Like most photographers, I am frequently asked what my best photo is. My honest answer is “I have no idea.” After all, how do you quantify what makes a best photo? Is it technical quality? Composition, the use of lines and patterns, the careful placement of various components in the frame that tie fragments into a whole? Is it emotion? Must it be an image that impacts and affects thousands, or can it be a simple one that brings a smile or a nod of acceptance from a few? Is it even left to the photographer to decide such things? No, my friends, I have no idea what the best picture I ever made is. I can, however, tell you what my all-time favorite photo is. I shot it on December 3, 1988, and it was my best shot from the greatest football game I ever saw.
As it is today, football was a big deal for The Bakersfield Californian in the 1980s. A typical weekend for me, or any of the other photographers, started with a prep football game on Friday night, then a college game on Saturday, our home town Bakersfield College Renegades, or a trip to Los Angeles for a UCLA or USC game. Sunday would be the icing on the cake, a Los Angeles Raiders or Rams game. It was literally shoot football till you dropped. But we never dropped; we loved it and couldn’t get enough. And we were equipped to get the job done. Our arsenal included all the big boy toys; a massive 600mm f:4 super telephoto lens, 300 f:2.8 telephoto lenses, a 400mm f:2.8 telephoto lens, all state-of-the-art Nikon glass designed to work in low light. Film consumption was limited only to the number of rolls we thought we could get processed and still make deadline.
On Saturday, November 26, I found myself in football nirvana when I drew the assignment to shoot the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the USC Trojans in the biggest college football game of the year, a game that would almost assuredly determine the NCAA national championship. Both teams were 10-0. The Irish were ranked #1, the Trojans #2. I don’t know if I can find the words to describe what being on the field for a game of that magnitude is like, how the roar of 92,000 screaming fans goes through you, how it simultaneously chills you, electrifies you and infuses you with an energy you’ve never before felt.
USC dominated the game statistically, but committed four turnovers, and coach Lou Holtz and the Irish scored a 27-10 victory. I was convinced I had seen and photographed the game of the year. I was wrong.
Bakersfield is a city that takes great pride in its football tradition. The Bakersfield High Drillers were the most successful program in state history, and “up on the hill” in northeast Bakersfield, just a mile or two from where I live, the town’s only college football team, the Bakersfield College Renegades, were the biggest thing in town. It didn’t matter that this was junior college football. The Renegades had won three national championships, the last in 1976, and fans frequently filled the college’s cavernous Memorial Stadium, which can hold nearly 20,000 fans. And on December 3, a game with as much significance on the junior college level as that Notre Dame vs. USC game held on the NCAA level two weeks earlier, was about to be played. The top-ranked Fullerton College Hornets were in town to play the third-ranked Renegades in the Potato Bowl. Both teams were 10-0 and the winner would claim the Junior College Grid-Wire’s #1 ranking and the national championship.
I remember the light. It was beautiful as the game kicked off in the early afternoon, that typical diffused amber glow we get when the sun mixes with the remnants of the usual early morning fog of December days. As was my custom, when shooting football in daylight, I chose to work with the 600mm f:4 and the 300 f:2.8 on my two Nikon camera bodies. My bag held all my other lenses, including the wide angles I would need for sideline and after-game shots. I loaded up on Ektachrome color slide film, 100 ISO for the early stage of the game, 400 ISO for when the game entered its later stages and the light would fade. I hoped the game would end in daylight, but just in case, I threw a handful of rolls of a special low light slide film called 3M 640T into my bag. Unlike the Ektachrome films that delivered beautiful results, the 3M film was grainy and blotchy in the shadow areas, but was really the only option at the time for shooting in low light. I hoped I would not have to use it.
Those who work a football game process that game – actually a compilation of hundreds of vignettes occurring over a course of three hours or so – differently than those watching from the stands. Coaches have their responsibilities, reading the opponent’s schemes and assigning the right players and formations to counter their rival. Officials are charged with watching specific areas, ensuring that collectively the entire field is covered. For photographers, it’s about lens selection and angles, exposure and light, anticipation based on percentages or sometimes just plain guessing. It’s all-consuming. Ask a photographer after the game what the score was and he probably won’t know, but he can tell you all about the light. But there was something different about this game. At least for me, there was an excitement, back-and-forth shifts of momentum, big play after big play that blended all those concerns about getting the right shots with a palpable feel that I was shooting one hell of a football game. There were 18,237 fans packed into Memorial Stadium, their energy proportionally equivalent to the 92,000 in the Coliseum two weeks earlier, and I felt it. This was, plain and simple, a much better football game than that USC vs. Notre Dame one was.
