Covering The Manti Te’o ESPN Interview
There’s been one major question floating through my thoughts over recent weeks. That question is this: How does one become a professional? I’ve only been heavily involved with photography for two and a half years, so I have no trouble admitting I’m still a novice. However, I may have stumbled upon the answer to the aforementioned question. The answer…well, my answer…is this: By taking a leap of faith and not being afraid of where you land.
Though I’ve not updated my blog in some time, I feel as if I may have good reason for not doing so. As I find myself digging deeper and deeper into the core of my passion that is the craft of photography, I also find myself in a constant state of wonder and surreality.
As the fall 2012 semester came to an end, I was lucky enough to be asked by Heinz Kluetmeier of Sports Illustrated to work with him and a few other photographers for a week in Tampa during the first week of Christmas break. We were working for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, taking photographs for ads, marketing, social media sites and program books. I wrapped up the week by driving from Tampa to St. Petersburg and meeting with Steve Johnson at the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl. Steve was kind enough to invite me to come along as a second shooter.
I learned so much during that week. I not only felt myself grow as a photographer, but as a person. One of Heinz’s many mantras regarding photography is that, at its core, it’s about more than just taking pictures of people; it’s about connecting with them. I feel as if I was able to do that, and officially shooting my first football game, finally getting a chance to work with some serious lighting equipment and photographing the circus animals was an unbelievably awesome bonus.
This was around the time when I first thought of the question posed earlier and started looking for an answer. When Heinz asked if I’d be interested in working an internship, there was no second guessing before I agreed to do it. The very same goes with when Steve asked me about the bowl game. A person cannot afford to get caught up in insecurities and self-doubt for too long. Don’t be afraid to say yes and take a leap of faith!
Now, to bring everyone up to speed, I thought I had jumped into the deep end with assignments like the two undertaken during Christmas break, but I feel it was nothing compared to my latest adventure.
It was 4:47 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 18, when I had just finished washing several dishes used to prepare what would’ve been the evening’s dinner when I saw I had a missed call and voicemail from Steve. After listening to his message, I called him immediately. Most of what Steve said to me has been forgotten as it all happened in a flash, but what gist I do remember went something like this: “Do you have plans tonight? No? Good. Pack your camera gear, you’re driving to Bradenton to shoot the Manti Te’o interview. I’ll send you the address.”
(I feel I should mention that Steve was the one originally slated to take this assignment, but he was out of town. So, he called me.)
My mind was racing as I threw my gear into my bag and printed out the directions Steve sent in a text. At 4:59 p.m. I received a call from Bob Flanagan of ESPN Images and was briefed on what would be happening and what I should do upon my arrival in Bradenton. Te’o's interview was scheduled for 7 p.m., but the crew was doing what it could to stall the talk for at least another 30 minutes.
At 5:00 p.m., only 13 minutes after receiving Steve’s voicemail, I was in my car and headed toward the ramp that would put me on I-75 South.
Two and a half hours after leaving Gainesville, I pulled up to the IMG Academy security gate to explain why I was there. Since the whole situation was so last minute, my name was not on any sort of guest list and I lost the battle of convincing the guard to let me in.
After making a few phone calls, Bob put me in touch with Shawn Fitzgerald, the producer on site. I met up with Shawn around 7:45 p.m. and, to my relief, was told the interview had been pushed back to 8 p.m.; everyone was still awaiting Jeremy Schaap’s arrival.
Jeremy drove up to the gates at IMG at 8:23 p.m. when Shawn and I jumped in to accompany him inside. The three of us walked into a small lobby at the front of the complex where Shawn and I were told to stay while Jeremy went to a small conference room down the hall. Less than 20 minutes later Jeremy returned and said they were ready to begin the interview and for Shawn and me to come in and meet Te’o.
Jeremy led the way back into the conference room, followed by Shawn and myself. After a quick introduction and shaking Te’o's hand, I had just enough time to adjust my camera’s settings and fire off three shots before the interview began.
“Is the photographer going to be in here the whole time?” Te’o asked.
That was my cue to leave. I was in shock and utterly terrified. I left the room wondering just how badly I ruined the night by only managing to grab three mediocre photos and started praying that I’d have a chance to redeem myself by the time this thing ended.
Shawn said to send the three photos I had taken back to the desk at ESPN; they were received about 15 minutes later. Around 30 minutes after that, someone in the PR office was apparently given the go-ahead to release information that an interview was happening. The first image I recall seeing was included in a story from Big Lead Sports. ESPN was not far behind as they tweeted updates about the interview; two of which included two of the pictures I had taken.
While I was looking at my photos, the reality of the situation hit me. I finally started understanding that I, by some miracle, was the one photographer in the building; the photographer that took these pictures that were exploding all over the Internet.
Te’o (or possibly his agent) had requested that there be no video during this first interview. I was the only one who had the chance to capture the visuals that would tell this story. As you can imagine, the excitement of it all quickly morphed into an overwhelming sense of nervousness once again, and I spent the next 2 hours wondering if I would get a real chance to prove myself; to get back in that conference room and take some decent photos to send to ESPN.
Around 10:45 p.m., Shawn received a phone call from Te’o's agent and gave me the green light to grab more images as the interview began winding down. Photographers are sometimes said to act like flies on the wall, but in a situation like this, it’s impossible. In a room no larger than maybe 150 square feet, with three other people, you can’t hide; especially when you’re armed with a D600 attached to a 70-200mm lens. I spent the next 10 or 15 minutes shooting as much as I could without shaking my camera to pieces as I was still so nervous. This was unlike anything I’ve ever done or could’ve ever imagined doing.
After sorting through the photos, I settled on nine to send ESPN. The rest, as they say, is history.
Not long after the final images were turned over to ESPN, I had the chance to relax as Shawn ordered pizza around midnight and I was able to start my attempt at wrapping my mind around what exactly happened over the last 8 hours. With Te’o and his attorney in the conference room down the hall, Jeremy and Shawn left me in the lobby to unwind with a medium pepperoni pizza all to myself as they went outside to get ready for the live post-interview broadcast. Also, I am both proud and ashamed to admit that I ate nearly all of that pizza by myself; I thankfully managed to convince Te’o to take a slice as he walked by and back toward the conference room.
I believe it was around 12:45 a.m. when I heard a voice from the down the hall, inviting me in to watch the live coverage that was happening just outside the building. It was simply uncanny; there I was, eating pizza with Manti Te’o while watching Jeremy on ESPN giving one of the most impressive breaking news story rundowns I’ve ever witnessed.
If this experience isn’t considered taking a leap of faith and jumping into the thick of things, I’m not sure what is. Steve and ESPN took a chance on me and for that I’m grateful beyond words. I also took a chance on myself. I could’ve easily turned it down out of fear of messing up, but I’m happy to report the situation turned out much better than I think anyone expected it would; receiving a text while driving home at 2:00 a.m. from Bob saying just that was definitely a huge boost of confidence.
As I rolled back into Gainesville around 4:30 a.m., I realized how it’s only but a few weeks into the new year, and I became excited beyond all reason thinking about what could possibly be thrown at me next. This experience and reassurance in where and what I’m supposed to be in life was exactly what I needed. Once again, to Steve, Shawn, Jeremy, Bob and the staff at ESPN, I thank you all for placing such an amazing opportunity in my hands; for trusting and believing in me and my abilities even when I sometimes cannot. From the bottom of my heart — thank you.