It's a late fall evening on the depressing field where two semi-pro teams are squaring off. I've had to sign a waiver both to be on the sidelines and in the dangerously decrepit press box on the roof of the rickety stadium. Smoke from a foundry across the road belches yellow fumes; it stinks right out loud.
Armed with a Rolleicord twin-lens reflex camera and Graflex strobe, I stare down, following the action through the viewfinder. I've only been shooting for the paper for a few months, and am still learning the craft, so I'm studiously intent on the focus, following a mastadon linebacker who is planning to dismantle a scatback near the sidelines. I click the shutter, and turn away from the action, which is by then perilously close.
And I forget the cardinal rule of the twin-lens reflex: The images are reversed. Instead of getting out of harm's way, I turn into the path of the mastadon as he goes out of bounds, and find myself upside down, hurtling through the air, while thinking “Uh-oh”. Whooomph. I hit the ground, hard, on my back.
It's then that I make two vows: First, get a single-lens reflex camera that doesn't reverse the image; second, pay more attention to the game. I do both in the years to come....
It's Grey Cup time again, when the two best teams in the Canadian Football League duke it out for one of the oldest trophies in professional support.
I started young, watching in black and white as “my” gold-and-black (yes, it's why I'm a Steelers fan) Hamilton Tiger-Cats took on their hated rivals, the Toronto Argonauts. In my teens and twenties, we threw Grey Cup parties that usually included a lot of beer and touch football. I even played a bit – quite ineptly, I assure you – in my final year of school. Looking at the yearbook photo of me with my team mates (wearing black and gold) makes me smile. Ruefully. I still have the jersey, good ole number 66.
So it was natural for me, when I first got a newspaper job, to want to photograph the game, and I did so at the amateur and semi-pro level. I eventually got quite good at it, once I learned when to duck, and by the time I went back to university in 1971, I was able to become one of the college newspaper's official game photographers.
We shot in the rain, we shot in the heat, we shot in the snow, occasionally dodging beer bottles thrown at us from the hostile stands of other universities. We banged off frame after frame on 35mm SLRs like my now-primitive Nikon Fs. We knew how to follow the action, to be at the right place along the sidelines at the right time. We knew how and when to “push” the film in the darkroom and to mess with the enlarger to optimize the prints. We mostly rolled our own film, mixed our own chemicals.
On a couple of occasions, I rode in the back of an Econoline van with the cheerleading crew for an away game. (And, no, it's not what you're imagining, either.)
One of my sharpest memories is of the day I took the photo you see below.
My friend Sandy, a school teacher and photographer who also shot semi-pro games, and I were dressed in our militia bush jackets (lots of pockets for storing film and lenses), frayed jeans and heavy boots. I was also sporting a patch on my left eye because I had a stye. We looked piratical, slovenly and disreputable, but nonetheless talked our way in and had a fine time as the heavily favoured home team lost 42-3. We shaved an hour off the five-hour return trip in my V8 Duster, laughing like the loons we undoubtedly were.
That year our team won the Vanier Cup – the national championship – and some of my photos were included in the commemorative magazine put out by the university. I was quite proud of that, since I wasn't actually on the university paper's staff.
I stumbled across the magazine the other day, while going through some music books. It's one of a handful of personal mementoes that survived the marital wars of the early 1980s.
It stands up pretty well, considering the equipment we were using. In fact, there are some remarkable shots in the collection, made by some remarkable young men and women who were on the staff and who were a pleasure to be around.
I treasure the memory of them, too.