Bakersfield went to the half with a 10-point lead, but Fullerton came roaring out in the second half. Following an interception, they went on a 73-yard scoring drive that used up most of the fourth quarter and took a 24-23 lead with under five minutes to go. Bakersfield would get the ball back with 4:41 remaining in the game, but its drive seemed to stall at it’s own 38 yard line with just 2:52 remaining. It was suddenly fourth down and one for the Renegades. Their season, and the national championship, likely hinged on the next play.
But the Renegades were not the only ones facing a mountain of a challenge. I was, too. I had run out of light. By the start of the final drive, the beautiful diffused amber afternoon light was gone. The Memorial Stadium lights were on, my Kodak Ektachrome film no longer an option. I looked into my bag, and there they were, those rolls of 3M 640T film. I could almost swear those boxes were smiling at me the way an evil doctor smiles at an unsuspecting victim in one of those grade B horror movies. I hated that film. I had tried so many times to push it (a process of underexposing the film and then overdeveloping it when there is not enough light to otherwise obtain correct exposure) and each try had been unsuccessful. Additionally, the “T” in 640T stood for tungsten light. That’s a yellow light, the light you get in your living
room from a regular, old-school light bulb. The film compensated for that yellow by adding the opposite color, blue. Problem was, the lights in Memorial Stadium were not tungsten lights; they were some kind of mercury lights, designed to simulate daylight. In other words, they already had a lot of blue in them. The film would be adding blue onto blue, giving a, well, very blue image. But there was nothing I could do. Our color technicians would have to deal with that. I popped a roll of dreaded 3M 640T into each camera, and set my meters to ISO 1,600, asking the already grainy film to underexpose each image by a factor of about 3 times and hoping that somehow, I could save the images in our film processor. This was how I would shoot the rest of the game.
The sideline is as much a part of a football game as any player on the field. It serves as both an ally and an enemy, depending on the particular situation. For an offense, it can be a critical time management tool. A skilled defensive back can use the sideline as a partner, taking away valuable real estate from a receiver. There’s little question the game of football is geared toward use of the sideline. For a photographer, the sideline can sometimes be a hindrance. When a play moves to the sideline, a photographer working on that sideline has little chance of shooting the completion of that play without losing the angle or being blocked by any of the players, officials or workers on that sideline. The only way to ensure seeing a play in its entirety is from the end zone. As the Renegades began that final drive toward the open end of Memorial Stadium, I set up in the end zone, near the Bakersfield sideline. I had no idea what was about to happen, but whatever it was, I wanted to see it all and have a clear vantage point.
With the Renegades facing fourth and one from their own 38, there was little question what coach Carl Bowser was going to call. The Renegades had built their legacy as a smash-mouth running team, and they had a bruiser in running back Reggie Yarbrough. The 18,237 fans, the several hundred others on the sideline, the Fullerton defense, everybody in the stadium knew that Yarbrough was getting the ball. If the Renegades couldn’t pick up a single yard when they had to, so be it, maybe the national championship wasn’t meant to be. Quarterback Stan Greene brought the Renegades to the line of scrimmage. There was still just barely enough daylight mixing with the stadium lights that I could use the 600mm lens for maybe a few more minutes. I raised the massive Nikkor 600mm as Greene set up under center. He took the snap. And he stepped back and raised his arm. A collective gasp from the 18,000-plus stopped time for an instant. It was a pass! Standing alone near or just past the line of scrimmage was tight end Lionell Sykes. He caught the ball and stepped forward. The crowd’s gasp was now a roar. Sykes had the first down, the drive was alive. But wait, what was happening? The play wasn’t over. There wasn’t a Fullerton defender anywhere near Sykes, and the big tight end started rumbling down the sideline. When a defender finally reached him, Sykes bowled him over and kept on going down the sideline, the volume of the crowd increasing with each stride until the stadium was engulfed in pure delirium. I had a perfect view, a perfect angle. I remember the whirr of the motor as Sykes shed the defender and continued running right at me. By the time the play was over, Sykes had picked up 34 yards and the Renegades were at the Fullerton 28-yard line.
