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My View: Living a dream

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As an aspiring sports photographer I often found myself hoping to one day be on the sidelines photographing my favorite NFL team. That dream came true Sunday, 5 November 2023 when I photographed the Indianapolis Colts vs the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium during the Salute to Service game. How did this all happen? Simple, set a goal and go for it.

A little about me, I am a 24-year veteran of the United States Army, over 19 years of that in Special Operations.  After retiring in 2006, I began working as a Department of Defense contractor supporting the United States Army Special Operations Command at Fort Liberty, NC.  I married my high school sweetheart, Marie, just after joining the military and we were blessed with two great boys, Zachary, and Nicholas. We pushed our kids to try every sport while growing up. It was during this time I found myself reaching for the camera and photographing the game more than just watching and enjoying it. This continued through the high school and college years as my youngest played football at Wingate University. Unfortunately, photography took a back seat for several years due to the extremely heavy workload at my job.


In late 2021, I refocused my effort, purchased professional photography gear and started sharpening my skills to continue pursuing my dream. I started asking local high schools' permission to photograph any sporting events, providing photo galleries for students and parents to enjoy in return for access. After several months of resharpening my skills, I applied for and was approved to be a photographer for CBS MaxPreps, posting my first gallery on December 5th, 2022. I immediately started photographing as many high school sporting events as possible resulting in over 150 galleries being posted in only eleven months.

In September 2023, I felt I had enough experience to start expanding beyond high school sports and cover some local college football games. I started requesting credentials to photograph college football games starting with a with local Division 3 university.  Following each game, I edited and provided the link to the photos to each school and then requested credentials to photograph the next level for the following weekend.  Three weeks after starting down this path I was fortune to have been given access and photographed a D3, D2, D1AA football game.  I reached out to UNC Chapel Hill and requested credentials to photograph their Military Appreciation Day game against Campbell University on November 4th, 2023.  This game was significant since my youngest son, also a military vet, had recently left the military and was attending Campbell Law school. Upon receiving the news that I was granted credentials to the UNC Chapel Hill game I realized I was one rung away from achieving my dream of photographing my favorite NFL team.  I reached out to the Carolina Panthers and humbly requested permission to photograph their Salute to Service game on November 5th, against the Indianapolis Colts.  The following day I received an email from the team photographer and after a brief conversation heard the words, I thought I would never hear, "The Carolina Panthers would love to have you on the side lines photographing the game".  The next four weekends I photographed two additional D2's and two D1's to maintain and hone my skills in preparation for the big day.

Following the UNC Chapel Hill game, I departed for Charlotte arriving late in the evening.  Once at the hotel, I layed out the equipment and started recharging batteries, cleaning equipment and packing / repacking my bag.  I started mentally preparing, making a list of photographs I wanted to leave with.  This list included photographs of the tunnel leading to the field, the stadium from different angles as well as the field from the stands.  While I wanted story telling photographs I was not going to let those distract me from my main goal of photographing the players.  I planned to be on the field early enough to capture the players entering the field for no pads warm-up as well as warm-ups with pads followed by the game.  High on my list was to conduct a recon of the path behind the benches to ensure I can get around without getting in anyone's way.  Equipment was ready and the plan in place, it was time to get some much-needed sleep and get ready for the big day.

Game day, I woke up extremely early and could not get back to sleep.  I was going over my plan of action checking the settings on my camera's as well as checking the layout of my utility belt which woke my wife.  She knew it was futile to ask me to get a few more hours of sleep.  After a long, several hours waiting and pacing my wife finally said "just go!, You want to get there early so just go".  With that push, I grabbed my gear and left.  I arrived at the parking lot adjacent to Bank of America Stadium, secured my gear and started making my way to the exit.  Up until now only a handful of close friends and co-workers knew about today.  It was time to tell the rest of my friends and family the news.  Once outside the building I started a Facebook live and informed all that while photographing yesterday's UNC Chapel Hill game was the best day in my photography career it didn't compare to what I was getting ready to do and with that I reversed the camera and showed all the main entrance to Bank of America Stadium. 

