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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2001-08-29

Tragedy in Mankato
By Carlos Gonzalez, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Photo by Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune

Photo by Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune
Covering Minnesota Vikings Training Camp in Mankato, MN reminds me of "Groundhog Day" the Bill Murray film where everyday is the same no matter how he tries to change it.

I have been at the Minneapolis Star Tribune for about three years and have covered part or all of the Vikings training camp for those three years. We cover everyday of camp here and this year I was splitting duties with a fellow staffer Brain Peterson. I was to work the first week of camp then he would shoot the second week and I would take the last.

Monday

We run a photo package of day one so I was looking for all kinds of "day one" camp pictures. So I shot the kids getting autographs, fans in the stands, receivers catching passes in drills, etc. After shooting the morning practice, I went back to the hotel and began what was to be my daily routine for the next week: shoot morning practice, go to hotel, send photos as I eat lunch, watch some TV and maybe take a little power nap before the afternoon practice. Day one was no different.

I went to the afternoon practice and by now the heat and humidity had risen. I'm not sure what the exact temperature was, but I have heard the heat index was well over 100 degrees and it felt like it. About half way during the practice I noticed Korey Stringer, the Vikings Pro Bowl offensive tackle, walk away from a drill and take a knee. So I shot a frame and just watched him for a bit. He stood up and took a breath and then went right back down and began spitting up. A trainer went to check on him and he wiped his head with a towel and Stringer just rested for a while. I didn't think much of it at the time. It just looked like he was a little shaken up by the heat of the day. I moved on to shoot other players.

After the practice I spoke with one of our beat writers and they told me that Stinger had to leave practice early. So when I got to the hotel to transmit I looked through my take of the day to see what I had of Stringer. I knew it would be in the sports section's notes from camp. I sent a photo of Stringer bent over and taking a breath. I chose this photo mostly because it was clean and his face was not obstructed like in any of the other frames. I had no idea that this picture would become linked to the tragedy that would take place two days later.

Tuesday

The next day I got the morning paper to look at how the photos were used. Down in Mankato, which is about 100 miles from the Twin Cities we get the early State Edition of the Star Tribune. We ran about 8 pictures of camp. One of the pictures was of Korey Stringer hunched over trying to catch his breath. Stringer was one of the two players who did not finish the afternoon practice due to the heat.

Day Two of camp is when I began to focus on getting shots of players for upcoming stories and building a file of all the players for use throughout the season. It was another hot and humid day with heat index well over 100 degrees. During the practice I saw Stringer and shot a couple of frames of him. I have been asked many times if he looked like he was struggling that day. To me he looked like anybody would look if they were running and practicing in that kind of heat with full pads. I was hot and I wasn't running around. So I didn't think much about it and moved on to shoot other players. I didn't notice him again, but he did finish the practice and headed off the field on his own. I left to go back to hotel to send my photos.

Unknown to me, Stringer was later picked up by an ambulance and rushed to the local hospital. I got a call from the picture desk me hat Stringer was in the hospital. So I went down and spoke with our beat writers who where there. The team was not saying much so we didn't really know how serious it really was. One of the writers mentioned to me that some of his teammates were ribbing him about the picture that ran that morning, which was the first time I had heard about it. I told them to call me when the found out something. I got a call at about 5:45 am from one of the beat writers to tell me Stringer had died.

Wednesday

Photo by Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune

Photo by Carlos Gonzalez/Minneapolis Star Tribune
The Vikings canceled practice and held a press conference. It was the most emotional press conference I had ever covered. Cris Carter, Randy Moss and head coach Dennis Green all spoke about Stringer. Moss broke down and began sobbing while talking about his friend. I sent pictures from the press conference and looked back to see what shots I had of Stringer. I only had a couple of frames of him from the Tuesday practice. The picture desk moved all the pictures of Stringer to the Associated Press.

Thursday

Many papers around the country ran the picture of Stringer from the Monday practice where he was hunched over gasping for air. Our paper did not run any more pictures from the Monday practice. The New York Times ran it on the front page. USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, as well as local and national TV stations used the image. A fellow staffer who was vacationing in Europe saw it while eating at a café. It was everywhere.

I heard offensive line coach Mike Tice mention the picture in an interview after practice. He said Korey was upset by his performance on Monday. That's about the time when the calls and emails started to come into the paper. I got a couple of calls on my cell phone while covering the practice, which had resumed on Thursday. I have my cell number on my work voicemail because I want to accessible to anyone who is trying to get a hold of me. I never thought that anything like this would happen.

Initially the callers were upset by the picture. But after explaining the events leading up to the use of the picture in their paper (I got calls from all over), every caller that I actually spoke with had a better understanding of why the picture was used and thanked me for the call. I returned every email and called back everyone who left me a message (I personally got less than 10). I did not change my voicemail because I wanted to talk to people who had an opinion about the picture. I am actually glad that I had my cell phone number on my voicemail, and I have no plans to ever change that.

The paper fielded many more calls and emails than I did. I saw a quote from one caller posted on our Atex message system saying something to the effect that "The Star Tribune was indirectly responsible for the Korey Stringer death." It is a strange feeling to be linked in any way to a tragedy.

I have taken no joy in the fact that my photo ran all over the country. Usually it is a good day when your photo is everywhere. But it was not like I shot a great image that I would be proud to hang on a wall. I was simply doing my job and noticed a player having difficulty on the field. Then the player died and the picture became newsworthy. Because of that I decided to donate whatever I get in sales (we get a small percentage of sales) to Korey's Crew, which is Stringer established charity foundation.

Support

The Star Tribune ombudsman wrote in support of the image and use of it in the following Sunday column. Every journalist, that I have run into ranging from fellow photographers, editors, even sports radio and TV guys who I have never spoken with before have been great, offering support and advice.

One of my picture editors, Glen Stubbe summed up the negative calls and emails best for me, telling me that during tragedies the media is often easy to place blame for something that might be hard to explain. Some people just have some displaced anger, and the paper is an easy target. My next door neighbors who are a retired couple stopped me as I was walking to my car one day. The woman told me that I did a good job and should not feel bad at all. I don't think I had ever told them what I did for a living, but they often get my mail and put it together. There aren't many Carlos Gonzalez's in Minnesota. I have had no confrontations with anyone on the team. And when asked in a recent interview Korey's wife, Kelci, said the photo had no effect on her husband trying to prove himself in practice.

It seems that throughout the course of a photographer's career they might shoot a picture that they become known for. You might not know the photographer's name or who they are but you remember their picture. "You know the guy who shot the picture of Oh yeah, I know that picture." I plan to keep working to insure that this will not be the picture I am associated with.

Shooting images everyday you can easily forget how powerful your job as a photographer is. There are images that have been credited for starting movements and even helping to end wars. I was guilty of loosing sight of that, but now I have been reminded of the importance and responsibility that goes with my job.

(Carlos Gonzalez, is a staff photographer with the Minneapolis Star Tribune. His email address is cgpictures@aol.com.)


Related Email Addresses: 
Carlos Gonzalez: cgpictures@aol.com

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