LATROBE, Pa. -- Dear Steelers receivers and family,
I thought I'd left this feeling behind.
By far, the worst experiences of my working career have come when I've been asked to follow 9-1-1 calls to people's homes, photographing them as their belongings turn to ash. Or to the side of the interstate as responders work to free people from their vehicular entrapments. Or when I traveled to southern West Virginia to cover residents displaced from their homes due to flooding.
The feelings I had when being asked to do those things ... they outweighed the joy of the touchdown celebration, the thrilling Big 12 battles, the action inside Milan Puskar Stadium on a Saturday night in Morgantown, W.Va.
Those were feelings that led me to leave a life in traditional news and at newspapers. I wanted to cover the joys of life that sports can bring, and the agony and tears that come from being on the losing side of the big game -- I can tolerate and welcome the tears that come with that.
What I had forgotten in the process, however, was that top tier athletes, although superhuman in form, are human and mortal. I had forgotten that the same fragility that exists in a family -- welcoming each other into their arms as their house fire is fought with hoses -- can exist on a football field.
Today, it did.
It's not easy to stand on the sideline and photograph today's scenes, but it's not about me or my feelings. That's what needs to be known. When I'm photographing a scene of JuJu Smith-Schuster lying on the grass with his helmet on, not being his jubilant self with his team, it's not for retweets and likes. It's because I believe in the importance of the moment, no matter how it feels to document it.
Here's that scene, JuJu on the ground and then being helped up by Donte Moncrief:
I knew in that moment that we were going to get more intimate, more personal, and it made me uncomfortable. I had no issue invading JuJu's space after the game and fumble in New Orleans, but it made my stomach sick following this family of receivers with my camera on this day.
Stretching started and we, indeed, got more intimate.
I knew that I needed to take the photos of JuJu lying on his back, again, as he was being stretched -- his hood covering what the reflective shield no longer could. With each movement that threatened his exposure, he'd readjust the safety net.
My first moment of uncomfort came in this moment, and that's when I'd decided to write this -- an explanation for why I stare at you in this moment of mourning. Because, sooner or later, you're noticed ... and you feel awful for the telescopic invasion:
Honestly, I felt the eyes, and I turned to shoot something else. I only want to document, not invade, and I chose to document something else until enough time had separated us from this feeling.
When JuJu got up, I followed him with my eyes, and I didn't re-attach my lens to him until I noticed his pause as he put his helmet on. JuJu pressed his forehead into his helmet, and I realized that I wasn't invading. This moment was between JuJu and his relationship with his late receiving coach, Darryl Drake. This wasn't a moment me documenting could change or affect in a negative way.
Then the prayer circle came, the entire offense joining hands and knees and prayers to remember a member of your family. This was the most public a moment we would get as the skies opened and rain came down during your prayer.
These are moments of pain, but also of bonding. Moments of family. They're private, and painful, but meant to be remembered.
When the circle broke and it was time to go to work, Ryan Switzer emerged from the bodies that so often block sight of him. He put his gloved hand to his eye to wipe the mix of rain and tears as James Washington took him to his side. This was the moment for me.
Two members of your family. Two members who had only been with this team and Drake for a year before today. They emerged bonded together, comforting each other in the wake of this terrible news.
If you search the faces, there was only sadness, and pain:
This wasn't a day for football. This was a day to convene with your family and start the process of putting yourselves back in the place that will undoubtedly cause more sadness and pain. And, that's ok.
It was ok for JuJu to get bumped on his route by Steven Nelson and go down as Nelson picked the ball off in the rain. It's ok, because it wasn't about the route, or the catch or the interception. It was about James Conner being there to pick JuJu up when he was, again, lying in the grass. It was about your family.
There will be a day when the sadness and pain turns into a point to the sky following a touchdown reception. It might not be conceivable now, but it will be there. And, I'll be near the end zone in a much more comfortable position of documenting your lives as that moment happens.
Today, though, we had to be close, even with the distance between us. We had to be intimate, even if you didn't always know I was watching. You had to help each other up and comfort each other's tears despite that pain. I had to document it, just as I will the points to the sky, the dances in the end zone, and the sideline smiles as the game clock winds down.
On the field and as I write this, my heart is with you,
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