I quickly made my way to the media will call and received my badge then proceeded through the process of getting my bags checked and tagged and finally made my way down to the media work room.  I was now surrounded by actual working sports photographers from local county media outlets to Associated Press.  All the photographers were extremely friendly and once they realized it was my first NFL game they were very forthcoming with tips and advice.  After getting settled I walked over and received my NFL Media vest and arm band.  I strapped everything on and started asking workers how to get to the field.  As I turned the corner, I could see the opening to the field at the end of the tunnel.  I walked out onto the field and just soaked it all in for a minute or two.  I know those that work in this stadium have grown accustomed to its site and have probably forgot the significance of being allowed to set foot on the field.  So many young men work and sweat from recreational ball through college to hopefully one day make it to this level.  The same goes for support staff and photographers yet here I am. I wanted to make sure I gave it my best effort and test my skills at the highest level.

After a few moments, I realized it would be a great time to get those high-level stadium photographs since no players have taken the field for their no-pads warm-ups.  I quickly went back into the tunnel, found the elevator and took it up to the 5th level.  Once out in the stands I realized the elevator puts you at the bottom of the 5th level, you still must go up what feels like 50 or more rows of seats to get to the top.  After making the climb I switched lenses on my Canon R6 to the Canon F1.8 18mm to 35mm.  I took pictures of the stadium at different perspectives to best appreciate the view.  I quickly realized that all the seats in the stadium are good seats.  The view of the game would be great from this level or below.  I started seeing a trickle of players making their way out to the field, so I quickly made my way down.  Walking back onto the field I started seeing players up close.  Some were stretching individually; some practicing moves while others were talking with players from the other team. It was time to start taking pictures.


Using my Canon R3 with a F2.8 RF 100mm to 300mm lens with a 1.4 teleconverter I was able to start photographing players in the middle of the field and the far sidelines easily.  The 1.4 teleconverter raised my F-Stop from a maximum F2.8 to an F4 however, unlike when photographing a high school and college night football game, the stadium lighting at Bank of America Stadium are so good that it isn't going to be an issue.   I started walking back and forth along the sidelines trying to find opportunities to get good pictures of the players.  Initially, players would run through individual stretching drills.  After a while players started progressing to practicing their skills. Offensive players would start throwing and catching drills and progress in distance and speed while lineman would engage in one-on-one blocking drills.


Now it was all about positioning, I would try to anticipate which way the receivers would be breaking in order to position myself so that I would get a picture of their face while catching the ball.  This time is the best time to capture clean shots of individual players in clean space with the ball in flight and hopefully them leaping to make the catch.  The good thing about this drill is that if you miss the shot the first time you will have a few more tries to get it right before they move on to the next drill.  While my credentials allowed me to get onto the field, I elected to stay on the sideline to ensure I wasn't going to get in anyone's way.  Eventually, the players would leave the field to change and get ready for their pads warm-up.


Warmups with pads were a little more structured than the no-pads warm-ups.   The difficultly here is that both teams will be practicing at the same time.  Each team will have quarterbacks in two locations each running different drills.  Normally the drills are short routes first followed by longer routes.  You have to see which side will have the receivers breaking in toward you in order to get the best photograph.  After a while the quarterbacks flip the routes so it all quarterbacks practice all throwing routes.  This is not only a good  time to get really good photographs of the starters and backup players but also a good rehearsal for the photographer to work out his kinks and validate his settings. This was extremely valuable for me, building my confidence prior to game action.  With all the warm-ups over it was time to get ready for the start of the game.   While the players went into the locker rooms in preparation for the start of the game, I took the time to swap out my memory cards on my cameras in order to start fresh


The event started with a parachute jump into the stadium by several veteran skydivers.  Following the jump a large American flag was unfurled by an army of volunteers and the National Anthem was played.  Lastly, a flyover by four F-35B from the VMFA-542 squadron stationed at MCAS Cherry Point, NC was conducted followed by fireworks.  Next came the introductions of the teams.  The stadium erupted when the Carolina Panthers entered the field and continued though player introductions.  I know it was time to execute.  The Carolina Panthers won the coin flip and deferred.  I quickly relocated and positioned myself and dialed in my camera on the Panthers kick returner. With a swing of a leg it was game on.


