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Bonus post: What it's like to cover an NFL game

Ontonagon (Michigan) Area High School's football field, left, and Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. Taken at the same angle, focal length — a nearly exact 1:1 side-by-side of two football fields that figure significantly in my life and career.

Camera slung on your shoulder, walking through a corridor in the bowels of the stadium, with an NFL photographer’s vest, you walk onto the field in front of 80,000 cheering people.

The poignant full-throated final notes of the national anthem are followed with the thundering whoosh of a flyover by a pair of fighter jets, with full-throated afterburners. The applause gives way to an electric atmosphere, a buzzing anticipation leading up to kickoff.

Lambeau Field is shown in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Lambeau Field is shown from the tunnel before an NFL football game between the Green Bay Packers and Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)

That’s when the real work begins.

The size and speed of the players, and the crack of the pads is overwhelming. You hear them calling signals, talking smack and celebrating.

The sensory overload while covering an NFL game is hard to comprehend. The environment is rattling — you’re on the biggest stage in American sports, working amongst a group of some of the best sports photographers, shooting images of the best athletes.

Hands down, this is my favorite assignment I have the privilege of doing every fall. I take a few Sundays and travel to my nearest NFL city, Green Bay, Wisconsin, and partake in the media frenzy that is the NFL. The venue, Lambeau Field, is iconic and filled to the brim with NFL legend and lore.

I’ve shot Packers games since 2017, and each one feels just as new and exciting. How did it happen?

A dream, a path, a step forward

I grew up watching and rooting for the Green Bay Packers. Although in 2000, at 10 years old, I watched the Tennessee Titans rally past the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship to advance to the Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams. I rooted for the Titans in that game, and I was crushed when they lost to the Rams when Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson was tackled 1 yard short of a potential game-tying score in the final seconds. The Titans hurried to the line, but the clock expired and that was it. For Tennessee, it was a devastating loss and the most heart-breaking way to lose the biggest game in American sports. As a result, my allegiance was split between the Packers and Titans.

Sports has been a focal point of my life. I grew up playing hockey, baseball and football. I've grown up watching everything. During the pandemic, I filled the no-sports void by watching obscure sporting events on YouTube like marble racing and wiffle ball. Sports is the greatest reality TV, and do-or-die competition makes for compelling storylines and history.

From fifth to seventh grade, I was a manager for the Ontonagon Area High School football program. I put in so many days on the practice fields, filling water bottles. I traveled with the team on away games, staring out the bus window and having thoughts about what kind of football fields I could see in the future. Little did I know, I could end up at Lambeau Field.

As I got closer to college, I knew I'd somehow find something revolving around sports. While studying at Central Michigan University, I took advantage of covering whatever I could. As I taught myself photography and learned from peers, it opened up another avenue of coverage. Shooting photos also brought me from the press box and closer to the action.

It started during my time working as the sports editor at The Daily News in Iron Mountain, Michigan, an hour’s drive north of Green Bay. Part of my work at the News was gathering local, regional and national news for the sports section. The NFL coverage carries after Sundays into the week with injury updates, practice developments, and a lot of coverage continues through the off-season as well. A lot of those stories don’t have photos to go with them. So the idea came to mind to shoot a Packers game and get photos of all the players I could get on both teams, and have a bank of photos to pair with all these midweek and off-season stories.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws a pass against the Seattle Seahawks during an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws a pass against the Seattle Seahawks during an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)

I researched the Packers directory and found a contact that I essentially began negotiating with for a photo credential. The Daily News isn’t the largest daily newspaper, after all. Besides, it’s an Associated Press paper, meaning it has access to the AP wire and all the Packers (& NFL) coverage along with it. The other factor is, as I was told, many small-town journalists don’t often have exposure to national coverage, and have been known to be unprofessional on the sidelines (cheering is a journalistic faux pas). I had college experience covering presidential campaign stops, Division I college football at Central Michigan University — I had an idea of what I was getting myself into.

It took some back-and-forth, but I had convinced the Packers my need for shooting photos was legitimate, and I received a credential for the first time.

Getting on the field

The Cincinnati Bengals, who play in tomorrow’s Super Bowl, were at Lambeau Field in 2017.

My first time on the grass at Lambeau Field, in 2017. The thermometer reads 97ºF.

I stay with my sister, who lives in De Pere, when I shoot Packers games. I left her apartment for the stadium, and it was hot. Temperatures were in the high 90s, but it was a dry heat.

I remember being amped, like I was when I played sports. Taking the field is an exciting feeling, and making the dream come true of covering the Packers was surreal. The excitement grew as I parked, got my credential at media will call, and entered the stadium.

