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Shooting America's Game: How I Made The NFL Come Alive In Photos

Neil Leifer, as told to Jack Dickey

Neil Leifer began shooting big games as an eager teenager in the 1950s, sneaking into stadiums by any means necessary—he'd even volunteer to push wounded veterans around in their wheelchairs. Before too long, he became Sports Illustrated's star photographer. He shot it all—Olympics, World Series, Kentucky Derbies, the fights. That Ali photo on the wall of so many dorm rooms? He shot it. Vince Lombardi atop his lineman's shoulders? His work. Joe Namath in the mud? Another Leifer. Many of his best NFL photographs were collected in his recent book, Guts and Glory: The Golden Age of American Football. He explains a few of them for us here.


"Over the Top": NFL Division Playoff, Vikings 23, Los Angeles Rams 20; Metropolitan Stadium; Dec. 27, 1969


In the old days—and you have to understand, I'm talking about 90 years ago, before I was shooting—all the photography was done from the press box on the mezzanine. Sometimes they'd shoot from the roof. Today it is mostly done from field level. Photographers are allowed to work the sidelines and the end zones—from one end zone to the 35-yard line and from the other 35-yard line to the other end zone.

The picture of Dave Osborn (No. 41) was very simple. When a team gets into the red zone, most of the photographers line up in the end zone, exactly 10 yards from the goal line. From that distance, you don't need a telephoto lens. I shot that picture with a 180-millimeter lens, but you could shoot it with a 300-millimeter lens, too. All you do is hope that the play will run right at you, and that one did. It's a typical news picture, and I was very happy with it. It made the cover of SI that week.


The thing is, you don't know when during the play to shoot—you're shooting with a sequence camera, four or five frames a second. There were 36 frames on a roll of film, and it would not be uncommon to shoot about 30 rolls of film of a game. Sometimes it would be 28 or 33. A lot of it would be junk, but it's a hell of a lot easier to be a genius when you edit than when you shoot. In this instance, I was using a Nikon Drive. Happily, the play came straight at me. There were 10 photographers lined up right next to me, but I got the shot. That's a good news photograph—and that was my job for the day.

"Dick Butkus, the Most Feared Man in the Game": Packers 21, Bears 3; Wrigley Field; Dec. 14, 1969


I was assigned to do a color essay that would run for 10 pages or so. SI used to shoot an essay one season that would run the next season. (You couldn't shoot the preseason—there's a different feel to preseason pictures.) They would assign a writer to do a really lengthy piece to go along with the photographs.

In 1969, Dick Butkus was one of the best players, and the editors knew they'd want him for the 1970 preview issue cover. So for four games, I shot nobody but Dick Butkus. When the defense wasn't on the field, I would shoot him on the bench.


The magazines were very healthy then. These were expensive assignments to shoot: four games, for me and an assistant. So SI would send a good photographer and a good writer, people they had a lot of confidence in. I loved doing those—they were a big showpiece for my pictures, and I wasn't competing with other photographers to see who'd make the cover. (Except once: I shot a cover for the football preview issue that was killed when the advertising came in. The essay was on Paul Hornung. The ad on the back cover was Paul Hornung pitching Marlboro cigarettes. It would have looked as if they had pitched us.) Now, that doesn't mean I wouldn't prefer to do the news coverage at the Super Bowl. But the essays gave me the chance to do something different.

This one I shot from the end zone, with a 1,000-millimeter lens. He was 20 or 30 yards away, but this was a fabulous lens that I happen to love. It brought you in that tight. And when you get in that tight, there are people who happen to have what I call a visual charisma. There are very good players who don't make good pictures, but Butkus wasn't one of them. Butkus had it—the scowl on his face, the intensity. For an essay, that's perfect. Because you're responsible for putting together some set of interesting pictures that complement each other.


"In Control": Kansas City Chiefs 38, Pittsburgh Steelers 16; Kansas City Municipal Stadium*; Oct. 18, 1971


The mood in this picture is so wonderful. It's a night game, which is a good start. And the offense has the ball inside the two-yard line. That means they huddle in the end zone. So I might've been 10 feet away from them. I was shooting with a wide lens, probably a 35 millimeter, taking advantage of the situation I was handed. You can only shoot wide when the huddle is so close. But it's rewarding—you can see the defense lined up like a picket fence.

"Out of Trouble": Colts 45, Redskins 17; Memorial Stadium; Dec. 13, 1964


Weather is a huge factor in all sports photography. Whenever the forecast came in, predicting freezing rain or snow, I would get excited—it always made for the best pictures. And fog is just the best.

The picture just captured the whole mood of the place, because of what fog does to the light. There are two kinds of color films—tungsten and daylight. You'd typically use daylight film for warm lights and incandescent lights, and you'd use tungsten film in floodlit stadiums. But this game started in daylight, so I was shooting on daylight film. That oddity made it so dramatic. Everything about that picture is special, the fog and how the lights reacted to it. There's an eerie mood. Hollywood motion pictures spend a fortune putting fog on the sets.


And it's a punt! When you're on a news assignment, you're shooting from behind the punter, hoping that the punt would be blocked, or you'd get a roughing-the-punter penalty. I probably shot hundreds and hundreds of punts. I can think of one or two that got published. This is a real favorite of mine.

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