WHY DO SOME PHOTOGRAPHERS ALWAYS SEEM TO BE IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME? FOR ONE LEGENDARY SHOOTER, A GREAT IMAGE (OR A PERFECT PRANK) IS NEVER AN ACCIDENT
IT WAS A COLD DECEMBER DAY, AND THE AIR IN THE BRONX IS ELECTRIC.
Long before kickoff, a bundled-up crowd that will swell to 64,185 is streaming into Yankee Stadium to watch my New York Giants battle the Baltimore Colts. It is 1958, and since the Super Bowl hasn't been invented yet, the teams will be playing for football's highest honor, the NFL championship.
Now, if you look to the left of the farthest goalpost—behind what in summer is the visitors' bullpen—you'll see a ramp used for truck deliveries. It goes to the street, where buses carrying wheelchair-bound veterans from the local army hospital roll up to the curb. Several volunteers spring into action. They wheel the men into the stadium and line them along the outfield wall from leftfield around to the monuments in center, right behind the end zone.
You might even notice me, there by the wheelchairs. Not having the money to buy a ticket—nor the clout to secure a press pass—I discovered that I could enter the stadium by helping to wheel in the vets. And once inside? Oh, man. When most of the volunteers disappear into the stands to get a better view of the game, I stay where I am, right here on the field, my trusty Yashica-Mat camera tucked under my jacket.
The end zone is the worst possible spot for a fan, but it's great for a photographer. My Yashica, though, is far from an ideal piece of equipment. It has a fixed lens so I can't come in close, as I would with a telephoto lens, and fill the frame with the action. There is another problem: security. The Giants use four rent-a-cops, mainly to guard against drunken fans spilling onto the field. Some of these men also work Knicks games, and by now they know me. How many times have they chased me out of Madison Square Garden? Even worse, the credentialed newspaper photographers keep a sharp eye peeled for me and try to shoo me away from their sacrosanct turf. When the guards aren't looking, I creep up 20 or 30 feet and hope that a play comes close to me.
During the NFL season I became a fixture at the Stadium; to curry favor I would fetch hot coffee from an urn on a table near the vets and deliver cups to the chilled rent-a-cops. In time they'd look the other way when I stole over to take pictures of the players huddled on the bench or crept in for a close-up of the action.
And man, this game will have plenty of it. A tie at the end of regulation, it will go down as the only championship game in NFL history to be decided in sudden-death overtime. The Giants win the coin toss and go three-and-out on the first series of OT. Then Johnny Unitas maneuvers the Colts to New York's one-yard line. On the next play running back Alan Ameche falls across the goal line, giving Baltimore a 23--17 victory in what would become known as the Greatest Game Ever Played.
I am standing 10 yards behind that goal line, directly in front of Ameche. With the stadium darkening and fog swirling across the field, I snap one shot—my single roll of film had only 12 exposures—and capture Ameche cradling the ball as he tumbles into the end zone. For the guys with the telephoto lenses, it turned out to be a fairly ordinary picture of Ameche, his head down, bulling through that hole. But because of the limitations of the Yashica-Mat's lens, my picture captured the whole scene on the field woven into the mood of Yankee Stadium.
Little could I have imagined that blustery day that this black-and-white photo would become one of the iconic sports pictures of the 20th century.
Nor could I have given myself a better birthday present. Did I mention? This was the day—Dec. 28, 1958—that I turned 16.
I HAD NEVER BEEN out of the country. I had never even been west of Kansas City. And yet, there I was, brand new passport in hand, bound for Moscow, where Dell Sports had arranged for me to photograph the 1961 edition of the annual USA-USSR track and field series. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED was sending Marvin Newman and Jerry Cooke, two of its best photographers, and had agreed to look at my film on spec.
It was the height of the Cold War and visas to the Soviet Union were hard to get. I couldn't wait to get my credential because I collected every one I ever had, and this would be my first in a foreign language.
To pick up that credential you had to go to Lenin Stadium, the site of the competition. Seated behind a desk in the bowels of the stadium was Mr. Clean, a big bald guy who would have been perfectly cast as the commandant of a Russian prison. You presented him with your letter confirming that you were to get a field credential. He checked your name against a typed list.
Behind him were shelves filled with thick folders, all neatly arranged. After checking his list, Mr. Clean handed me an armband with a number and something in Cyrillic. Then he opened a book and pointed to my number, indicating where I was to sign. Apparently they used the same armbands for every event held in Lenin Stadium, from sports to concerts. I was told in no uncertain terms, through an interpreter, that I had to return the armband when the meet was over. I thought, Fat chance—this armband is never going back!X I left Russia with it tucked in my camera bag.
