Back On The Sidelines

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High school football season is approaching the halfway mark, with a half-dozen games left on the regular-season schedule. If one of the teams we cover makes it into the playoffs — and I hope they all do — naturally we will continue covering football. And that means I will continue pacing the sidelines, trying to get an action shot in focus while not getting creamed by a player knocked out of bounds.

Before this season commenced, the last time I shot football we photographers still used film instead of digital. As it happens I was running the Fort Stockton Pioneer for the same company I am again working for, 26 years later. You never know how things are going to turn out.

I started shooting football as a 15-year-old in 1970 for the Longview News-Journal, using a 4×5 Speed Graphic. That’s often the kind of camera one sees in movies depicting newspaper photographers in the 1940s and 1950s, wearing snap-brim fedoras with their press cards stuck in the headbands. Since I was the greenhorn, I got the clunkiest camera in what now I realize was likely a hazing ritual. The Speed Graphic used sheet film, so you had to shoot a photo, put the plate back in the film holder, flip over the film holder and insert it back into the camera. This forced one to aim carefully, since not only was the shooting process slow, but then you had to go into the darkroom and develop all those film sheets.

After a while, my boss decided he could trust me with a Rollieflex twin-lens camera, a vast improvement since it used roll film. However, this finely made German device required one to look down into the box holding the viewfinder. Plus, everything was flipped in the viewfinder. So the receiver who appeared in the viewfinder on the right side of the image actually was on the left side. I got blindsided once for that reason when the receiver went out of bounds. I quickly learned to look up when I heard footsteps.

I ended up getting a master’s in photojournalism from UT and working as a full-time photographer for newspapers in Round Rock and Nacogdoches, shooting high school football every Friday night and Saturdays in Nac, covering the Stephen F. Austin team. For five years while running the San Augustine Rambler, I roamed the sidelines of dimly lit stadiums shooting the San Augustine Wolves deep behind the Pine Curtain, in places like Newton and Kirbyville. And San Augustine, of course.

Now I am shooting football again, covering Mount Pleasant, and enjoying it thoroughly. Watching a game from the sidelines is totally different from taking it in from the stands or pressbox. It is a far more tactile experience — smells of sweaty athletes, the coaches shouting out orders, the quarterback barking out the signals, the crunch of contact, and the constant stream of saliva emanating from players nad coaches alike.

I have learned to be nimble to avoid getting splattered with spit, as I hurry down the sideline behind the gaggle of players gathered there — many of whom turn around to spit without really looking.

The camera I use can shoot in very low light, which sure comes in handy covering high school football. It is autofocus, which also is useful since my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. But the best part is immediately being able to see the image, to see if I caught the quarterback getting sacked, the receiver hauling down a pass, or the fullback breaking through the line. If it is out of focus — because while autofocus is great it often doesn’t move the lens fast enough to catch the action — I delete the image.

Once I know I have produced enough photographs to fill up the paper, I can head back to the office to start laying out the sports pages. In the old days, I would shoot two or three 36-exposure rolls of film, hoping but not knowing I had a decent shot. I would hurry back to the office and soup the film and then go to the light table and check the negatives with a lupe to find something usable. Then I had to make prints — all on deadline when I was working for dailies.

Technology has done wonders for streamlining the process. Of course, it still requires a sense of timing and anticipation to get a decent sports shot. The old adage is that if you saw the key moment, you missed the shot. I am still honing skills not used in a long time.

But I’m having a blast doing it, even in the rain, as occurred at the last home game for Mount Pleasant. I wore a poncho and wrapped a plastic trash bag over the camera and blasted away. It was a fine time.

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