Watching an NFL game from the field gives one a completely different perspective on the sport. Photographing the game adds to that perspective. You begin to anticipate plays, reactions, touchdowns. You try to avoid being run down by thundering players as they barrel towards the sidelines. You see and hear things that you can't pick up on from television, or from the stands.
On Sunday's Panthers game against the Tennessee Titans, the weather was cool for the first time this season. As the sun flooded the field, running back Christian McCaffrey warmed up prior to the game. At this range, you see how agile these players really are. Some, like McCaffrey are smaller than imagined, but amazingly quick; others, like quarterback Cam Newton, are bigger than life. Backup quarterback Kyle Allen was all smiles as he tossed the ball, out of uniform. Only an invisible, unspoken barrier on the field separates these players from hoards of fans and a handful of photographers doing their jobs.
Up close, one can see how skilled these highly-trained players really are. The placekicker for the Titans, Ryan Succop, practiced continually on the sidelines throughout the game. Each time, he went through the same ritual: two or three steps to one side, lining up the imaginary ball in his sights, a strong kick and graceful landing as he watched the invisible ball soar towards its target. His eyes were full of an intense focus. There appeared to be nothing on his mind but his goal. Specialists like Succop are trained and dedicated to this one thing and, as a result, they are the best at what they do.
There are a myriad of funny, strange, and touching moments happening at any given time on the field before, during, and after the game. Players ran up to fist-bump the team videographer like old friends. One of the Titans kickers sang along to a Miley Cyrus song during a TV timeout. Moments later, the kickers paused to see which of their teammates had been injured on the field. The entire stadium chanted "MVP" in a roar after McCaffrey's 58-yard touchdown.
While the players are doing their job on the field, a fleet of photographers, videographers, security guards, and others are working the sidelines. The photographers are in constant motion, following ever play and walking the field as the teams move closer to the goal. In the press room, news agencies on deadline keep the world up to date with images from the game. For them, the day begins before the players start warming up and doesn't end until after the last press conference. Even more workers are buzzing through the cavernous bowels of the stadium post-game, gathering heaps of trash and equipment to be stowed away until next time. It takes an enormous amount of people to make this event possible, and many of these people remain unseen. The focus is always on the field.
One of the most entertaining aspects of recent Panthers has been Cam Newton's fashion pre- and post-game. I have a great appreciation for Cam's creative and eccentric choices, and was floored the first time I saw him enter the press room. The smell of his parfum preceded him, a slightly floral, sandalwood scent. His black hat was bedazzled with spiderweb-like strands, his three-piece suit was short-sleeved with tailored shorts, and, infamously, his head was draped with a silk scarf, tied at the chin, in a babushka-like look. With a slow, ponderous voice, Cam recounted the lost game, which turned out to be one of his last before backup Kyle Allen stepped forward.
The players each have an individualized fashion sense, with apparent contrasts between some players. When Kyle Allen took to the podium after the Titans game, his contrast with Cam could not have been more apparent; in a white t-shirt, black denim jacket, and an official Panthers beanie, Allen looked sharp but casual, as if it had taken him mere minutes to get dressed after the game. After a wearying day of running up and down the sidelines and avoiding getting pummeled by large players, it is almost a reward to see what outfits show up behind the podium after each game.
The disassembly begins immediately after the game. Crowds disperse onto the field, players run and jump and hug each other, opposing teams swap jerseys in the middle of a ring of photographers and TV cameras, a mayhem that signifies the mystique around the game itself has been broken. The invisible border has fallen. I wander the field, laden with cameras, brushing shoulders with players and ESPN reporters, people who are probably more famous than I know. The sun is setting. My last sight as I exit the stadium is of Christian McCaffrey walking down a nondescript hallway to his press conference, wearing, I notice, a very nice black blazer.