On the sidelines: From the 'silent scream' to sports history
Over the past 10-plus years I've had the opportunity to work the sidelines of Green Bay Packers games as a photographer.
You've seen them on television with their 500mm lenses moving around the sidelines, getting up close and personal with the NFL heroes we all love to watch every weekend during the fall and winter months.
These photo warriors take their jobs seriously ... it's their livelihood.
For me, it's always been a chance to hone my photography skills, while providing timely photographs for newspapers and websites.
I worked the Packers PR department for years in trying to land the right to be a sideline photographer. There was much rejection—the fact that I worked for a small newspaper didn't help my cause—but I persisted and the Packers finally said they would allow me credentials, despite the fact that the NFL at the time was forcing teams to reduce the number of people on the field by 10 percent.
I felt good about that fact and have since been attending at least one game per season, while spreading the wealth to other staff members who wanted a chance to see what they could produce.
Being credentialed as a photographer is a dream come true, but it's more difficult than you might imagine.
In fact, it's damn hard.
Consider carrying at least a couple of cameras and a few lenses up, down and around a 100-yard field in all types of weather trying to keep up with professional athletes as they zip around the gridiron.
Sound like fun? Sure, it is.
But it's also exhausting. It looks easy ... but it's not.
Because of time constraints, moving, starting a new job and a plethora of other reasons, it's been difficult the past couple of seasons to get to Lambeau, so I've graciously given the credentials to others ... they were all better photographers anyway.
That was until this past Sunday when I decided it was time to get back to Lambeau.
And I was glad I did ... getting a chance to be kneeling in just the right spot at the right time for the first half-ending Hail Mary reception by Randall Cobb.
The unfortunate thing is that at that particular moment, I froze. With the Packers 50 yards away from the end zone where I was kneeling and the clock winding down, it appeared to me that Aaron Rodgers would throw a 10-yard out, get the field goal team on the field and get back to a warm locker room.
Not so ...
As that last play unfolded, I was dumbfounded when I saw Rodgers wind up and heave a rocket that would have scraped the ceiling of most domes. What was amazing was that the ball was literally headed right toward me.
Like an idiot, I had left my short lens in my bag on the other side of the field and all I had in my hand was a 300mm that I used to try and focus on the players who ended up 10 feet away ... it didn't focus. I missed the shot of Cobb cradling the ball and falling to the ground literally feet away.
But it was OK. I got plenty of great celebratory pictures following the catch. And being in a stadium of fans whose reaction would have blown the lid off of those domed stadiums we've all come to hate, was reward enough.
I had seen history and though I missed capturing the moment, I felt part of it all.
Heck, had I stepped onto the field I could have caught that ball myself.
The excitement of being so close to the action was even better when I got a text from my daughter exclaiming she had seen me on a replay of the Hail Mary that was broadcast on the jumbotron at a Chicago Blackhawks game.
Words ... and images ... travel fast.
But all the excitement and visual stimuli that comes with being a sideline reporter was, several years ago, countered by my decision to try the other end of the spectrum and experience being a press box reporter.
Talk about going from the center of attention to a morgue.
Deciding to try it, I asked for and received credentials to sit in the press box.
I really didn't know what I was getting into.
It was back in 1997 and after my experience, I decided that I would never do it again.
I described it in a piece I previously wrote called "Silent scream—A day in the press box."
I offer that piece below to provide some balance to this column ...
My mouth was open wide, my eyes glued to Greg Jennings as he strode into the end zone on the back end of Brett Favre's 420th career touchdown pass—but there wasn't anything I could say or do—I was forbidden by the professional sportswriter's code.
Sitting high above the action in Lambeau Field's silent, air-conditioned press box, my comrades and I watched history, while coolly scribbling notes, tickling keyboards and watching through binoculars as the Green Bay Packers thrilled towel-waving fans in the stadium's bowl and across the nation with one of the franchise's most exciting games in recent memory.