There's a series of media work rooms where photographers are posted for gameday, which is tucked just behind the corridor where fans flock to concession stands for brats and beer. Near the work rooms are a cafeteria, and a flight of stairs that go to field level. At the bottom of the stairs is the Packers' tunnel to the field. Across from the stairs is the door to the Packers locker room, and media room where postgame pressers are held. In this tunnel, I check out my NFL photographer's vest and head down the tunnel. The Packers have three slabs of concrete inlaid with a sign reading "Proud generations of Green Bay Packers Players, World Champions a record 13 times, have run over this very concrete to Greatness." The concrete slabs were saved during Lambeau Field's multiple renovations. Legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi, along with legendary players over the years have stepped across those concrete slabs before every home game. It sent chills walking across those same slabs onto the field.

Stepping onto the field is one of the coolest experiences I've ever had. The players tunnel cover follows the contour of the seating bowl, and tapers down towards the field. I feel like I'm being closed in as the end of the tunnel gets brighter. All of a sudden, I walk out onto the field and it's quiet. Some players on the field warming up in workout clothes. Staff dotting the seating bowl. The Kentucky bluegrass on the playing field at Lambeau Field is the most beautiful grass you'd ever seen in your life. Manicured to perfection, and short as a fairway.

It was 97° F when I stepped on the grass for the first time. Kickoff at 89° made it the hottest game in Lambeau Field history. Living in North Carolina when I was young, I’ll gladly take that over the Ice Bowl.

The speed of the professional game is indescribable. Players move with aggression and precision.

The game was a Packers overtime win. I’ve gone on to shoot 10 games since. As described at the beginning, the atmosphere is electric. You have to be prepared because the excitement can make it hard to focus on what you’re shooting. Dress for the weather, clear your memory cards, charge all your batteries, bring charging blocks and cables. As I like to say, it’s better to have something and not need it than to need it and not have it. Especially at an NFL game.

Seattle Seahawks safety Jamal Adams (33) celebrates his interception against the Green Bay Packers during an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)
Seattle Seahawks safety Jamal Adams (33) celebrates his interception against the Green Bay Packers during an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 14, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)
What it's like working on the field

There were times I didn’t even know what the score was, because I was so focused on what part of the field to get to, what angle I should take on the play, and lining up action shots (getting ahead of a pass and shooting the receiver as he catches the ball). All I care about on the scoreboard is the time remaining, and whether I should stay at one end of the field or flip. It’s about settling into the rhythm of the game and reading the action.

Anticipating and making a decision to go to a different part of the field can make or break your night. In talking with other photographers on the sidelines, the measure of success, before we see our photos later, is whether or not we get good angles on a few plays and a touchdown. It’s a different world than watching on TV. The game moves a lot faster in person.

People ask me what it’s like shooting with the other photographers. Do you all fight for the same spot? While some of us shoot for competing news outlets/organizations, it’s pretty laid back, at least from my perspective. We look out for each other, as far as asking who players are during warmups (they're not as recognizable without a jersey on). Besides, photojournalism is a small club, there really aren’t many of us out there, and we’re sure to have mutual connections. In fact, one of the NFL photographers in Green Bay whom I've spoken with has family in the Keweenaw. Anyway, journalism is a difficult profession. Sports photojournalism is a grind on another level. The odd hours, and the travel for some photographers. Being rude in the industry can follow you for your career in this business.

So if you want to shoot an NFL game, or any other event you’re dreaming to cover, keep these points in mind (in no particular order):

  • Identify a need. Why do you need to cover the event? Why should you get a credential over someone else?

  • Build relationships. If you’re rejected for a credential, it’s only for that event. If you burn bridges, you’ll never be credentialed, and your unprofessionalism may follow you.

  • Be prepared. When you’re credentialed, watch the weather. Dress for comfort. Charge your batteries and clear memory cards the day before the event. The better you’re prepared, the more you can just relax and just focus on shooting when you’re at the game.

  • Communicate. If you can’t make it to the game for any reason, let your PR/communications contact know. It's happened to me where I’ve been sick or my schedule didn’t work. Since credentials are limited, they’ll appreciate being able to reassign a credential before it goes unused.

  • Say thank you, be courteous. You’re likely representing an organization when you go, so be professional. You’re not owed a credential, especially one that could just as easily go to someone else.

  • Have fun! Just like that line from The Sandlot “If you were having fun, you would’ve caught that ball.” You’ll make your best images when you’re having fun and not distracted and stressed out.

As for photography skills needed to cover a professional game, they really aren't different than what you'd need to cover high school-level sports. The most important thing is being well practiced, and prepared. Master your camera, its settings and being able to adjust your shutter speed, ISO and f-stop on the fly. With sports, you'll be constantly tested by changes in lighting, weather and speed of the action. If you're stuck with trying to figure out settings on the sidelines, you'll miss shot after shot. When you're covering a pro game, it can be very frustrating to feel like you're falling behind the action because you're fumbling with settings.

