Being a Detroit Lions Photographer in the 90's

I’m crossing my fingers like everyone else that the NFL and the Players Association are getting closer to a deal. With the Lockout hopefully almost over, most of the NFL writers can stop wracking their brains trying to come up with something to write about that isn’t a top ten list. If this Lockout were to continue, I know a top ten list of the best helmets is right around the corner– oops, sorry, ESPN already did one in May.

Doing a list might have been fun for some franchises with a great history, Green Bay and Pittsburgh come to mind right off the bat. But doing one for a team with ONE playoff win in the last 50-and-counting years, whose best days are ahead of them, was almost mean spirited. When I made my top nine list a few weeks back, two of the highlights were general managers leaving the franchise.

Despite the sorry history of the Lions, I , like a lot of people, WILL ALWAYS root for them to do well. With the Lockout almost over and the long fourth of July weekend looming before us, I’m going to take this last opportunity to reminisce.

SideLion Report editor Zac Snyder is writing a series of articles on Defining Moments in Detroit Lions History. Don’t think for a second that Zac isn’t including the end to the Lockout in his nightly prayers. His article on June 24 illustrated how the Lions lost the last game of the 2000 season on a field goal to miss out on the playoffs. That loss convinced the Ford family to hire Matt Millen and send the franchise over a cliff, not to be heard from for ten years when they at last reared their head and won four games in a row. It was also the end of a dream job for me. That was the last game I photographed for the Detroit Lions.

I was hired after the magical run in 1991, which has been highlighted recently by our own Josh Hill. I was brought on in 1992 to help the team’s main photographer. They were on the rise and anticipated needing more pictures. At the end of the 2000 season, the NFL changed it’s rules and I couldn’t have the job anymore. If I had known what was in store for the Lions in the next ten years, I wouldn’t have been nearly as upset as I was.

Aside from family, that was the most exciting and fun thing I ever did. I spent a lot of years working as a newspaper photographer around the country and my favorite assignments were the sporting events. You ALWAYS have the best seat in the house. I was on the sidelines for John Elway’s “The Drive.” Covering the Lions was the ULTIMATE job.

After a couple of years there, I settled into a routine of shooting all of the home games (no road games) on Sunday and would come back to show the players the images I shot from the game. I had the photos all lined up on a table and they would come by after lunch and pick out the ones they wanted to purchase from me. Doing this year upon year, I got to know the players quite well.

The most fascinating thing about knowing the players was how much they were alike as a group. For example, the offensive lineman were REALLY friendly, like giant teddy bears. They would actually talk to me and kid around. The defensive lineman were more businesslike. The offensive skill players were generally happy go lucky types with a lot of confidence. They knew they had the world by the balls. The defensive backs–OMG! They were the loudest and cockiest bunch by far. You could hear some of them braying from twenty yards away. They bordered on obnoxious. I usually saw the players as they came in to dress, and the DB’s would love to pull me aside and tell me to keep an eye on them today. It was amazing to watch millionaires trying to get a deal out of me.

My favorite story was how Chris Spielman would ALWAYS walk right past my table on his way to weight lifting and never even glance at my stuff. He really couldn’t have cared less, he had his mind on other things and I respected the hell out of that. I got this great shot of him against the 49′ers where he is getting up after the tackle and his right hand is on the 49ers face mask. He’s pushing down as hard as he can, with veins popping out on his arm. He’s trying to mash the guy into the carpet with an expression of bad-assness stretched across his face. I wanted to get an autographed copy for my nephew for a christmas present. I asked him if he would sign the photo for an Xmas present, he studied it and said, smiling, “Only if you make a copy for me.”

There were so many memories from being on the sidelines, that it’s hard to quantify. Nothing was more exciting than having to pick up the mono-pod and camera and haul ass down the sidelines because the Lions are charging and you want to stay ahead of the action on offense. It was like being in the center of the universe. The wins were so exhilarating and the losses were only bearable because listening to Art Regner rant on the radio after a loss in the 90′s was some of the best radio in Detroit sports history.

I can still see Brett Favre running for his life in a playoff game in 1994, and thinking that we’re going to win this playoff game. Then he heaved it a million miles, and from where I was standing, it looked like it was going into the stands. I wish it did. The rest is history. On the positive side, I feel very lucky to have been on the sidelines for 7 years watching the most electrifying player in the history of the NFL.

The pinnacle of my on-field experience was the day Barry got his 2000th yard in 1997. Since we never accomplished much as a team during my time with the Lions, this was viewed as OUR biggest achievement. I never heard that stadium rock like when Barry ripped off that fifty yarder at the end of the game. This is the sound I expect the Ford Field fans will be hearing in the future.

I hunted down this video from YouTube of the end of the game. I knew it was national TV and tried to get noticed during the interview before I swung around the front of the mob to get my shot of Barry on his teammate’s shoulders. I had one second of glory, at exactly the 3:08 mark the annoying guy in front of me moved and my mug is right next to Barry’s. Don’t blink or you’ll miss me.

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Tags: Barry Sanders Chris Spielman Detroit Lions

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