There wasn't a sports-educated soul in that press room who gave the Packers a chance on this Sunday as they faced a San Diego Chargers team that had barely beaten the Chicago Bears and were humiliated by the "Beli-cheat" New England Patriots just a few day prior.
Every sportswriter thought the Packers had caught the Chargers at a bad time — they were ready to break out on the legs of LaDainian Tomlinson and the arm of Philip Rivers. This was the day it was going to happen.
I just happened to be there, but also felt there was something different about this Packers team — a "something" that would give them an edge on this day.
Needless to say, I was glad I was there, but not so glad I couldn't scream about the opportunity — like the rest of the 70,000 in attendance.
But let's back up a bit.
As an editor for a twice-weekly newspaper in northern Wisconsin, I had tried for years to gain media access to Packers games. I had been allowed in the past to participate in several training camp sessions and a preseason game. Photographs were taken and published and tear sheets sent to Green Bay to illustrate what we had been doing to gain the franchise's trust.
All was not for naught. The Packers brass decided that we were willing to do the coverage if they gave us access.
That's how I found myself in the press box on this particular Sunday.
What started as a great way to see the game, albeit from the seventh level, turned into a living nightmare for a fan.
Granted, those working the game as sportswriters are supposed to be objective, they are not to show their colors and all that came to fruition when it was announced loud and clear in the box that there was to be no cheering and to do so meant severe consequences.
Being a fan while covering the game turned into a frustrating experience for this reporter. While the other seasoned scribes didn't seem to have a problem, I found myself kicking and pinching body parts as a reminder to keep my cool.
All was OK through the first half as the Packers and Chargers exchanged scores, much like everyone thought.
But when the third quarter turned to the fourth, it became more difficult to squelch both my smile and enthusiasm.
And as the game clock wound down with the Packers trailing, my heart began to ache and my willingness to keep quiet was wearing thin.
When the Packers passed four straight times from the one-inch line and were stopped on downs, I could barely believe it and wanted to tell everyone in no uncertain terms, but I couldn't, it was forbidden.
That's when Favre connected with Jennings on a 57-yard catch and run that put the Packers ahead for good and tied the quarterback for the most touchdown passes in league history.
As Jenning broke clear, I felt an "oh, my!" blurt out, but I caught myself just in time.
After the score, I looked around and saw a few high fives, wide smiles and "wows" from my companions. That's when I knew that I couldn't have been alone in my frustration. That's when I realized I was in a room of people who also recognized the moment, though in a much more subdued manner.
The crowd in the bowl (whose carrying-ons were barely audible in the seemingly soundproof environment of the press box) were going bananas.
What I would have given just to be a part of it for a moment. What I would have
given to be in my living room at that moment, standing, screaming and being the fan that I always have been.
Instead it was my silent scream that got me through it all. It was knowing that I was in a unique position, having had the chance to see history. I wasn't about to take my eyes off the field. I wasn't about to ruin the moment — not even if I was left to celebrate by myself while surrounded by 70,000 absolutely insane fans letting it all out.
So, when the game finally ended, I gathered myself, my belongings and slowly made my way out of the press box—a room that had seemed eerily like a tomb to me all day—out into the parking lot, which was erupting with thousands chanting "Go, Pack, Go!" There were high fives, hugs and even some tears.
I was overcome with the emotion and couldn't believe it when my own eyes began to well. I was finally back amid those who were acting like I wanted to all day long.
Needless to say, I joined in, happily living a moment that will be difficult to recreate.
All I could think about was how lucky I was, how lucky we all were at that moment.
So, as I look back on this past Sunday afternoon and how I had missed the opportunity to have 6-foot, 4-inch linebackers brush by me on the sidelines after chasing a running back out of bounds; how I had missed the eruptive roar of the nearly 80,000 after big plays; and how the entire experience made up for the sore legs, arms and knees, it became apparent how lucky I am to have had this chance to witness sports history.