Shooting from the sidelines
Being on the sideline for a Green Bay Packers’ game is the dream of many a fan, and the reality isn’t far from the fantasy.
But don’t think it’s a cakewalk. It’s a privilege, a lot of hard work, a lot of split-second decisions, a lot of working around a lot of other people. But all too worth it.
There’s a huge gap between watching a game at home and making sure you get usable images, or, heaven forbid, don’t completely miss the defining play of the game.
It happens that way to some degree for the fans, although the new Lambeau video boards have really brought some of the living room experience to the stands and boxes. But the break-down-every-play, re-run it on the DVR, figure out how many plays after the holding call Green Bay can get off to kick the long field goal before the wind shifts for quarter’s end type of analysis?
It flies right out the door when you’re shooting the game.
I’ll be working the game and Packers’ sideline for all I’m worth, taking a ton of photos (upwards of 1,500 per game) and always planning for the next shot. I’ll glance up at the clock and get slapped by the reality there’s 2:47 left in the half.
It surprises me every time.
I have to watch the highlight vids later to put together what I missed. Not plays, but the overall ebb and flow of the game.
That’s foremost in my mind when thinking of the sideline experience, but several other thoughts and anecdotes have come from shooting a handful of games at Lambeau.
When we’re talking fans’ minds, the first thought about those photographers and videographers at the game is the amazing crashes occurring when a hyper-speed play reaches the sideline on a collision course with the unsuspecting camera person. As long as they’re relatively unharmed, it’s even a little humorous. Thus far – knock on wood – I’ve avoided the blow-up, but there have been a few close encounters, two of them involving Randall Cobb.
(High on my random intertwined encounters scale, he also figures into one of my funniest verbal interactions, when I had a post-practice locker room interview pass and approached a player heading into a keypad-locked area. I asked if this was where media also entered, not thinking it highly likely with the whole keypad thing. It turns out the players had a weight-room session before the interview period. The player, who never made the cut-down to 53, said to me, “I don’t know,” and turned past me to yell, “Hey, Cobb. Is this where the media goes?” Randall, who had just taken an awesome selfie with a fan’s phone, walked up, eyeballed me to see if I could truly be for real, and said “No, man!”
Right away I assured him I didn’t think so, but I had missed the instructions on where and when to head into the locker room. He might have been still shaking his head in my wake after he told me where he thought I should go. BTW, he was right. To the loading dock, not where you’re thinking.)
So back to my near-crashes with Cobb. The first was when Aaron Rodgers returned from his calf injury in the second half of the Detroit game in the critical division and home-field clinching contest of December 28, 2014.
Rodgers hits Cobb on a crossing pattern and he takes that reception across the field for a big gainer, with Deandre Levy chasing him at full tilt the whole way, on a bee-line for me. They don’t let off their sprint until crossing the sideline, missing me by inches. I wasn’t unsuspecting on this one, so it was no big deal and I didn’t feel like I needed to make any big move. Levy – one of my favorite non-Packers in the league – may have thought otherwise and gave me a shoulder as he made his way back onto the field.
It was likely out of frustration at not catching Cobb, although, incredibly, he didn’t lose any ground either and he has a little more than 40 pounds on Randall. Needless to say, I didn’t and don’t hold it against him, and even wear it as a badge of pride.
The next incident came during the recent Seattle home game. Rodgers was putting on an absolute scrambling clinic, so there was no peeling away from him early in passing situations. I was zoomed in tight as he made multiple defenders wonder where their jocks were lying, then he used his trademark flick of the wrist to release the ball.
I quickly swung my camera, with 80-200, f2.8 lens attached, to try to pick up his intended receiver. When Rodgers flicks the ball with that look on his face, it’s on target. I no sooner than swung that lens than I swung it away to avoid smacking a blazing Cobb, blasting out of bounds once again.
Can you imagine how you (or me) would feel if it was our big feet that caused an injury to Randall Cobb, or any player for that matter? Can you say Steve Bartman? Green Bay fans would probably be more forgiving than those Chi-town backers were to Bartman, but could we forgive ourselves?
