Friday night will be the 40th anniversary of photographing my first New Orleans Saints football game. Here are some words about my first one:
The summer of 1979 was after my freshman year at The University of Southern Mississippi where a few months before, I changed my major from art to photojournalism. I had been a yearbook photographer in high school and at USM, but for some stupid reason I thought I wanted to be a commercial artist. Life sometimes corrects a bad decision.
That summer I took a job at the Slidell (La.) Sentry-News where I was relegated to processing film for the full-time photographer and shooting American Legion baseball games at night. I was shooting baseball direct-flash with a Canon AE-1 and a huge Honeywell strobe. It sucked, but it didn’t matter: I was a sports photographer. The summer was like this most days, making very little money and getting few opportunities to make good photos, but on the last week on the job, that changed.
I found out from the sports editor, Kevin Cheri, that they had a season credential to New Orleans Saints games that no one was going to use. I eagerly scooped it up and got ready for the game.
Game day was Friday, August 24, four days before my 19thbirthday. I had the AE-1 and a “power winder” that would let the camera shoot about two frames per second. The only lens I had was a 50 mm, so I left early for the game and rented a 200 mm, f/4 lens from a local camera store. I made it to the Louisiana Superdome where I was frozen in awe of what and where was happing. Out on the field were the Saints players I only admired from my television like Archie Manning, Tony Galbreath and Wes Chandler. They were playing the dang Houston Oilers with Earl Campbell and coached by the legend, Bum Phillips.
I don’t remember much from the game, but it came down to a game-winning field goal attempt by the Saints rookie, first-round draft pick, Russell Erxleben. I was on the Saints sidelines, lined up a little behind the kicker when Erxleben kicked the ball from the hold of backup quarterback Ed Burns. The kick was good, time ran out and the Saints won, 10-7 (so typical).
I didn’t soup my film until Monday and found a decent image that I thought I might have had: Erxleben and Burns, arms up, celebrating the winning kick. The only problem was one that haunts me to this day: Ref Butt. Alas, I didn’t move far enough to my right to eliminate the referee from the picture. I still thought it good frame, considering it was my first NFL game. The idea was confirmed when I saw Jerry Lodriguez’ photo of the same moment, without the referee. His experience told him the right spot to be for the kick and his picture won the NFL Hall of Fame photo contest that year. Jerry was a wonderful mentor and one of the best sports photographers ever, anywhere – period.
I’d have to wait four years for my next Saints game in August of 1983 while at my new, full-time job with The Times-Picayune. I made a frame of Saints wide receiver Jeff Groth about to make a catch with a Jets defensive back stretched out, diving to make a play. The photo ended up winning a national third place in the NPPA monthly clip contest.
I’ve photographed too many Saints games to remember. I do remember that at times, especially during the mid 1980s, our picture editor had to practically beg photographers to go to a game because they knew the Saints were awful and they were playing another awful team (Tampa Bay). They eventually started winning and we started traveling to road games, which was cool. I may be the only photographer who have photographed them on three continents. One last thought as I get ready for Friday night’s game: Thank God for auto-focus and indoor stadiums.