“The Play,” as it has come to be called around here, has achieved such legendary status and is so fondly remembered that many people think the Renegades won the game on Sykes’ catch and run. I guess you can say they did, but there would be five more plays before the Renegades scored the winning touchdown. Greene came back on the next play and hit Sykes again, this time for 14 yards. Yarbrough would carry the next three plays, grinding yards and chewing up crucial time. With 26 seconds left, Karl Price would score from the two-yard-line, and the Renegades would have their 30-24 victory and fourth national championship.
But for me, there was still some serious business ahead. I knew I had photographed the game’s big play, but that really meant nothing. It was on that damn 3M 640T film, and I had no idea how or if I was going to recover a usable image. Plus, it had to be sharp. Back then, young photo students who may be reading this, we focused our cameras manually, and the bigger the lens, the more difficult the focus. And that 600mm Nikkor was one very big lens. On a good football shoot, if I got six or seven images in focus on a roll of 36 exposures, I was pretty happy. The photojournalism industry workhorse film processor was a machine called the Wing-Lynch. Capable of developing nine rolls at a time, it worked by pumping chemicals into a chamber containing
the film, then dumping the chemical and pumping in the next, until the process was complete. If memory serves correctly, the development portion for normal processing was five and one-half minutes. A “2-stop push” called for the develop module to be set for 8 minutes. This is what I did the previous times I tried to use the 3M 640T film, and each time the film came out so severely underexposed the images were unusable. So I loaded the 640T film first, too anxious to wait, and took a gamble. I set the development module to its maximum time, something we had never done before. I think it was 11 minutes, and I always remember Rob Reiner’s “This Is Spinal Tap” and the amplifier that “goes to 11.” I was going to cook the hell out of this film. I’m telling you the truth when I tell you I knelt down beside that Wing-Lynch processor and prayed. The whole process takes about 40 minutes. I prayed for those 40 minutes. I had to have this shot! When it was done, I held my breath as I unrolled the still-wet film. There were images! They looked good! They were blue as hell, but there were images! Now, were they in focus? I couldn’t wait for the film to dry. I grabbed the loupe and started going through the sequence of images from “The Play.” And there it was, sharp as a tack. Lionell Sykes, spinning away after bowling over the first defender to reach him. The gods of photo processing smiled on me that afternoon, and the picture of “The Play” was The Californian’s main photo the next day.
The Bakersfield College Renegades finished first in the J.C. Grid-Wire poll and were named national champions. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish went on to defeat West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl and won the NCAA national championship. The USC Trojans went to the Rose Bowl and were defeated by the University of Michigan. Coach Carl Bowser retired in 1999. I still see him at Bakersfield College football games. Stan Greene went to Boston University and was their starting quarterback. He came home to Bakersfield to work in education. He oversees athletics and activities for the Kern High School District and I see him frequently. A couple of years ago, I met Lionell Sykes for the first time and we had a great time reminiscing about “The Play.” And me? I now teach photojournalism, multimedia reporting and mass communication at Bakersfield College. I’m in my 18th year. I left the Bakersfield Californian as a full time staffer in 2009, but remained as a contract photographer and still shoot all of Bakersfield College’s football games for them. When I decide to shoot from the end zone, I always go to the spot where I shot that photo of Lionell Sykes rumbling down the sideline, shedding tacklers and striding into Bakersfield football folklore. I remember the golden afternoon light giving way to night, the old manual cameras and lenses and real film, even that 3M film that fought me so hard but in the end came through when I needed it most. I glance into the stands and lament the long-gone massive crowds. Not so much for me, I’ll never forget them, but for my students and our football players. Oh, what I’d give for them to experience shooting a game or playing before a crowd like that.
Just what is it about that grainy, blue image, one of hundreds of thousands I’ve shot over the years, that makes it my all-time favorite? I don’t really know. Maybe because of what it meant to the community. Maybe it’s my imagined memory of The Bakersfield Californian’s then 90,000-plus subscribers opening their morning newspaper the next day and saying, “Hey, look, they got a picture of that play.” Maybe it was the difficulty of the film, or of working with those manually-focused lenses. Or maybe I’m over analyzing things. Maybe it’s my all-time favorite photo because it was the best picture I took during the greatest football game I ever saw.