get color, meaning they’re going to kneel on the ball then on the clock, I want to get these fans because there’s Colts fans crying. They’re Steelers fans going back and forth, and it is really tremendously emotional about that point. I’m on the sideline and I’m photographing the fans. I’m right next to the Steelers bench. I’ll never forget. ______  the corner of the Steelers stands up on the benches waived a terrible towel and he’s taunting the Colts fans, and I put my long lens down and picked up my wide lens. I’m photographing him waving the towel, taunting the fans. So, while the Steelers go to run the clock out in my mind because I forgot that the Colts have no timeouts left. So, the Steelers running a real play. They were kneeling on the ball. They’re about in the 2-yard line. Ben Roethlisberger hands the ball off to Jerome Bettis and Jerome cuts to the right, towards the end zone and all the sudden I’m not even looking at that because I was photographing Ike Taylor and I hear this boom. This crazy noise and I look up to the scoreboard, I see a guy from the Colt with the ball running in the opposite direction and the crowd is going berserk. It is as loud that I have ever heard the crowd. And on the screen, I see him running past all the Steelers players and realizing oh my goodness he’s gonna go hundred yards for the winning touchdown here. This were gut instinct for me. 

So, I was on the sideline, about the 35-yard line next to the Steelers. The whole Steelers bench goes silent and staring, and Nick Harper from the Colt is running down the sideline right towards me. Now this is a classic moment. This is if you’re a football fan, you remember, this was a classic NFL moment. He’s running down the sideline and I’m there with this historical NFL moment about to happen right in front of me and I’m staring. I see Nick Harper running down the sideline and Ben Roethlisberger are backpedaling. Roethlisberger is Steelers quarterback and is the last person that can stop Harper from going from 100-yard touchdown. As Roethlisberger is backpedaling just 15 yards away from me, I never picked up my camera. I never even thought to pick up my camera. This is my only job. The only thing I need to do is get this picture, but I became so caught up in the moment which is never ever happened before or since my entire career. I was so caught up in that moment that when Nick Harper cut to his left to go around Roethlisberger. This was the moment where either he going to stop him or he is gonna go for the touchdown and without even picking up my camera, I just screamed tackle him and Roethlisberger reached out and just got a hold of Nick Harper foot slightly. Nick Harper tumbled onto the ground and he made the tackle around the 50-yard line. You might imagine at this point; this place is just going absolutely out of its mind collectively. And I realize not only that this game is over, they can tie the game, or they can win it right now and I shook off the cobwebs, grab my gear off the ground, my 400mm lens. I was just sitting on the floor while this classic moment happened. At that point, you don’t know the classic moment because the Colts could just win the game. I go running to the end zone and a guy from CBS, the cameraman from CBS was right next to me and I looked, and I said what happened and he looked at me, took his headphone off and he said Bettis. I don’t even know what he meant Nobody meant but  Jerome Bettis who was a potential Hall of Fame running back. This is going to be his last season. Literally to build up, this is his final season. He’s never won a Super Bowl this is going to be his run for the Super Bowl. The whole Steelers team is doing this for Bettis, and he winds up getting the ball knocked out by Gary Brackett and fumbling at the goal line that could potentially cost them not only the game but the chance of the team Super Bowl or for his first championship. And having got to know Jerome a little bit from shooting some of the games, my heart just sinks for him and how his career is going to end. 

I remember ever thinking he cannot retire now. There’s no way you can end your career on that plate if they lose right here. So, the Colts come driving down the field and I am just sweating at this point. I’ve never felt this exhausted during shooting, and I wasn’t playing the game, I was just shooting the game. So, the Colts are coming on the field and Peyton Manning threw a perfect pass to the end zone to Reggie Wayne, the wide receiver. Wayne stretches out. Looks like he’s gonna bring the winning touchdown. I get the picture of it but one of the Steelers knocks Wade. McFadden from Steeles knocks Bill the last minute. They stopped the Colts and the Colts inside the field goal, the tied the game. They tried to tie the game and bring it into overtime. So, I can relax a little bit like okay I didn’t really miss anything, they’re going  to kick a field goal. We’re going to go overtime and then the moment ,whatever the moment is going to happen later. I didn’t miss it. 

So, Mike Vanderjagt is the kicker from the Colts, and he walks up to the line to kick the winning field goal and the Steelers called timeout. And I’m looking through my lens, I photographed Vanderjagt like every home game that season and he never looked nervous. Not one time that he looked nervous but I’m looking through the lens I’m talking to another photographer at the sideline. I was looking through my lens and I said he looks nervous. I’ve never seen him look nervous before and you could just see it in his face. But as he lines up, he snapped the ball. This is the moment if we were going to overtime or the Steelers to win. And he kicks the ball and as soon as he kicks it, you could just tell it is way off. Not only way off but it was so far to the right that before the ark of the ball even hits its peak, the Steelers players are running onto the field because you knew it was over. He hit the ball so far to the right and I was so far to let the end zone that the ball was actually coming right towards me and went right over my head as the missed field goal before it was even over. So, you knew with the kick of the ball that it was a miss and the Steelers were to win. 

So, I stormed the field with the rest of the photographers shooting all the celebration, all the emotion. It was the wildest games I’ve ever photographed. The Steelers win. The Steelers going to the championship. My dream of photographing at the Super Bowl with the Colts are over at his point. I’m remember seeing Matt ____ the photographer of Indianapolis Star at midfield. He’s just shaking his head. I lifted up my shirt and I showed him my Randall L jersey and he just give me a fun push and shook his head at me. I sat down the sideline and I could not even do any work for about 1/2 an hour because I was so exhausted from the way that game went. And he just sat there in silence thinking about what happened and I’m getting so many buzzes on my phone. So many text and phone calls asking Are you really there? Were you really at that game? 

Not until I went back to the hotel that night and I watched the replay over and over again what happened that I realized what happened to me. What happened to me was I was there on the field for a classic all-time NFL playoff moment and I missed it. Not only did I missed it, I did not even lift up my camera shoot I was so caught up in the moment that time that I just yelled tackle him to Roethlisberger instead of picking my camera up and shooting the picture of the classic tackle. Ironically, a couple years later we moved to Pittsburgh and it was the second day that we lived here that really hit me what happened. Our entire family went down to the strip district down here in Pittsburgh, which was the classic area with old shops, outside markets, it was a great cool area. So, I am in the strip district. we parked the car. we walked down to just do a little bit of sightseeing and browsing and the first person I see walking towards me is a guy with a white T-shirt with the big picture on the front and it is the picture that Michael Conroy the photographer of the Associated Press took of Ben Roethlisberger tackling Nick Harper with his arm out. Harper going down and underneath it, it just says The Tackle. That’s what it was known for. And I’m looking at this picture on this guy walking past me, just shaking my head. That was the photograph that got away. 

So, if you’re not a sports fan, this will probable bored you and tears right here if you are a sports fan or Steelers fan. You probably enjoy that if you are a Colts fan probably hitting that but that was just one of the many photographs that got away in my career. I just want to bring that to you. Hope you enjoy that. I’ll talk tomorrow.

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