Vincent Pugliese photographs some of the greatest moments in Sports. This time, passion got in the way of the lens.
This post is part of our series, From the Front Lines . . . of Sports, where readers share personal stories of their experiences attending live sports events. These essays can explore aspects of the game itself, the feeling of being there, of spending time with family or friends, or anything else connected to the experience. And it can be any type of sports event, big or small, from the NCAA Basketball tourney with buddies, the SuperBowl with friends, on a baseball trip with your kid, or to a minor league baseball game with the family.
The remainder of this post is the words of reader, Vincent Pugliese:
There are two questions that I am asked often about being a sports photographer.
#1: What is the wildest game that you have ever photographed?
#2: Is there a photograph that got away?
For me, both of those answers occurred at the same time on the same afternoon.
In January 2006, I arrived at the RCA dome dressed for success. On the outside, I dressed as any photographer would have: a sweater and jeans. Underneath my sweater, though, was my black Pittsburgh Steelers jersey.
The Steelers returned to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis for an AFC Divisional Round playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts, who had thrashed them 26-7 two months earlier on the same field. The Colts, who were undefeated through most of the season, were favorites to advance to the Super Bowl in Detroit.
I had mixed emotions. I was assigned by my newspaper, The Evansville Courier & Press, to cover the Colts throughout the season, and I would have followed them through the Super Bowl. Photographing a world championship game is the pinnacle for most sports photographers and I am no different. I had photographed two Super Bowls to that point, and I was craving another.
But I’ve been a Steeler fan all of my life, so there was no doubt who I wanted to win. As a journalist, I need to remain impartial. But this was going to be an emotional challenge for me.
Pittsburgh was the No. 6 seed, trying to do what had never been done in the NFL playoffs: beat a No. 1 seed.
Before the game, deep within the belly of the dome, I positioned myself in front of the Pittsburgh locker room to photograph them heading towards the field. Aside from NFL Films, there weren’t any photographers around. I had a sense that it was going to be a more competitive game when the doors flew open and Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El, whose replica jersey I was wearing, shouted for all to hear “We’re Baaaack!”
The 14-2 Colts had to have been perplexed to see thousands upon thousands of Terrible Towels waving in the air in a stadium that should have been awash in blue. The frenzy for the road team continued as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger drove Pittsburgh for a touchdown on the opening drive. Minutes later, they scored again to take a 14-0 lead, and for the first time all week I said to myself that they could actually win this game.
The pace of the game slowed from that point but it was a special game to photograph. Some games are more of a struggle to find peak action moments, but by the middle of the second quarter, I felt that I had more than I had expected.
Football is my prized sport to photograph because of the flexibility that we are given. There are limitations to where you can not go, like the bench area, but we get to roam the sidelines finding our spots to shoot. The more you understand the game, the better you will be as a photographer to anticipate the correct spot to be in.
Late in the third quarter, Jerome Bettis, the 250-pound running back and future Hall-of-Famer, plowed into the end zone for a touchdown to give the Steelers a 21-3 lead. He spiked the ball and let out a primal scream right in front of me, which was one of my favorite images from the game.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning hit Dallas Clark for a 50-yard touchdown to cut the Steeler lead to 21-10. That should have been a sign that this was the beginning of one of the wildest endings in NFL history. Manning had a look in his eyes like he wasn’t messing around anymore.
For me, this was such an odd situation because this game pulled me in so many directions. I needed to remain laser-focused to document the rest of this fabulous game. I would have thought that I would have had more mixed feelings with a chance to photograph the Super Bowl but I didn’t. Not at all. My heart was racing throughout the rest of the game hoping the Steelers would hang on.
The one physical thing I do remember was how hot it was inside of the dome that day. With about ten minutes remaining and the Steelers attempting a fourth-down conversion, I wished that I could take my sweater off but my jersey was on underneath which is not allowed on the sidelines. As a member of the media, I need to appear neutral.
With about six minutes to go, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu intercepted a pass from Manning which would have sealed the game but it was inexplicably overturned by the referees. (I’m not just being a homer, the NFL later said the interception should have counted.) So the Colts kept the ball and scored a touchdown and 2-point conversion to make the score 21-18 with 4:24 to play. The Colts got the ball back but on fourth down deep in their territory, a blitzing Steelers defense sacked Manning at the two-yard line and the game was all but over with 80 seconds left.