At least with Cobb’s reflexes, I would probably have to try to hit him to actually make contact.
The strangest near-collision came right before that Seattle game. I walked out of the tunnel, once again marveling at the sight of thousands upon thousands of adoring Green Bay fans and just the thought of once again being that close to the gorgeous playing surface of Lambeau Field.
It took me a moment to notice that Commissioner Roger Goodell was just yards away doing a pre-game interview down at field level. I quickly grabbed a shot of him, chimped what I got (chimping is looking at your monitor to see if your settings are correct) since it was the first photo I had taken inside a new location, okayed the set-up, and swung the camera up to take more. In that moment, Goodell had finished his interview and darted for the tunnel to avoid hearing the kind of boos and catcalls he experiences at the draft and many other locations. Obviously, he hasn’t heard or doesn’t believe how winsome Green Bay fans are, or least wasn’t taking any chances of backlash to Deflategate. Of course, on that front, most of us are in his corner.
No matter what his reasoning, his quick exit put his face in direct line with my moving camera. I narrowly avoided becoming a national trivia answer (What’s the name of the goofball/hero that gave a black eye to the Commish?). He flashed me an, “Obviously, you don’t know who I am!” look, but I just as obviously thought, “Of course, I know who you are. You think I’m taking photos of all the random people standing on this sideline?”
Maybe it was just a “Really, goofball?” look.
My favorite story involving the Green Bay tunnel came before the Jets game in 2014.
My timing wasn’t so great on this one, I thought, but it turned out to be impeccable. I had hoped to get some warm-up shots to figure out some angles, but as I came down from the media workroom, it turned out the team was returning to the locker room, warm-ups completed. Probably shouldn’t have had the extra serving in the media dining room.
There were several Packers employees exhorting us to stay back so we wouldn’t trip Clay Matthews and friends on their way to the home team locker room. Once the team cleared, it was okay for us to proceed to the field, provided we stuck behind the courtesy rope to the side of the players’ walkway. You can imagine they need a lot more room than we do, so roughly six feet of space is parceled out to the media. Plenty of room for me, even with my two cameras — one on a monopod — and bag.
Yeah, except for a sizeable group of guys ahead, all blocking the way to the field. “Now, what,” I say under my breath as I move forward.
I take five steps and see lots of jerseys, the first with “Bratkowski” on the back. It dawns on me like a slap in the face.
My childhood heroes are all in front of me.
Several utterances of “excuse me” later, I’m next to Willie Davis in his wheelchair. I stutter, “I’m a big fan of yours, sir,” and shake his hand. Willie takes it in the way he has a million times before, with grace and a total lack of irritation.
I turn, feeling my day is already complete before the game has even started, and nearly bump into Bowd Dowler talking with Jerry Kramer. I manage to not make a fool of myself, I think, while I tell them how much they mean to Packers’ fans in general and me in particular. Two more handshakes and I leave the tunnel, more than a little stunned and much more than a little tickled.
The next year, the Seattle game, is Round 2 for me and Alumni Day, but this time I’m on time and in position to shoot before the alumni players assemble in the tunnel. Getting the shot has to take precedence over making the acquaintance. After they’re done with introductions, I still manage to tell Willie that I’m reading his book (Closing the Gap: Lombardi, the Packers Dynasty, and the Pursuit of Excellence) and like it a lot. I’m not pandering; it’s an excellent read filled with solid life lessons.
That brings up a difficulty to shooting the sideline. As a lifelong fan, it’s really hard to not cheer over the huge plays, or much worse, say something to the referee or side and back judges about a perceived bad call.
Packers.com editor Vic Ketchman assures the loyal ‘Ask Vic’ crowd that he has no intention or inclination to root for the teams he covers, at least when he’s not joking about waving a Terrible Towel in the press box. (Vic started his long career by covering the Pittsburgh Steelers, so his occasional anecdotes about Chuck Noll and Mean Joe Greene have some readers convinced he harbors a hankering for all things black and gold.) But Vic has been in the role of impartial reporter for decades, and his line of thinking is well ingrained.
