Saturday, August 7, 2010

Where Are They Now - Robert Edwards

A few days ago I pulled this week's copy of Sports Illustrated out of my mailbox, and saw that it was the annual Where Are They Now issue. This is the first Where Are They Now issue that Sports Illustrated has ever done that does not have any of my photography work in it, going back about 10 years. Of course this is a little disappointing, but hey, that's life nowadays in the modern magazine business. I have always loved working on the Where Are They Now stories, because you get to meet and work with some of the old legends of sport, usually in a much more relaxed setting than with current athletes.

I believe this is also the first year in which the SI Where Are They Now issue doesn't coincide with the July 4th holiday, and Wimbledon. It is unfortunate timing for me that they wait until this year to make this change - Wimbledon has cost me two SI Where Are They Now covers over the years. The first was in 2004 when Maria Sharapova won and became a sudden media darling, bumping the cover story photo I did of my childhood football hero, Dick Butkus, from the full cover to a small photo in the top corner, above the photo of the young, pretty, smiling Sharapova. The second time was in 2008, when Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in what was considered by many to be "one of the greatest matches ever", and of course an action photo from the epic contest became the cover. I wasn't quite so impressed - I didn't really consider it epic enough to keep my portrait of The King, Richard Petty, from being the full cover, again reduced down to the smaller photo in the top corner above the two tennis players...but what can you do?

As I am an old school sports fan with far more interest in the golden age of sport of long ago, my SI Where Are They Now assignments have provided some of the highlights of my career in photography. One of my favorites was a couple of years ago, in 2008, when I was assigned to photograph Robert Edwards, former University of Georgia and NFL running back.

It is a bittersweet, inspirational story; a player's promising career nearly cut short as it was just getting started, yet that player overcoming incredible odds after a devastating injury to battle back and play again. Robert's knee was basically destroyed playing, of all things, flag football on a sand field, as part of the Pro Bowl activities in Hawaii after his rookie season. He was told that not only might he not PLAY again, that not only might he not WALK again, but that there was even a chance that his leg might have to be amputated, the injury was so severe. All this after the guy had a standout year with The New England Patriots in his rookie season in the NFL - how do you come back from something like that? Well, apparently you come back by having an incredible amount of dedication and love of the game, which Robert had. I don't think he had to play for the money, I seem to remember reading that he had a good insurance policy, and he had just been a first round pick in the NFL draft with surely a contract to match. I followed along in the media as the stories came out about his rehabilitation; his hard work, tenacity and dogged progress was inspiring. Finally, a few years later he made it back to the NFL, as a running back with the Miami Dolphins, and in his first game he scored one rushing touchdown and one receiving touchdown. He played that season with the Dolphins, and then played in Canada for a few years; when I photographed him he was a free agent and winding up his career. I remember he mentioned he was interested in coaching.

I've photographed some well known names of sports history for the SI Where Are They Now issue, but the story of my assignment with Robert is most relevant today, because last night I actually faced him on a football field. In my life away from photography I have another part time job, coaching defensive linemen for a high school football team, and Robert is the new head coach of a team that we play, a team we had a preseason scrimmage against. It was a good scrimmage, hard hitting, and I'm happy to say that my team did pretty well. However, one of the best parts of the night for me was standing in front of the gathered players from both teams after it was all over and telling them Robert's story, a story that reinforces some of the things we try to teach our players - dedication, persistence, hard work, love of and respect for the game. It was good to tell them this story, and then to point to him and tell them, "THIS is a football player".

It seems that a lot of people nowadays have somewhat questionable reasons for their choices in their sports heroes, mostly based on flash and cash, and glitz and glamour. If anybody happens to be looking for a sports figure with a little more substance, they would do well to look to Robert Edwards and check out his inspirational story. And, if anybody is looking for a football team to pull for this year, they should look to Arlington Christian Academy High School, in Fairburn, Georgia, led by first year coach Robert Edwards...unless they are playing my team, Griffin Christian Academy High School, from Griffin, Georgia, in which case we would appreciate you pulling for us.

For the shoot with Robert I met him at a sports facility in Roswell, Georgia, where he was working out with his friend, NFL linebacker Takeo Spikes. After some weight lifting, the two did some running on a nearby track, which is where we set up the shoot. My goal was to make Robert look determined, noble and inspirational, still working hard at football. I knew he would be glistening with sweat after running in the Georgia summer heat, but I also knew that it would evaporate quickly, so we brought a gallon jug of water to continually pour over his head, to maintain the rivulets and beads of sweat. Robert's buddy Takeo was helpful with this part of the shoot, he seemed to delight in pouring the water on his friend's face. We used two lights - a medium Chimera softbox with a Dyna-lite strobe head powered by a Dyna-lite 2000 watt pack, and the sun. The softbox provides the main light on the face, and the overhead sun provides the highlights on the top of the head, helping to make the water / sweat shimmer. The exposure was 1/250 at f/16, underexposing the ambient by about two stops to saturate the background and sky, and to decrease the effect of the sunlight on the face. The camera was a Canon 40D, with a 16-35mm lens, set at 35mm. The look of determination on the face was provided by the subject.