From that point forward it was chasing the action.  Only being allowed to photograph from the goal line to the 20 yrd line on every side of the field and behind the endzone means you must plan your shots and anticipate the next play.  I started getting all the safe shots first.  The quarterback in his stance, a handoff, players in motion.  Next I would try to get pictures of some of the defensive players since I was still in line with the back of the offensive line.  Depending where the line of scrimmage is I might be able to get a shot of the offensive line, focusing on the center then repeating with other players in focus. Once the offense moved to around the 30 yrd line, I relocated, sprinting behind the bench to get to the other 20 yrd line.  Speed is essential when you are a single photographer shooting a game.  While the organization might have several photographers positioned in different parts of the field ready to capture action when it enters their zone, working alone you must put yourself in a position to be able to cover several angles.


As the game progressed, I realized I had enough of the standard shots and started to go after key action photographs.  Identifying the receiver who is going to get the ball then moving the camera and focusing on the receiver in time to get a good catch photograph in high school is relatively easy. High school quarterbacks don't' go through a progression of multiple receivers.  Typically, at the high school level the quarterback starts staring down the intended receiver upon getting the ball in his hands.  In college, this becomes a little more difficult since at that level quarterbacks are learning and mastering the art of working through their progressions.  Still, depending on the level of college football being photographed this is still doable.  In the NFL it is extremely difficult to identify the intended receiver since the quarterbacks will intentionally stare down other receivers to draw the defense to one side then through the ball in a completely different direction at the last minute.  I started off by positioning myself Infront of the offense and photographing the quarterback's release.  If possible, I try to get photographs of him throwing in the packet as well as scrambling.  Next, I start trying to get the picture of the throw and quickly move the camera to the general area of the throw and try to identify the receiver to photograph the catch.  This is difficult, at least for me however every now and then I get the sequence.


As the game progresses, I tried to see what pictures I was missing.  I had yet to get a long pass and catch and I had not yet got a touchdown picture.  I started trying to go after the mid to long catch photographs.  This was very elusive since its like gambling.  Knowing that the Panthers were down in points and time was running out I felt that the Carolina quarterback would be throwing the ball more to get yardage quick.  Every play I would select a receiver and follow that receiver until the end of the play.  Unfortunately, I kept picking the wrong receiver and the pressure was heavy causing the quarterback to scramble and run instead of throwing on several occasions.  On one touchdown throw I had the receiver in focus and had already started shooting when the referee crossed in front of my view at the time of the catch.  Sticking to my plan paid off several time allowing me to capture the catching photographs I was missing.


At the end of the day, I had taken over 4000 pictures, which after editing resulted in over 700 great images. Looking back on my plan, I would have included going behind the endzone. In all my past high school and college game coverage I would relocate to behind the endzone once the team got in the redzone. During this game I elected not to go behind the endzone due to the number of working photographers already in position and the photograph area behind the endzone being so narrow. I felt if I were to try to quickly get into position, I might disrupt one of the working photographers and potential cost him a shot, so I elected to forgo the endzone.

Something I failed to mention during this article is that for most of the game I was mic-ed up and being shadowed by Mr. Dan Nettles, Head of Digital Video Productions for the Carolina Panthers. Mr. Nettles was videotaping in order to create a story on my experience photographing not only my first NFL game but my favorite NFL team. Mr. Nettles is indeed quite the professional and a master of his craft. His ability to keep the conversation and dialog going made what was initially slightly stressful endeavor into a relaxing, enjoyable experience.

I want to thank the Carolina Panther organization for making this dream come true. I especially want to thank Miss. Chanelle Smith-Walker, Carolina Team Photographer, for reaching out to me after receiving my request.  If it were not for her taking the initiative and contacting me to find out more reference my request this would still on my bucket list of things to do.  The Carolina Panthers have always been great supporters of the military.  I witnessed this throughout my years in the military and seeing soldiers receive care packages while deployed and once again I see it now.  Thank you for allowing this veteran to "Live a Dream".

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