Mine isn’t. While I’ve mostly been able to accomplish that with prep sports, I’ve been rooting, loudly, for the Packers since I was very young and only recently received the honor of covering the team at close proximity. It takes much self-control to pull it off, but the thought of losing the right to be there is a strong mitigating force.
Also the fact you would stick out like a sore digit helps. Everyone else is so professional, that you would feel the fool for losing your own cool.
The only people who are showing much emotion are the former players standing in a small coned-off area on the sideline during those alumni weekend games. Another aside, former field goal kicker Chester Marcol called Jayrone Elliot’s critical interception in the Seattle game. I was setting up a potential future story and we got to talking about the game at hand. “We need the ball back!” Chester said. I may use the universal ‘we’ when discussing the Pack with friends, and never here or on message boards, but to my mind, Chester can use ‘we’ any time he wants.
Especially when he calls the game-ending pick.
This man helped the Pack beat the Bears after his field goal kick was blocked, snatching the ball and sprinting to the corner of the end zone for the win. Back when the Packers/Bears’ rivalry was the best in sports. I guess that’s the definition of “we.”
All the Packers were very friendly in that narrow confines, including Mark Murphy, the safety, not the team president. Wait, Mark Murphy the team president was a safety, too. Just for the Redskins.
I end up on one knee in the front of the section several times that game since it’s a short distance beyond the kicking net for Mason Crosby and Tim Masthay, the nearest open area to the middle of the field. The alumni are gracious and never say a word or throw a look.
Much as I try to be a rational guy, sometimes superstition gets the best of you. I spent the first half of that Seattle game on the ‘good guys’ sideline, but thought I should mix it up in the second half just to have some different angles. As I’m lost in shooting, it gradually dawns on me that everything is going Seattle’s way.
A short time later, the Seahawks take a 17-13 lead and I can’t take it any more. I’m leaving the dark side behind. A short while after I return to Green Bay’s sideline, the whole scenario flips. The Packers take over, and win going away. Seattle never scores again.
Was it right to give in to superstition? Who knows? But it was better than living with a nagging feeling of somehow contributing to a loss.
By far the most common request I get prior to a game I’ll cover is if the person can be my assistant. When it’s great friend or sweet woman, I would love to be able to say, “Yes!” But there’s no way. I explain that even the guys with the $12,000 lenses on the end of their $6,500 cameras don’t have assistants on the field, so how could I expect to have one?
The only person I see with an assistant is the sideline reporter and she gets two – one to hold the iPad in front of her, and the other to lug around her rolling cooler of water. It’s a little humorous to watch the parade, but more power to her.
The next-most-common inquiry is whether someone with a sideline credential is locked into a specific territory, say between the 10 and 20 yard lines on the Packers’ side. No, you are allowed to go wherever you want around the bowl with a few caveats:
•Don’t walk in front of the network cameras set up in the corners of the end zones. There’s even a person to stop you if you try.
•Watch out for the camera boom cart that patrols the home sideline. The guy driving may have some Indy experience. No, it’s probably a dirt-track background with the evil glint he gets in his eye when he’s ready to roll.
•Don’t take photos behind the benches. Teams are notoriously touchy about having their secrets spread to the other side – see Spygate – so photos of the bench area may only be taken from the side. It’s just as well; that cart would take you out!
•Don’t worry about not taking photos from behind the bench. You can get better shots from the side, ala my Rodgers’ small smirk photo when he was taking a well-deserved second-half break on the sideline in the last year’s Bears’ blow-out.
•Stay back from the tunnel entrances when teams are entering/leaving the field. That’s one you don’t have to remember; you will be warned.
Absolutely do not take this next bit as complaining; I know how that would play with this opportunity I receive. I thank God every time the Packers say yes to a credential request.
But it’s not all peaches and cream down there in the trenches.
No matter how well you plan, there’s a good chance you still won’t get the shot.