Those last 80 seconds were the wildest that I ever remember in shooting sports.
My job, as the sole photographer, is to tell the entire story of the game. During the timeout, I noticed several Colts fans openly crying in the first few rows. Steelers fans were waving their towels like mad, and numerous Colts fans were involved in a yelling match with some of the players on Pittsburgh’s bench.
Those photographs were funny and storytelling at the same time, and I probably enjoyed them more because I was a Steelers fan.
Having possession at the Colts 2-yard line, Pittsburgh decided against running the clock out, which I assumed they would do, and went for the easy touchdown to seal the victory. But as I was photographing Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor waving a terrible towel towards the crowd, I heard a loud “boom.”
With my back to the field and the crowd going berserk, I looked to the video scoreboard to see what was going on, because my view of the field was blocked by the players on the sideline. I saw a Colts player running with the ball and I couldn’t believe my eyes. I turned towards the field and saw Nick Harper of the Colts running free towards the end zone which would have been the winning touchdown. At this point, my view was no longer blocked and Harper was running right towards me.
Roethlisberger was backpedaling, less than 20 yards in front of me, and he was the only player with even a remote chance to save the Steelers season.
Never before, and never since, have I been so caught up in a moment while shooting a game. With one camera on my shoulder and one in my hands, I didn’t lift a finger. As Harper looked like he was about to slide past Roethlisberger, I screamed “Tackle him!!!”
For some reason, Harper cut inside instead of going to the sidelines and Big Ben was able to stretch his arms and make a shoestring tackle.
And I didn’t take one photograph.
Standing on the sideline in disbelief, my senses were overloaded. Between the deafening roar of the resuscitated crowd and trying to piece together how the Colts got the ball back, I needed to snap my attention right back in to place.
It now dawned on me that the Colts might win this game, and I need to get towards the end zone to be in position for a possible winning score. I set up in the far right corner of the end zone, right next to a cameraman from CBS. At the timeout, I asked him who fumbled on the last play.
“Bettis,” he said. My heart sank for Jerome. He was going to retire at the end of the season, and that would have been the last play of his illustrious career, a play that will have cost his team the season-and his last shot for that Super Bowl championship that has eluded him for his entire career.
It had not crossed my mind how important that tackle turned out to be.
Shaking the cobwebs from my head, I got a crisp image of Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden knocking the ball away from Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne for a potential game-winning touchdown in the corner of the end zone. The Steelers defense held and Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt lined up to attempt a game-tying 46 yard field goal.
I had photographed every Colts home game that season and I don’t recall Vanderjagt missing a kick in that building. Steelers head coach Bill Cowher called a timeout to “ice” the kicker. When Vanderjagt came out for the kick, the look on his face looked different that any other time that I had seen him.
“He looks nervous,” I said to the CBS cameraman, and he agreed with me.
As he lined up for the kick, I was still standing to the far right of the goalposts. As the snap came in and the ball left his foot, the result was obvious.
“He missed it!” I said, and then watched as the ball sailed directly over my head, a good 25 yards away from the goal post. Vanderjagt slammed his helmet in disgust and I ran towards the Steelers sidelines to photograph the jubilation of their 21-18 victory. Madness ensued during the celebration and near the end of it, I ran into Matt Detrich, a friend and a photographer for the Indianapolis Star. He looked at me and shook his head in disbelief at what had happened. I smiled and showed him my jersey underneath my sweater.
It was the most intense football game that I have photographed. I needed a few minutes in a chair on the sideline to collect my thoughts before I could begin transmitting my photographs to my editor. All the while, my phone kept buzzing nonstop from friends wanting to ask about the game and to make sure I was really there.
In the end, Jerome Bettis went to Detroit and got his Super Bowl victory. As for me and that iconic moment in Steelers history, Roethlisberger’s tackle? Unfortunately, that moment was recorded in my mind, and not with my camera.
It was the photograph that got away.
Photo Credit: Author
This post originally ran as Episode 35: The Photograph That Got Away on Vincent Pugliese’s Into The Uncommon blog.