The last Notre Dame football game I had photographed was played on October 13, 2012. It was a rainy afternoon that saw a big-time play from a big-time player to help send the team to a 20-14 overtime victory and later to the national championship game. I didn’t know it would be the last time for almost a decade that I would attempt to wrangle my body, carrying multiple cameras and big lenses down the narrow lane behind the Fighting Irish bench to get in position to document a play.
Then came 2021 and circumstances and an opportunity conspired to put me back in my place. Last season, I realized how much I missed shooting the action. My work and family schedule had changed up and I had the urge to get back to the big time. So, I got in touch with an acquaintance of mine, Phil Houk, and midway through last season made my return to the sidelines working for Fighting Irish Preview.
Those last shots had been made of the 2012 edition of the Fighting Irish who were ranked No. 7 at the time and held on to beat then 17th-ranked Stanford on a rainy autumn evening. Manti Te’o made a big hit, going over the top on 3rd-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line to stuff Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor short of the goal line. The Irish defense completed the goal-line stand on fourth down for the win. On a chilly monsoon of a day, I had put myself in position to make some nice images from that game.
As a fan, it’s exciting to watch a scene like that play out. Maybe a little nerve-racking. As a photojournalist, it’s downright stressful. It’s my job to be completely aware of the situation, know possible outcomes, anticipate what teams will do and do whatever I can to be in position to photograph the play of the game.
I’m on the sidelines for one reason: to work. I’m only given sideline access to visually tell the story of a game. But that doesn’t mean I don’t get to take in some of the environment, after all not much compares to the spectacle of big time college football, but I do feel as if I work very hard shooting a game, and I love it.
In my career, I’ve photographed countless football games. I’ve been on the scene for every level of the sport, including three Super Bowls. But to me, there’s a little something extra about working an FBS college game. The environment is electrifying. It’s something I didn’t realize how much I missed.
My first game back in South Bend last year, in which Notre Dame beat USC 31-16, was a bit of a learning and relearning experience. I was not aware of all the new restrictions Covid-19 brought about. Post game, former Notre Dame and current Pittsburgh Steelers star receiver Chase Claypool was out on the field celebrating the victory.
I went out onto the field to make a picture of him. I looked around and didn’t see any other photographers on the field. That seemed strange. Photographers always went on the field after games. But I forged ahead. I learned quickly, I’d made a mistake. The usher was polite about it though. Some are not. I apologized profusely and walked back to the sidelines. Later that night, I checked my credential issuance email. Sure enough, it was there. I just missed it. I issued an apology to the Sports Information staff as well. By the way, the picture turned out pretty good!
Another aspect I enjoyed about being back at the “big games” was seeing old friends who are still shooting. Old friends who never left the sidelines and are still making some of the best pictures in the business. When most folks see pictures online or in a magazine, they look at and appreciate what they see in the photo. I do that too. But then I look at the byline to see if I know the photographer who made the picture. Many times, I do know that person. I read their names and I remember conversations we’d have during time outs or when we are all finished editing and transmitting images after the games.
I finished my first season back with games against Georgia Tech, North Carolina and the Fiesta Bowl game against Oklahoma State. I was in the thick of things right off the bat with some big story lines. The injury to Kyle Hamilton and him sitting out the rest of the season, the numerous big plays from Kyren Williams, Michael Mayer and company and later the departure of Brian Kelly and ascension of Marcus Freeman to head coach. I got back into the swing of things quickly and made pictures of which I am proud.
I look forward to the start of the 2022 season. What a start it should be! The Buckeyes in the Horseshoe, Marcus Freeman’s regular season debut back where he had played his college ball. Plenty of story lines to work right off the bat. I look forward to trying new ideas for visual storytelling. I look forward to roaming around the parking lots making tailgate photos before the games. And more than anything, I look forward to patrolling the sidelines once again.
Enjoy Chad Rayan’s world class photography all season long here on FightingIrishPreview.com