Case in point- last year’s Jets game. I was set up 20 yards or so ahead of the line of scrimmage, sort of my standard practice since I don’t own the 400 or 600 mm lens that can capture the action from the opposite end zone.
All of a sudden it hit me that AR was due to launch one downfield for Jordy Nelson, so I jumped 50 yards ahead. I got the first shot, but at the exact moment when Jordy made a cutback against the deep defense a frustrated Jets’ exec walked in front of me. Now the frustration transferred to me. I was able to get a couple of shots of Jordy’s back as he raced across the field to paydirt, but I missed the best part of the play even when I had hit the lotto and rightly predicted it. And absolutely nothing could be said that would make any difference other than my swift ejection.
It’s just a fact of life.
The NFL gets the front line, the rest of media gets the back line. Camera crews make complete sense, it’s their show. But giving priority to hanger-on’ers and guys who have completed their set-up jobs and are just watching doesn’t seem as clear. The teams are stuck between the 35’s, but there are quite a number of watchers outside that span to work around and they’re constantly moving.
There’s the chagrin of thinking you nailed the shot(s) only to find several of the images out of focus. Remember that Cobb anecdote when Levy chased him across the field? I was excited about tracking that play the width of the field until I saw I only had a couple in focus to show for it.
Not everyone gets to use the $6,500 body and $12,000 lens. Night games exacerbate the limitations of the lower-end camera bodies, but even in daytime, the action is fast and furious. Of course, those long-lens guys get the unobstructed view of the field from the end zone, but it takes talent and experience to pick out the important part of the play when you’re zoomed in that tight.
Then there’s the tendency to watch a critical play instead of shooting it after years of conditioning watching football.
That’s all on me, completely my fault, which makes it harder to swallow.
You know how they call it the “Frozen Tundra?” It can be a great advantage for the team as well as a rite of passage for the true fan. But it doesn’t help to keep hands warm when your arms are raised up and holding onto metal objects. And if you wear choppers, you can’t feel the shutter release.
The equipment suffers, too. My camera batteries kept dying in the brutal cold of the Pittsburgh game of 2013. Fortunately, I had another set and was able to run down the tunnel, find an outlet and continue to swap them out throughout the second half.
This last observation isn’t a negative at all, more of a funny quirk of humanity. A few times I’ve been asked to take a photo in the euphoria of the post-game meetings by opposing players/coaches with previous ties. Maybe they played together in college, or even against each other in big rivalry games. There’s no mention of how I should get it to them, as if the important thing is that it somehow is recorded, not that they have an actual copy.
Well, that probably encompasses all you ever wanted to know, and more, of the sideline experience. It really is a dream come true.
A big thank you to all you Packers fans for providing the audience that makes it happen.
I’ll leave you with a couple more revealing photos, all taken after the pressure of the game had relented, the bliss of a hard-earned win washing away the adrenaline.
Before our company started up Packerland Pride, I served as a long-time sports editor for a community weekly paper. I covered mostly prep sports, sprinkled with local boy and girl gone on to bigger and better things at the collegiate level.
I love those local sports, watching kids I knew from an early age push their limits and grow into solid contributors and teammates.
But my true passion always belonged to the Green Bay Packers.
More than once, I attempted to get onto the sideline of a Packers game to bring photos of the Packers to our readership. But I was refused due to working for a weekly.
I get it, and never held it against the organization.
If they approved every request from a reporter/photographer, they would quickly run out of real estate. It has got to be a huge undertaking to process all those requests, and then assure public and team safety and integrity of the game after the fact. Even though I’ve won state awards for my photography and feel I can be trusted, how do they know that? They aren’t going to have time to research every potential attendee if there are several hundred applying.
Now that I work for a publication focused precisely on the Packers and their fans, I’ve got the vehicle to put me into consideration.
I surely relish the opportunity the Packers have given me to shoot the games I have, and I try to make robust use of the images I take, so it’s worth it to them to continue to offer me a passport to sideline excursions.