Monday, August 6, 2007

Football: Maryland Football Media Day

From the first time I started shooting sports a goal of mine has been to cover University of Maryland sports.

Collegiate sports is extremely exciting. There aren't multi-million dollar trade deals, nor is there corporate sponsorship of individual players. There is strict drug testing at the collegiate level, and in this day and age I'm not convinced that the pros have any drug testing at all! Collegiate sports is strictly about competition, pride, and winning. I don't get that sense from professional sports.

I'm not trying to be down on professional sports. But in my opinion they take a back seat to the NCAA from a competition standpoint. It's great to shoot a professional sporting event. All the athletes are ... well ... professionals. But it lacks the same excitement that comes from seeing a freshman whiteout break away from a senior defender and score a touchdown and begin his college athletic career. When you're a professional there's an expectation that you're going to come out every night and score 30 points, a touchdown, or kick the winning goal. When you're at the college level you could end up losing your scholarship.

When athletes come to college they're children. Most have never lived on their own, and for many of these kids the coach becomes the parental influence for (hopefully) the next 4 years. A coach that looks at a recruit and judges their character on and off the playing court builds a strong program. Ralph Friedgen of the Maryland Terrapins embodies that characteristic.

Ralph takes a "personal interest" (note: this is not always positive!) in his players, inviting them over to the Friendgen household for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners when they cannot make it home to be with Family. Seeing the Maryland Football program come back together in August after a 7 month hiatus is like watching a family reunion.

Today the Maryland Gridiron assembled at Chevy Chase Bank Field at Byrd Stadium and suited up for Media Day. I'm new to this event, and I arrived at the field not expecting the players to be present. It was my understanding from Al that this was a meeting between the media and the media relations personnel in the Football program.

We were attending because we'd like to cover Maryland Football this Fall and wanted to put our best foot forward and meet the media relations people during the summer when things are relatively calm and quiet. When the Fall comes and we start submitting credential requests we'd like for them to be able to associate a name with a face along with a set of photos and articles.

I was very excited to see the team down on the field in the Maryland Red and Black uniforms. Several photographers (probably 10 of them) were snapping up photos of the various players for their file vaults. The coaches had the teams divided into groups based on a system that used states. Maryland, DC, and Virginia were in one location, while New Jersey and New York were in another location. These divisions fueled some playful rivalries between the players, with taunts being lobbed between groups followed by laughter, smiles, and additional taunts.

I believe the purpose of this event was to let Greg Fiume (the official Maryland photographer) shoot each player individually as well as take photos of the various offensive and defensive teams. Each year Maryland puts out several publications that are packed with photos from Greg, and I'm sure that many of them will mostly come from today's shoot. It was good to see Greg down on the field, and he said hello to me when I arrived.

When I arrived on the field I was without camera and was in jeans and a polo shirt. Since I wasn't aware that this would be a photo opportunity I left my camera at home (I'm going to stop doing that!). It took me about 3 minutes to realize that I needed toleave the stadium immediately to head home and grab my camera. I raced to my car, out the garage, and was home in under 5 minutes.

By the time I came back Al had arrived and was shooting some photos with his Canon equipment. The field was an oven. Being so deep in the group relative to the rest of the landscape there was little to no wind. There was also an enormous amount of sun reflected off of the stands and the field. It was also abnormally humid today. The heat index this afternoon hit 106 degrees. Fortunately I changed into shorts while at home, but I still sweated away a good 5lbs of water while down on the field. The ice cold water the team provided was unbelievably refreshing!

I managed to capture over 80 great shots of the players in various poses and candid situations. It was a great atmosphere because the players were excited to be in uniform and were really getting up for the photographers. The athletes make the photos, and all the photographer does is make sure the settings on the camera are correct to capture the moment. If your subjects aren't offering any emotion or energy there's very little you can do to make a good photo out of the environment.

On the other hand, if your subjects are energized, excited, smiling, laughing, interacting with one another (as well as the photographers), and having a good time it's difficult to take a bad picture. Today the field at Byrd Stadium was a breeding ground for photographic opportunities, and it was so exciting to be a part of it.

My wife and I are benefactors to the Maryland Gridiron Network (a booster organization for the Maryland Football program), as well as pretty substantial contributors to the Terrapin Club (a scholarship program for student athletes). We've been donating since Julie graduated in 1999, and in 8 years I haven't felt as connected to the athletic program as I did on the field today at Byrd stadium. The players were interacting with the photographers, getting their names, and looking at their photos. Several asked me if I could email them copies of the photos.

I shot everything using the D2H and my 70-200/f2.8 lens. I could have used an 18-55 lens though because a lot of these players are large. One offensive lineman I met is 6' 9" and weighs in at a mind boggling 310lbs. I'm sure I could take him though...

It was strange being on the field today. For years I've been in the spectator role and have met the coaching staff as an MGN member. I've attended dozens of events before and after games, during the offseason, and have traveled to bowl games. I'm good friends with Ralph's wife Gloria, and it's fun being a spectator. But today I was on the field as a photographer and it was a very different sensation. I wanted to say hello to coach Sallazo and some other coaches I've talked with but I didn't know what boundaries I had to respect.

I'm still learning the ropes in terms of what's appropriate and what's inappropriate behavior from a photographer. As a result I'm playing it safe and avoiding making personal conversation with some of the staff until I hear from Al (or Greg) that these types of conversations are acceptable when you're covering an event. I did manage to see Fabian (a coordinator for the MGN), and he came up to me to say hello. That makes me think that it's ok to chit-chat with people you know personally during one of these events. I'm still going to play it safe and let the coaching staff approach me (rather than me approaching them) for the time being.

I decided to buy the D2H body off of Al today for $950. I now have a pretty decent set up for Fall sports, and the only component I'm really missing is an 18-55mm lens. I think that at this point it's more important to be long in the lens rather than short, and I can forego acquiring the 18-55mm lens until after my bonus in September. In the meantime I'll use the D2H or D200 with the 400mm lens and the 70-200mm on the other body. I'll no doubt do some experimenting with the set up to see which camera works better on which lens, and I'm sure I'll be posting about it.

Al also reported that his meeting with the media relations people for the football team went well. He didn't get a chance to meet with assistant AD Doug Dull but instead he spoke with another individual who handles a lot of the credential requests. Al presented the company profile document I prepared and focused on our credentialed experience at professional sports. The media relations rep sounded "interested" and would check things out with the other media people. In the meantime, Al and I are sending them 12 photos as well as a brief write-up I wrote about the day.

Football and Men's basketball at Maryland are very difficult events to receive credentials for, and I'm hopeful that we'll be able to crack the shell and get access for the Fall. It would be a dream to cover Maryland Football this fall...


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