Back in January, a week or two after returning from the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans, I got an unexpected email from Jim Surber, the deputy photo editor at ESPN The Magazine. He asked could I be available to shoot assignments for The Magazine. You know, there are some emails you simply can’t answer fast enough. However fast I could type without tying my fingers in a knot is how fast I said YES!!!
I don’t know how Jim found me but I have online presence on Sportsshooter.com, through this blog and through my website at garycosbyjr.photoshelter.com. so I can only assumed he saw stuff on one of those three places. How ever he found me, I am very thankful. I didn’t get an assignment right away. In fact, I waited until the end of October before hearing from him. I did drop an email to him every now and then hoping to keep my name out there without annoying the heck out of him. Finally, the email arrived asking if I could shoot a behind the scenes piece at the University of Alabama for the issue centered on the Alabama versus LSU rivalry. It didn’t take long to say yes.
My assignment was to hang out with the Alabama equipment managers while they packed the truck for the trip to LSU. This was supposed to be the look behind closed doors at Alabama. I am not sure, but I have heard coach Nick Saban keeps a pretty tight lid on things in Bama Land. I hooked up with Jeff Springer, Alabama’s head equipment manager. It is a logistics masterpiece to move a football program several hundred miles, making a visiting locker room and sideline in a hostile stadium feel as normal as possible. Jeff does that for every road game. Like he told me, they did it over and over and over again during the BCS Championship back in January because practice locations changed and the in-stadium practices had to be disassembled and then reassembled repeatedly. Hat is off to Jeff and his mostly student crew.
Now this part is really, really cool and so special to me it is beyond words. If you have been reading the site for a long time you will remember my little boy, Reece, who had Down syndrome. He passed away three years ago but during his short life he, his mom and I, had the great pleasure of meeting Gene Stallings, former Alabama coach and the parent of a child with Down syndrome. John Mark Stallings died a few months before we met Coach Stallings at a dedication for a special needs playground in our town. Coach and Reece formed an instant bond and many tears were shed in that brief encounter. When Reece died, Coach Stallings called our house and spoke to my wife with his condolences. I love the man, not for his affiliation with Alabama, but for his love of children with special needs. My photo assignment at Alabama was in the John Mark Stallings equipment room!
I don’t know if y’all believe in God or not. I do, emphatically. Situations like this make me think God is just showing off. There isn’t any way that Jim Surber at ESPN in Bristol, CT knew my story, much less knew the connection with the Stallings family and probably had no idea the equipment room was named for Johnny. Until I got down there, I didn’t know it either. All I could say was, “Wow!”
Driving down to Tuscaloosa, I had a serious case of butterflies. I mean, first job for ESPN, my stomach was fluttering. It felt like it always did when I would come to bat for the first time in a baseball game. I couldn’t even eat a meal before the shoot. This was technically a simple assignment. All I had to do was hang out with the equipment managers and shoot until they loaded out. (The process took about six hours.) Still, this is not a job you want to muck up. I have been a photojournalist for a long time so I knew I could handle any job they threw at me and this was a relatively simple one but still, I didn’t want to muck it up.
The actual shoot went great. Jeff and his staff were wonderful. The student managers were a good crew to hang out with and we had a wonderful day. Jack Vickers, the guy who drives the Alabama truck to the road games, was a wonderful guy to spend time with. Let me tell you, he is proud of that truck and particularly of the elephant hood ornament with the glow in the dark eyes. My instructions from ESPN were to be nosy and shoot everything I could. I did my shoot, edited and transmitted 51 images and crossed my fingers. Mr. Surber posted three images to the gallery the next day and then I waited for the magazine.
I got a pdf of the page layouts the day before The Magazine was usually delivered and there was only one of my photos there. Now I was wondering if I really screwed up. The Magazine arrived and it was great and I was delighted I had photo published but doubt nagged my mind. I had been told I was shooting for a whole photo essay for a story behind the scenes at Alabama. There was no story so I was worried now I had screwed up so badly they just dropped the whole thing. I finally broke down and emailed Jim Surber and was relieved to find out the plan had changed and I did fine.
Now I am waiting again for that email asking if I can shoot a job for ESPN. My fingers are poised over the Y – E – S keys on the keyboard!
Here is a link to the complete photo gallery on ESPN’s site which includes the work of all the photographers on the project. http://espn.go.com/espn/photos/gallery/_/id/8583691/image/2/game-week-prep-1day1game-alabama-vs-lsu-one-day-one-game