If you're filling out captions for IPTC metadata, I recommend filling in most of it beforehand. I fill mine in with as much info as possible a day or two before covering games. Doing that saves a lot of work after the game. If you're working with a deadline, or just want to process them right away, having pre-filled metadata means you can just plug in the players'/coaches' names for each photo and move on, rather than writing entire captions from scratch for each image. (I can elaborate on this if anybody asks.)

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) looks to pass against the Green Bay Packers during an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)
Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) looks to pass against the Green Bay Packers during an NFL football game on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)
Interacting with players and coaches

I get asked a lot if photographers interact with players/coaches. Yes, but not often, and almost never during a game (there's times players get chased out of bounds — photographers are known to take a heavy hit, though it's never happened to me). I try not to bother players and coaches, but three times I couldn't resist.

In 2017, I shot the Packers-Lions game. At halftime, I happened to be by the visiting team's player tunnel, a claustrophobic shoulder-width tunnel cutting into the stands behind the south end zone field goal post. Nick Bellore, whom I covered in his days playing football at Central Michigan, was next to me. I said "Hey Nick, Fire Up Chips!" referencing CMU's rallying cry. Nick smiled and pointed at me.

First, some backstory. In 2006, Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was quarterbacks and receivers coach at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich. He recruited a high school player from the Upper Peninsula, whom I won't name, but we'll call him Tom. Matt recruited Tom, who went on to play four years at NMU. Matt, who is from Mount Pleasant, where CMU is located, had moved on from NMU after that season.

After the Packers beat the then-Oakland Raiders, Matt happened towards me on his way back to the locker room. I called out "Matt!" He stopped in front of me and I said "Tom says hi." Matt smiled and took off to the locker room.

In November 2021, the Seattle Seahawks came to Lambeau. Won't you know it, Nick Bellore plays for the Seahawks. I was by the players tunnel when he came by and I said "Nick, Fire Up Chips!" He smiled and came over for a fist-bump. Even 10 years on, the school pride doesn't go stale. Those small interactions add a lot of color to the experience of being a journalist, having a front-row seat to documenting some history.

The interactions I mostly see between players and photographers are players asking photographers in the post-game scrum to take pictures of their jersey swaps. There's a few pairs of brothers in the NFL, most notably the three Watt brothers, Green Bay Packers wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown. They like getting pictures after playing against each other.

One of my favorite interactions — and I have a photo of it on this post — is when the defense makes a turnover and runs to an end zone and poses for the cameras. Those shots are pure luck, but they're a lot of fun.

Super Bowl thoughts

For the second straight year, the Super Bowl will be played at the home stadium of one of the teams playing in the big game. The Los Angeles Rams play the Cincinnati Bengals at 2-year-old SoFi Stadium. Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl last year in their home stadium. That was the first time in NFL history that happened.

The game will be considered a neutral site game for the Rams in the record books. But they will no doubt feel a home-field advantage, and that in itself could be enough to give them some kind of edge. The starting quarterbacks of both teams have both never appeared in the Super Bowl, so it makes sense that Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford playing in his home stadium would feel some familiarity amidst the chaos and settle into the game easier. The Rams also have a dynamic offense and a stout defense that could prove too much for Cincinnati's offensive line.

The Bengals shouldn't be counted out. They're on the hottest streak that a team has had entering the Super Bowl in recent years.

While I talked about my journey to covering some NFL games, the players who will take the field on Sunday in SoFi Stadium will have a monumental stop in their journey at the Super Bowl.

Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford has been a workhorse his whole career. He's in his 13th season after being drafted No. 1 overall in 2009 and playing 12 seasons in Detroit. His three games so far this postseason are as many as he appeared in 12 seasons with the Lions. They're also the first three playoff wins of his career. When he takes the field next season, he'll need just five passing yards to reach 50,000 career passing yards in the regular season.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is shown before a game against the Green Bay Packers on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)
Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is shown before a game against the Green Bay Packers on Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. (Adam Niemi/The Daily Mining Gazette)

There's been a lot of buzz this season about what a leader and competitor Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow is. He's won everywhere he's played. At Athens High School in Ohio, Burrow led the team to its first three playoff appearances ever. It was also the first time he rallied a team that had never won before. He finished his high school career with 11,416 passing yards, 157 touchdowns, and rushed for 2,067 yards and 27 rushing touchdowns.

Burrow continued his career at Ohio State, redshirting his freshman season. He spent the next two years as a backup to JT Barrett and appeared in 10 games. He graduated from Ohio State in three years, and transferred to LSU. He was immediately eligible to play as a graduate transfer. When he arrived at LSU, the Fighting Tigers hadn't won 10 games in a season since 2013. They went 10-3 his first season, and finished the season ranked No. 6 in the polls. He led LSU to a 15-0 record in 2019, and beat Clemson to win the national championship.

Anyway, let's get the polls going! Vote for your Super Bowl pick below.


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