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Covering the Super Bowl (and Other Big Games) for SI

When I showed Dave Boss, the Creative Director at NFL Creative Services, the photos from my first Super Bowl—Super Bowl IX between Pittsburgh and Minnesota at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans (who knew New Orleans could be so cold and rainy?)—I told him how disappointed I was. (It was Dave Boss, along with John Wiebusch, who gave me my start shooting the NFL. I shot for them at NFL Properties, which was then the publishing arm of the League.) It’s not that the shots were particularly flawed in any way; they were fine action shots. It was just that the Super Bowl was the biggest game of the season, and I should have had the best photos, right? Dave, who started shooting Super Bowls at Super Bowl I and continued through Super Bowl XXV, reassured me that was not necessarily so. As important as the Super Bowl is to the players, the league, and millions of fans, to a photographer it’s just another game—or it should be.

However, it’s more crowded, has annoying security, and places more pressure on you to perform because you’re shooting with the best sports photographers. Although some Super Bowls have been exciting games with thrilling finishes (Super Bowls XIII, XXII, and XLII), many have not (Super Bowls XX, XXIV, and XXXV). But to a photographer, the task remains the same—shoot key players and big plays. With every game since Super Bowl XXII played indoors or almost entirely at night, finding the good light is no longer a factor.

Shooting with the SI Flex System

Super Bowl XII (in 1978) was the first Super Bowl I shot for SI. The game was between Denver and Dallas, and it took place in the Superdome in New Orleans. (Who knew Hurricanes had alcohol in them? They tasted so good!) At that time, John Dominis was the Director of Photography at SI. John was, I believe, the originator of the coverage game plan that came to be called the SI Flex.

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Jerry Rice in Super Bowl XXIII. This was my first Super Bowl cover. Rice had just caught a pass over the middle from Joe Montana late in the fourth quarter. This play set up Montana’s game-winning pass to John Taylor in the end zone.

Analog SLR, 300mm lens.

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Ed “Too Tall” Jones puts a hurt on Broncos QB Craig Morton in Super Bowl XI. This was the first Super Bowl that I worked for Sports Illustrated.

Analog SLR, 400mm lens.

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Tampa Bay’s Mike Alston rolls over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXVII.

Canon EOS-1D, Canon EF 600mm f/4L lens, f4 @ 1/1000, ISO 1000.

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Aaron Rodgers’ “Super Bowl hop.” Green Bay’s QB takes to the air to avoid a sack in Super Bowl XLV.

Canon EOS-1D Mk IV, Canon 70–200mm f2.8L lens at 70mm, f2.8 @ 1/2000, ISO 2000.

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Super Bowl spike. Ricky Waters of the 49ers leaps up to spike the ball after a touchdown in the Niners’ Super Bowl XXIX rout of the San Diego Chargers.

Analog SLR, 24–70mm lens.

The modern evolution of the SI Flex system for covering the Super Bowl as it has been implemented by Steve Fine, SI’s Director of Photography for 17 years, requires 11 photographers.

One shooter roams on each sideline (see “Sideline Rant: The Pitfalls of Shooting from the Sidelines” in Chapter 2), four shooters head to the end zones (one on each side of each end zone), and four more are in seats as close as possible to each corner of each end zone. At some time in the early fall, Fine attends a “walk-through” at the host stadium to select the seats. It’s a tricky business because equipment like boom cameras—and entire stages—that were never mentioned in any NFL game plan tend to appear at game time.

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This is the surprise onside kick that the Saints used to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV—and yes, it is a bit overexposed. Why, you might ask? Well, because at halftime I decided to shoot the on-field performance by The Who (or at least some elderly gentlemen pretending to be The Who), and to do so I raised my ISO to 6400. Of course, I forgot to change it back for the first play of the second half, proving once again that we all make mistakes.

Canon EOS-1D Mk IV, Canon EF 400mm f2.8L lens, f2.8 @ 1/2000, ISO 6400.

The eleventh photographer spot—filled for years by the incomparable Bill Frakes—is the “eye in the sky” overhead spot. This position is usually at or near mid-field and is seemingly higher every year. It requires someone with a triathlete’s lung capacity to retrieve memory cards, and it’s not glamorous. But once in a while something happens in the game that no one at field level has a clear shot at. That’s when Bill would save the day. Bill also filled this role at hundreds of big college and non-Super Bowl NFL games. All of SI’s Super Bowl shooters slept better at night knowing Bill was up there. In 2013, Dave Klutho took over Bill’s spot, continuing the tradition.

Depending on the stadium, we may use a few situational add-on photographers. If it’s physically possible (and security allows it) for someone to actually be over the field in an indoor stadium that has catwalks (Phoenix or New Orleans, for example), we’ll position a photographer up on these walkways. If there are catwalks but we cannot have a live shooter on them, we will set up some remote cameras up there.

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I felt pretty good about my take from the first half of Super Bowl XLIV in Miami in 2010. I had good coverage on both the Colts and the Saints, including the Colts’ Clint Session stopping the Saints’ Pierre Thomas at the goal line.

Canon EOS-1D Mk IV, Canon EF 70–200mm f2.8L II lens at 125mm, f2.8 @ 1/1600, ISO 2000.

Another recent addition to the game plan is the Gigapan camera. This camera, which is on a computer-controlled mount, takes numerous shots of the game and the crowd. The shots are digitally stitched together to create a monstrous file of over 1000 megapixels. SI then puts the file on the internet, and everyone can zoom in to find themselves in high resolution. I’m usually the one picking my nose in the photo.

So everyone has a designated spot from which to shoot. Mine is almost always in the end zone on the side of the QB’s throwing arm. With the Flex system, the Super Bowl becomes a game of what comes your way or what doesn’t. You’re covering the game, sure, but from one particular spot. What are the rules? There are only two of them: Don’t miss anything that comes your way, and don’t leave your spot. Well, we all know that rules are made to be broken. I broke them once in Super Bowl XXX and my photo made the cover, and then I broke them again in Super Bowl XXVI and missed one of the biggest plays of the game, Ty Law’s interception of a Kurt Warner pass returned for a Patriots TD.

As it turned out, Super Bowl XLIV was all about one play—and it happened to come my way. Here are five shots from that play’s sequence (the entire play, shot on high-speed continuous mode, comprised roughly 60 shots).

  • What are the rules? There are only two of them: Don’t miss anything that comes your way, and don’t leave your spot.
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