The following year the USA-USSR meet was held in Palo Alto, Calif., and it was a turning point for me. This time I was there for SI with Hy Peskin, one of my heroes. The magazine had allotted six pages just for photos—the only text would be captions—and I got all six, shutting out Hy. I was finally convinced I could work with the big boys.
In 1963 the meet was again in Moscow, and I was the only SI photographer assigned. I'd covered about a hundred events in the past couple of years, so I was feeling confident. Hell, I even knew the drill for picking up credentials at Lenin Stadium. When I went back, there was my old friend, Mr. Clean. As soon as he saw me, he scowled.
I stood in line with the other photographers and when my turn came, I handed him my letter. He said one word: "Nyet!"
I said, "Da!" and again he said, "Nyet!" I had no idea what was wrong. Did he think my letter was a fake?
Mr. Clean rose from the desk, grabbed a little stepladder, and began perusing the ledgers on the bookshelves behind him. He pulled one down, slammed it on the desk and flipped to the page from the 1961 track meet. There were maybe a hundred names on each page and every one had two signatures—except mine, which had only one because I had never returned my armband.
I pride myself on being a pretty honest guy. I don't lie, which sometimes gets me in trouble. But this time I had no choice. I said, "I didn't know I had to return it."
Mr. Clean said, "Nyet!"
Eventually someone from the TIME bureau arrived, along with a representative of the Russian track federation, who translated. "It was explained to you in English—that's what he's telling me," the bureau man said, laughing.
"Then I must have forgotten," I said.
Finally, the head of the AAU went to the Russian federation and said, "This is SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. It's the only American publication that sent a photographer." Mr. Clean was finally overruled by the track federation official. But he made me swear up and down that I would bring back my current credential.
Which is why I have only one Russian armband in my collection.
BY THE MID-1960s I wanted to try a new view of a football huddle—all 11 players in a perfect circle, shown from their shoes to the tops of their helmets. The fish-eye lens, which takes a 180º round image, had just come on the market. My father made a rig that I could set on the ground to hold the camera, which I would fire remotely.
I pitched the idea to SI for the 1965 season. They bought it, and before long I was off to shoot the Arkansas Razorbacks. My assignment was actually a game-action cover on a running back named Hurryin' Harry Jones. While I was there, I would also shoot the fish-eye huddle shot. My secret hope was that it would be so good that SI would choose it for the cover rather than an action shot of Jones.
Hurryin' Harry was a junior, and some kind of Arkansas etiquette required a senior to be announced as the starting running back. The senior would stay in for the first series, then Jones would play the rest of the game. When I told the coach, Frank Broyles, what I wanted to do, he agreed to send out his starting team for the huddle. I had only 30 seconds to get my shot, so I told the behemoths surrounding me, "I want a perfectly round huddle, everybody with their hands on their knees." Then I left and quickly snapped two or three frames.
Back in New York City, SI managing editor Andre Laguerre was looking at the pictures with a group of staffers when someone said, "Wait. Let's count." And, sure enough, 12 players formed that huddle! Broyles, not wanting to slight Hurryin' Harry or the senior running back, had sent out both of them, and I hadn't noticed. Of course, the picture didn't run.
IN JANUARY 1975, New Orleans was the scene of Super Bowl IX, between the Steelers and the Vikings. The Superdome wasn't quite finished, so the game was played at Tulane Stadium, but the dome was far enough along to host the NFL's annual Super Bowl party. Even then, several thousand people attended, and, as always, there were tables piled with food. More specifically, they were piled with Egyptian-size pyramids of very large shrimp.
I hate shrimp. I hate seafood. I can barely look at the stuff, and all my friends know this. At the party, unbeknownst to me, my SI colleague Johnny Iacono and several accomplices filled garbage bags with shrimp. That evening, while some of the guys were plying me with liquor at the hotel bar, the schemers sneaked into my room and filled my bed with the shrimp. They covered the mattress with them and dumped more into the pillowcases. Then they made up the bed and left.
Much later I headed to bed. I pulled back the covers and I could see through the pillowcase red streaks, which would turn out to be shrimp blood, and hundreds of shrimp. I ran downstairs to the hotel desk, screaming, and insisted they give me a new room. I was told there were no more rooms. I finally got them to come up and change all of the bedding. For me, this was the nightmare of all nightmares!
Besides Johnny, I was sure the perps included my assistant Al Szabo and Jerry Cooke, by then the SI director of photography, and the great SI photographer Walter Iooss Jr. I decided that I wouldn't repay them for at least six months. I never acknowledged that anything had happened. I simply went about my business, plotting and planning. Johnny, meanwhile, was going crazy. He knew I suspected him, and he kept asking me, "When are you gonna get me?"
