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.