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|| News Item: Posted 2005-09-06

Beyond Friday Night Lights
By Francis Gardler, Patuxent Publishing Company

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

Glenelg sophomore Stephen Bullard (right) blocks the ball kicked by Southern-AA punter Mike Monkelien in the third quarter of Saturday's Class 2A South region first-round playoffs at Glenelg High School. Bullard picked up the ball and scored a touchdown.
"In just 10 weeks, a high school team lives a lifetime together. The players and their fans experience every human emotion on the field, the sidelines and in the stands." So began the lead paragraph Howard County Times sports reporter Matt Palmer wrote on a project we did on the activities that surround the Saturday afternoon experience known as high school football.

Here at Patuxent we publish 15 weekly newspapers that cover over 40 football-playing high schools in suburban Howard County, Baltimore County, Carroll County and Laurel, Maryland.

High school football has always been big in small towns where stores close up shop on Friday night as every one congregates to the local field for athletic entertainment. The games in these cities and towns are not only a sporting event, but a social community happening as well.

Parents sell the tickets, run the concession stands, carry the first-down markers, paint the team's logo on the field. Now it's gaining a higher profile. The Hollywood release of Friday Night Lights, based on the book by H. G. Bissinger, has brought the experience of the game and all it's drama to those who haven't been to a game in years.

It's also beginning to make inroads to national television. Recently, ESPN broadcast a game across the nation between Hoover High School, an Alabama high school state champion and Allen D. Nease Senior High School of St. Augustine, Florida. Ten thousand fans turned out to watch two high school teams battle it out to a 50-29 win for the Bucs of Hoover High.

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company
It's all about access
Access is a major part of what makes shooting high school football great. You can stand pretty much anywhere you want. None of this five yards back from the edge of the field stuff. Heck, if a opposition player is making a run away from me down the near sideline and the team is blocking my field of view and I need a photo of a crunching tackle, I'm going to take a couple steps out into field and not worry about a crunching tackle being applied to me by a security guard.

Access to the team is one phone call away to the coach, who is going to enjoy the positive spotlight being put on his players. Want to photograph the pre-game or post-game speech; make a portrait of the athlete of the year; do any type of photo story on the team; etc.

Call the coach! Looking for the inside information about the team? Talk to the parents. Parents of the football players are excellent sources of information about the team. They can provide you with story ideas about different players (and not just football players).

Stories, Tips and Ideas
High school football lends itself to great stories, whether it be on field or off the field activities. Homecoming, an autumnal rite usually associated with college finds a happy home within the high school community.

A few years ago I did an eight-page photo spread on the homecoming events of our 10 high schools in Howard County. Each day of school during homecoming's spirit week had a theme: pajama day, wacky hat day, school colors, etc. Then there were the school decorating contests between the freshman, sophomores, juniors and seniors. The contests, usually won by the senior class, led Howard High School junior Whitney Amato to reflect, "The seniors always win. It's just sort of a tradition thing. It's probably rigged."

Pep rallies bring the student body together to cheer on the team. One extreme measure of school spirit led Atholton High School to bring an old, beaten-up Chevrolet Caprice Classic with the spray-painted legend of "Die Vikings Suck" (their opponents, Mt. Hebron High School Vikings) on the side to a space outside its football field and allow students to take three wacks at it with a sledgehammer.

The morning of the game began with the quintessential America activity of a parade. Once again the upper and underclassmen compete for the best decorated floats as they toss candy to youngsters along the route and local fire companies flash their lights and blare their horns.

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company
The crowds that line the neighborhoods are treated to the pomp of the high school band performance as they give a taste of their half-time potential and the hip-hop flash of the cheerleaders as they round out the homecoming happening.

Then comes the game itself. In planning this project I wanted to go into the locker room for a pre-game speech and we chose Wilde Lake High School, whose coach Doug DuVall had won a few state championships while at the school. In the close quarters of the school's wrestling room Coach DuVall spoke in measured tones as he began softly assessing their opponents, the Centennial High School Eagles.

