January 4, 2016 - One year ago today, I received one of my favorite phone calls of all time. It was John McDonough, Sports Illustrated photographer, calling, "I'm coming to Houston for the Super Bowl, and I wanted to know if you'd be available to assist." Yes, yes, yes...a million times yes.
Let's rewind about four months though. For those who don't know, I work about 3 days a week doing photography at the University of Houston, for the Bauer College of Business. Most of my work there is event photography, head shots and environmental portraits for the website, ad, various corporate collateral pieces and a magazine called Inside Bauer. I don't do any work related to athletics. But alas, I had a connection...in a roundabout way.
August 26, 2016 - I got a text from Houston commercial photographer and friend Robert Seale. Robert used to shoot sports regularly and is friends with John McDonough. Robert said that John called him looking for a Houston assistant to help carry gear at the upcoming UH vs. OU game. Even though I don't work in sports anymore, Robert recommended me and passed along my information since I was knowledgeable of the UH campus (and maybe since he knew I had a bit of photojournalism experience...at least enough sports sense to to be handy on the sidelines). So when John called me, I said yes. Typically I'd prefer to be the one behind the camera, but I'm always up for new experiences and getting to meet and hang out with photographers. So, why not?
Turned out to be a great experience! John was super personable, and treated me like his equal. My job was nothing too hard, only a bit tiring. I basically followed him around carrying 2-3 camera bodies with lenses and swapped them out with him as needed. We worked together two days...one day at practice and the second day at the game.
September 3, 2016 - The day of the UH vs. OU game was quite long, but a lot of fun. I definitely earned my paycheck as we trekked from one end of the field to the other with all of those cameras on my neck and shoulders. On top of that, it was a super exciting football game and UH came out with the win. Go Coogs!!
After a long day of work, John offered to buy me dinner of my choice. Since he's from California, I thought he needed some proper Tex-Mex while in town, so we went to Ninfa's on Navigation for fajitas...and about 10 glasses of iced tea for me. There was hardly enough breaks in the day to drink more than one bottle of water.
As we were parting ways (and since John had seemed happy enough with my work as an assistant), I mentioned that if he came back for the Super Bowl, I'd love to work for him again. I really figured that it wouldn't happen, assuming that for the biggest game of the year, he could probably have any assistant he wanted, not just someone local. So, for the next few months, it didn't really cross my mind to get my hopes up of working the game.
Back to January 4, and you'd think I was a kid who had just won a trip to Disneyworld. I was over the moon. Not only was I going to attend the biggest sporting event in the world, but I was going to be right in the action, and getting paid to be there.
February 5- Game day! It was a Sunday, of course, so I started off the day at Second Baptist. Case Keenum (former UH Coog) was speaking at the church, and I didn't want to miss it. So I listed to Case speak, then snuck out during the last song to meet up with John. The whole day was a bit surreal. I couldn't believe I was going to the Super Bowl.
I think we arrived at NRG about 4-5 hours before the game. Traffic was already getting a bit crazy, with signs for $100 parking everywhere you looked. After parking, we headed through security, which was like airport security on steroids...metal detectors, bombs dogs, bag searches, multiple identification checks. Not only did I have to have a background check to work this game, but upon each entrance of the field, a security guard looked at our badge to make sure our faces matched the photos on them, and they were scanned into a security kiosk. Good thing though. With the craziness in the world today, it was comforting to know that security was tight.
Once inside the gates, we went to the Sports Illustrated offices to get settled and say hi to a few folks. John introduced me to Walter Iooss, and luckily I didn't act too star struck. Walter is a legendary sports photographer, who has shot every single Super Bowl...all of them!! Even if you don't know anything about photography, you wouldn't recognize some of his portraits.
Since we were so early to the game, it was a bit slow paced for a while, which was the calm before the storm. We got to grab a bite to eat in the press area, then check out the stadium and find our assigned field location. Unlike the UH vs. OU, where we could shoot from anywhere on the field, we only had one box to stand in. We were right behind the "O" in the Patriots end zone the whole game. Luckily the guy in the box next to John didn't show up, so we had a tiny bit of breathing room. After that, there was a little powwow with all the SI photogs (7 in all...plus assistants and card runners). We were given our jobs, then it was time to work.
I rarely take a selfie, but the Super Bowl called for a few.
Meet John McDonough!
Once the all of the shenanigans of the Super Bowl began, there was constant movement. Before the actual game, there were tons of people roaming the sidelines. That was a bit stressful, because I was in charge of protecting the cameras. I just knew someone was going to step on one. I didn't meet any celebrities at the game, but they were all over the place. I don't generally go crazy at seeing someone famous, but I was excited that Pres. George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush were there for the coin toss. The day after the game, I found out the Elton John was at the game. Not gonna lie...If I had seen him, I might have gone a little fangirl on him.
Then, the game actually started. Once the game was in action though, it felt a little more like a normal football game. There was less hoopla on the sidelines. But we were busy. Between John and I, we had 5 camera bodies with lenses. He wore two on straps on his person and shot with one of the big guns. I managed the other two cameras with big lenses, like the one below. Basically, if the players moved further down the field, I passed him a body with a bigger zoom. Then as they moved closer to us, we swapped and I passed over the bodies with smaller zooms. It was quite a workout, and a tad bit stressful, considering something like what is pictured below costs about $20-25K. Luckily I made it through the entire game without dropping a camera or scratching a lens. Phew!
The half-time show was probably my favorite part of the Super Bowl. It's quite impressive how fast they can assemble and disassemble a full-on concert. Luckily, we were able to be a bit more flexible with our location during half-time. It took a bit of finagling, but we made our way closer to the stage as the singing began. I've never thought of myself as a Lady Gaga fan. I knew she had a beautiful voice, especially after that time she sang the Sound of Music tribute at the Oscars. But wow! She can sure put on a show!
As we were heading back to our little assigned square on the sidelines, I heard someone mention wake boarding. Of course, I was immediately at attention and looked up to see a Thunderbird pilot. Apparently Thunderbird No. 6 likes to wakeboard and saw my cap (Ronix is a wakeboard brand). I was slightly unprofessional and asked John to take my photo with the pilot before returning back to my assistant duties.
The second half of the game was much like the first, with lots of shuffling of equipment. But the action of the game was more exciting, since it turned out to be a historical game with it going into overtime. With about 10 seconds left in the game, I grabbed my phone to catch the confetti spray. My press pass didn't allow me on the field until 2 minutes after the final whistle. At that time, my job was basically done. I just had to guard the three bodies with bigger lenses while John took in all the action. The card runner who was working with us and I just enjoyed the moment of celebration that was taking place around us.
An hour or so later, we had packed up and it was back to reality. I was back to being just another Houstonian on the freeway.