High school football seasons across the country came to a close last Friday: parents walking their sons onto the field for Senior Night, tears in the mothers’ eyes, the fathers standing tall and proud, maybe remembering the last game they ever played.
If they’re lucky, those boys will have pictures to seal that moment forever. I know I do. Boxes full of them. A whole loft in my parents’ house lined with images from my high school career. And the funny thing—every one of those pictures was taken by the same person.
Susie Whorton was a staple on the Russellville Cyclones’ sideline from 2000-2012. I can still see her standing down near the end zone, back leg locked at the knee, holding the camera up to her face, cocking the lens a little to the side. There was a style to everything Susie did, and that style shined through in her pictures.
She had an eye for emotion, catching the small moments, the hugs and tears that often happened off the field and away from the lights. Susie knew where to point her camera because she knew her boys.
Susie’s son Heath and I were in the same grade. We played football, baseball, and basketball together, all the way up through our high school days. “I remember her taking pictures of me with an old film camera during little league baseball,” Heath said. “And then she started taking pictures of the other kids and giving their parents the pictures, too.”
By the time we made it to high school, Susie was known to all Cyclones as our “Sideline Mom.” She’d been taking pictures of the varsity team for almost five years before Heath and I’s class came along. She never missed a game. Period. Over 130 consecutive Cyclone football games, twelve straight seasons, and Mrs. Susie never missed a game.
And then she did.
It took multiple myeloma — cancer in her plasma cells — to sideline Susie Whorton.
I was in a different part of the state when I heard the news. The first thing that came to mind, the thing I’d always remember about Mrs. Susie, was this room she had in her house. It was where she did her photo editing and printing. The walls, the desk — everywhere you looked was lined with pictures.
I can remember standing in that room, looking back on all the players that had come before me, the ones that came after, realizing for the first time how much Susie Whorton actually cared about us, how much she loved “her boys.”
I realized then that it wasn’t about getting the light just right, or making sure the picture was in focus; for Mrs. Susie, it was about us—about catching those moments so we could bottle them up and hold onto them forever.
With each click of her camera, Susie cheated time. Maybe she hoped that, years later, when the fresh-faced boys in her pictures became men with rounder midsections, receding hairlines, and children of their own, they could crack open a photo album and relive those stolen seconds, one frame at a time.
After Susie’s passing, a beautiful thing happened: Heath and his wife Caitlin decided to carry on the tradition. “It was Caitlin who first started talking about what needed to be done,” Heath said. “She never really asked or anything. She just had this attitude like it was going to happen.”
And it did.
Heath and Caitlin followed in Susie’s footsteps, taking photos and videos of the Cyclones from the 2013 football season on through to today.
When I called Heath and asked if he’d be willing to let me share this story, I also asked about his mom’s room, the one with all the photographs:
“That room stands just like it was. There are still pictures in there everywhere, so many pictures, all of her favorites. It’s like they’re frozen in time.”
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Photo provided by the Heath Whorton.