Through the 10 minute speech he talked he not only assessed their opponents' strengths and weaknesses as a team, but also the opponents' perception of them as a team and as well as a community.

Tears welled up in his eyes and in some of the players as he came to the end of his motivational talk. It must have worked as the Wildecats defeated the Eagles 27-25.

Concluding the week was the homecoming dance, another opportunity to capture the star running back shaking a leg out on the dance floor. Unless, of course, he's had it broken by a pouncing 280-pound lineman. Great photographs abound in every facet of the homecoming experience.

Another story to consider is to follow a varsity team through its first year of competition. In 2003, sports reporter Matt Palmer and I followed the Reservoir High School Gators from the first day of two-a-day practices in August till the end of the season in November.

To do a story of the depth required unfettered access and the relationship Matt Palmer had built up over the years with head coach Sam Singleton allowed me to follow them into the locker room for the pre-game, half-time and post-game talks. It allowed me a seat on the team bus as they traveled to an away game and it also allowed me to sit in on coaches meetings.

Singleton is a legendary coach in Maryland for leading his track and field teams to over twenty state titles as coach at Oakland Mills High School. Yet, he also aspired to be a head football coach and when the new school (Reservoir) opened he accepted the role of football coach to go along with his duties as track and field coach.

The team, made up of only sophomores and juniors and without the experience and leadership of seniors, ended its season with a 0-10 record (adjusted to 1-9 after a forfeit due to opponent's ineligible player). It also ended Singleton's football coaching career at Reservoir when his contract was not reviewed after the end of the season.

If you're looking for sports feature photo ideas, learn about the traditions of the team. Do they have any special pre-game or post-game rituals that would make for a storytelling picture? Then find out if there are any individual players that have pre-game rituals that may prove illuminating.

It could a silly eating superstition or it could be a solemn and thought-provoking moment like the one captured by Fredericksburg (VA) Free Lance-Star photographer Davis Turner of Culpeper High School player Gabe Fuller who would kneel at the 50-yard line inside the school's painted "C" logo holding a cross that belonged to his father who died in an automobile accident two years prior and had influenced him to play football.

If your deadlines allow you, stay a little bit longer after the conclusion of a game. Sometimes you may find a moment that crystallizes not only the game itself, but may provide insight as to the personal impact of the high school football experience to a player.

Let me give you an example: a few years ago I was assigned to cover the last season game between two teams, neither of which would be heading to the playoffs. Following the conclusion of the game both teams left the field with the exception of 6 or 7 seniors of the Wilde Lake High School varsity squad who stayed behind to linger on the field where they had played for the past four years.

They sat or lay back on the rutted field and talked about their time as teammates. They traded stories and enjoyed a laugh amongst themselves. It was the end of an era for them, the end of organized football since none of them had a college football scholarship waiting for them next fall.

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

Photo by Francis Gardler / Patuxent Publishing Company

Wilde Lake quarterback and senior Hamp Fields carries off a handful of turf from the Wildecats' field following the team's final regular season game against Mt. Hebron.
I noticed Hamp Fields, the Wildecats quarterback, standing next to my reporter and talking about the game. As a thin patina of dirt covered his pants and jersey, Fields held his scuffed-up helmet in his left hand. From his right hand he produced a chunk of the home field turf - his souvenir of four years of effort as a football player. It made for a simple, yet symbolic photograph.

School rivalries are an excellent source of ideas. Sure, college football has plenty of them: Harvard/Yale, USC/UCLA, Alabama/Auburn, Texas/Texas A&M, etc. Nearly every community has a generational-spanning high school rivalry. Locally, we have two: the 85-year-old Thanksgiving Day match-up between Calvert Hall and Loyola Blakefield, the oldest Catholic High School rivalry in the country and it's public school equivalent, the annual City-Poly game whose origins stretch back to 1888.