By the time Super Bowl X came around, in Miami, I had hatched my plan for revenge. Laurel Frankel, one of SI's photo researchers, had dated a guy who had been a New York Daily News photographer. He went into the Army during Vietnam and became a helicopter pilot. Now he was a police officer with the Dade County Public Safety Department. When he agreed to my idea, I was in business.
I needed one more person to aid and abet me, and that had to be Iooss. I knew Walter had been one of the perpetrators, but I needed him to supply the marijuana that my plan would require. I told Walter what I had in mind, and he said he was in. I had also asked one of our writers, Roy Blount Jr., to join the team and assigned him to bring a batch of marijuana brownies.
Walter and I invited Cooke, Iacono, Szabo and about 20 others to a cocktail party in an SI suite the night before the game. Walter had started smoking dope early that night, so the smell in the suite was pungent and the brownies were out. I was playing host, trying to contain my excitement. Finally, I said to the guys, "Listen, I promised my wife I'd call her. It's too noisy in here. I'll be right back."
I hurried to my room, where Laurel's friend and another cop were ready to go. They burst into the suite, announced everyone was under arrest and read them their Miranda rights. Then they started asking each guy for his name and birthdate. I was amazed at how many stuttered.
I was out in the hall, waiting for my cue. Through the door I could hear every word the cops said. They handcuffed three of the guys, and Blount was dragged out of the bathroom, where for effect he was trying to flush brownies down the toilet. In a loud voice, one of the cops asked if anyone in the room had ever been arrested in the state of Florida.
One of the SI assistants, Anthony Donna, nearly died. Years before he had been arrested for making a joke about a bomb in his suitcase at the airport. "B ... b ... but, I mean, I wasn't charged!" he stammered.
They made everyone empty their pockets. Cooke produced an envelope with all of the SI game credentials, which he planned to hand out at the party. The cops snatched them up. "But those are our Super Bowl credentials!" Jerry protested. "I can't give you those."
One of the cops said, "Well, I wouldn't worry about that if I were you. You won't be needing them. Court doesn't open until Monday morning."
"O.K., everybody," the other cop barked. "Face the windows before we take you downstairs. We're gonna make an example of you New York city slickers. Bring in the Miami Herald photographer!"
The door opened and in I walked with my camera, the motor drive purring. One by one the shaken photographers turned around and everyone broke up. I got plenty of pictures, but I learned that day that you can't take in-focus pictures in a dimly lit room. Not when you're laughing as hard as I was.
THE BIGGEST story going into the 1980 Winter Olympics was the possibility that U.S speed skater Eric Heiden could sweep all five speed skating gold medals. His sister, Beth, also a speed skater, was favored to win two. As a result TIME decided to put Eric and Beth on the cover of the preview issue for the Lake Placid Games; by then I had moved from SI to TIME, and I was assigned to shoot them. The cover shoot, in Davos, Switzerland, went well, and when we were finished I invited the Heidens to dinner. Over a fine French meal I told Eric I believed he would win the five golds and that TIME would love to have an exclusive picture of him wearing all five. There was one problem: I had checked the speed skating schedule, and he would not be racing for the fifth medal until noon on Saturday. The medals would not be awarded until that night, after TIME's deadline.
But, I told Eric, there was still a way to get the picture into the magazine. I related a story about Billy Kidd and his gold medal at the 1970 skiing world championships: I had Billy pose with the gold three days before he'd actually won it so we could get a photo into SI. I asked Eric if he would pose with five golds right after he'd won his third.
"But where would you get the other two medals?" he asked. I would borrow them from the International Olympic Committee: I'd say I was doing a still life and wanted to show both the front and the back of the medal in one frame. We had a deal. TIME put it in writing that if Eric did not win the fourth and fifth medals, we would destroy the picture.
Eric won his first three golds, and I was able to borrow the other two. Eric kept his word and I had my picture. It ran for a full page. One reason this isn't one of my best-known pictures is that the American hockey team beat the Soviets, the Miracle on Ice. But to me Eric Heiden and his unprecedented five speed skating golds was the story of the Olympics.
Four years later I resorted to the same trick. The big star at the '84 Games in Los Angeles figured to be sprinter Carl Lewis, who had a real chance to win four gold medals—the same four that Jesse Owens had won in the 1936 Berlin Games. Long before the Games, I made my pitch: Would he consider posing with the gold medals ahead of time? Carl quickly said yes.
Only this time I was too clever for my own good.
In June, a month before the opening ceremony, I set up a studio at the Beverly Hills Hotel and asked the IOC if I could borrow five gold medals for a still life I wanted to create using the medals as the five Olympic rings. The idea sounded good to them.
I shot Carl with one, two, three, and four medals—the TIME cover image would show the number he won. Carl arrived with a very short, cropped haircut. Since we had a month to go, I said, "You're not going to change your look, right? You're not going to grow a mustache or change your hair?" Definitely not, he said.