In 2000, Calvert Hall hadn't won the game in 11 years. The Cardinals held off a last-minute charge from Loyola to force overtime. In the second OT period Calvert Hall scores and converts the PAT, then Loyola scores to make the score 7-6.

Instead of going for the game-tying PAT, the Loyola coach attempts the 2-point conversion, which fails after a Calvert Hall player pressures the Loyola QB into throwing the ball into the ground. End of game, pandemonium erupts! Standing on the sidelines watching the celebrations and making notes for his story was Baltimore County sports reporter AND Calvert Hall alum Nelson Coffin with tears of joy in his eyes.

And you don't think these games mean so much to the players, the students and the alumni?

Do you have a high school team that has won numerous state championship titles and is preparing to play in the title game again in a week or two? Maybe consider a portrait style project with a rented 4x5 view camera and Polaroid Type 55 film and photograph the various generations of players reflecting on their time as a state champion. It'd be a good project to work with a reporter on and have ready as a preview for the game. Oh, your team has only won the state title once and the 20th, 25th or 30th anniversary of the event is coming up. Okay, do the same thing and reintroduce the community to these gridiron heroes and attempt to reverse the old adage that "all glory is fleeting."

If you find yourself thinking that your work is beginning to stagnate and you need a fresh approach to football portraits. Try the 4x5 view camera, Polaroid Type 55 film and other alternative photographic media outside of the digital 35 mm format. Trade instant chimping for chimping after 60 seconds and your eight frames a second for one frame every few minutes. It may give you a different perspective on your work and your subjects.

The high school football experience works on so many levels and themes. It's about glory and pain, hope, redemption, opportunity and sometimes it's about death.

When I first came to Patuxent Publishing Company there was a local football player who died in a car accident a few weeks before the start of the season. We covered the funeral where his teammates carried his coffin and dedicated their upcoming season to him.

As the season progressed, the loss of their teammate had a galvanizing effect on the team, pushing them a lot further than was expected. In the first round of playoffs the team went on the road to defeat the recently crowned county champions in overtime 14-7. As members of the team celebrated behind him, running back Brett Adams lay flat on his back and pointed to the sky with both forefingers.

When asked what he was thinking of when he was gesturing to the sky, he replied he was thinking of his teammate J. T. Smart, the one who had died three months earlier in the car accident.

In retrospect, it reminded me of the story of Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount college basketball player, whose mid-season death propelled the team deep into the NCAA playoff during March Madness. It also made me think about doing a story someday on the effect of a sudden death has on a football team and the season that follows. Such a story would be a test of your access to the team, yet provide insight to rarely seen side of high school football.

When in doubt, follow the ball. But if you want to excel, learn as much about the game, the teams and the players as you can. Learn which formations tend to produce the chance of a pass play. Build a rapport with the reporters you work with. They usually know more than you about the teams you're about to photograph.

Read your newspaper and read your competition's papers too. Expect the unexpected and prepare for it to happen on the next play. Going to a football field you haven't been to before? Get there at least 30 minutes early and walk around the field. Look for the positions that give you a clean background.

Nothing worse than having a great game-winning TD catch with a utility pole merging with the players or the yellow blob of a school bus to distract you - Ugh! Here in the suburbs we're blessed for the most part with clean backgrounds made up of lush evergreen trees.

For the gearheads I'm adding what I usually shoot a high school football game with:
1 Nikon D2H digital camera
1 Nikon 400 mm f2.8 telephoto lens
1 Nikon 70-200 mm f2.8 zoom lens
1 Nikon 17-35 mm f2.8 zoom lens
1 Gitzo monopod
1 Domke Outpack fanny pack

(Francis Gardler is a staff photographer with the Patuxent Publishing Company, which publishes a group of community newspapers in Maryland. Gardler won 1st place in Pictures of the Year International Sports Portfolio competition in 2004. To see a sampling of Gardler's work, go to his member gallery:

Related Links:
Gardler's member gallery

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