A few weeks later TIME managing editor Ray Cave changed his mind, in hopes of beating rival Newsweek in case it was also planning a Lewis cover: Instead of waiting for Lewis to win four golds, he would put the champion on the cover with one. The magazine closed on a Saturday night, and that issue of TIME would appear 24 hours after Carl won his first race.
Carl did win that race—the 100 meters—but the picture turned out to be a disaster. Carl had changed his look—big time. He showed up at the Games with a distinctive flattop, not the more closely-cropped hair I photographed. When I saw the magazine on the newsstand on Monday, my heart stopped.
So much for my clever plan.
POSSIBLY THE best cover photo I ever shot was my TIME picture of Bear Bryant. The image of the legendary Alabama football coach is a perfect example of how I never give up on an idea. For years I'd been trying for a good image of a coach diagramming a play, but on glass instead of on a chalkboard. You would see through it as he wrote, and I thought it could make quite a dramatic picture.
My first attempt was for SI in 1964, with Don Shula of the Baltimore Colts, the best team in pro football that year. They were set to play the Browns, the second-best team, for the NFL championship at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland. Our football writer, Tex Maule, had convinced the magazine that the Colts would win the title easily. SI even went to Shula to ask if he would write a piece that would run the week after the game—something like, How We Won the Championship. Tex did all the reporting, and the piece was written before the game, leaving only the final score and a few details to be added. I got the cover assignment.
We decided that Shula and quarterback Johnny Unitas should stand on the other side of the see-through "blackboard," which would show plays diagrammed in red paint. The picture worked beautifully and would have made a great cover, except for one small problem. The Colts lost 27--0.
I decided to refine my idea a little more. The Shula-Unitas picture was good enough, but I knew it wasn't perfect. The problem was lighting. If I lit the subject the way I wanted, there would be a very distracting glare on the glass. But if I lit the picture so there was no glare, the subjects would end up poorly lit.
One year later I was ready to try it again, this time at UCLA. Lew Alcindor was causing a sensation, and I wanted to pose him with the great coach John Wooden. Like Shula, Wooden gave me actual plays, and this time I figured out how to solve the glare dilemma. The problem with that picture was that John Wooden was not comfortable in front of a camera. He looked stiff, and nothing from that shoot was published until years later, when one of the photos appeared on the cover of SI the week after Wooden died.
I tried it again in 1975, with Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton. But the picture was only so-so. Then, in '80, I went for it again, with Bryant. There are very few faces that you can't take a bad photograph of, and Bryant had one of them. With his houndstooth hat and stern look, he was perfect.
By now I had figured out a better way to get the picture: rather than shoot through a sheet of glass, I would do it as a double exposure. I would light Bryant's face exactly as I wanted it, and I would also light the board with the plays as I wanted it. First, I would shoot Bryant's face and not wind the film. Then I would shoot the plays on the blackboard, creating a double exposure of Bryant's face and the plays. All I had to do was persuade the Bear to pose.
I went to Tuscaloosa to meet with him. I wore a jacket and tie and purposely did not bring a camera. After a few minutes of chitchat he asked me where my camera was and when I wanted to shoot. I told him I was there only to meet with him and explain my plan. This was something I often did. I wanted my subjects to feel comfortable with me because if they were, it made for a better picture. The Bear spent a good part of our meeting looking for my camera.
When I returned to Tuscaloosa a couple of weeks later, Bryant gave me all the time I needed. With that houndstooth hat and his great face, you couldn't miss. The picture was technically perfect. TIME had wanted me to shoot Bryant on the sideline with his players. But the posed, double-exposure portrait was so much better than anything I shot at the game that they used it on the cover. In fact, the National Press Photographers that year awarded it first place not in the sports category but for all portraits.
And it only took 16 years to get it right.
"O.K., EVERYBODY," BARKED THE COP. "WE'RE GONNA MAKE AN EXAMPLE OF YOU."
THE IMAGE OF BRYANT IS A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF HOW I NEVER GIVE UP ON AN IDEA.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEIL LEIFER
SNAPSHOTS HEARD ROUND THE WORLD The contact sheet from Leifer's 1958 NFL title game shoot reveals several simple but memorable photographs.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEIL LEIFER
MAN WITH A PLAN Leifer bolted the Hogs' huddle, but the shot was still too crowded; his collection of Soviet credentials (below) remains a little light.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEIL LEIFER
COVER SHEET Leifer's photos have fronted more than 160 issues of SI and have become some of sports' most enduring images.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEIL LEIFER
GOLD RUSH A plan that worked smoothly with Heiden (bottom right) in 1980 was just a hair off with Lewis four years later.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NEIL LEIFER
PHOTOGRAPH BY NEIL LEIFER