From the Gridiron to the Photo Studio: Lessons From the Huddle

Whether you live in a football-crazed nation like America, or are beholden to the whim as another sport, nothing is more exciting than the start of a new season. As the kickoffs are underway, I think today I’ll take it from the gridiron to the studio with a few lessons I learned in the huddle.

The (American) football season has officially begun. Team flags have been pulled from the crawlspace. There has been a run on face paint at the local convenience store. And mild mannered accountants everywhere dare to squeeze into their favorite team’s replica jerseys and scream at the top of their lungs, convinced that the players on the TV set can somehow actually hear them.

It is always around this time of year that I hear the same ludicrous words spoken by the ongoing voice in my head. “You could still play,” it tells me. Of course as the years since I last picked up a football have become decades, multiple decades, I am beginning to sense that the voice inside my head is merely being sarcastic. Or just being cruel. Is self-snark a thing?

Any illusions I have that I could actually still play the game of football are quickly dashed as I pass by any surface with a useable reflection or watch an outside linebackers crush the opposing quarterback and think to myself, “Why the heck did I ever even play this game in the first place? These people are crazy!”

But even as my life has traveled far from the huddle into the creative call, from the gridiron to the relative safety of a photo studio, I still use the lessons I learned on the field everyday that I live off of it. Here are just a few.

Quarterbacks Always Get More of the Glory Than They Deserve — and More of the Blame

I should start this section by pointing out that I was, in fact, a quarterback. The one who calls the plays. The team leader. The one that everyone turns to in the huddle and depends on in the clutch. The golden boy. Think Joe Montana, John Elway, Tom Brady. Just, in my case, with less talent. OK, much less. But still, that was me.

There’s a reason everyone knows the quarterback’s name even if they can’t name any of the other 52 players on the team. He is the face of the organization. The only player who touches the ball on every possession. He can make or break the quality of an entire team.

As such, whenever a team wins, the adoring public tends to think that it is all because the quarterback is amazing. He rides high. He’s awarded all the individual trophies. He’s on all the late night shows and dates the supermodels.

Conversely, if the team is losing, the exact opposite belief sets in. It must be because of the quarterback. He’s a loser. He’s a hack. He couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with his passes. We’d be better off with my grandmother in the huddle.

While either opinion may be true, what is often lost in the shuffle is that there are 11 players on the field and the quarterback, no matter how glamorous, is only one of them. No matter how good he is, he can’t win the game by himself. Even Aaron Rodgers needs his receivers to catch the passes he throws. Even the best passing game needs a quality running game to soften up the defense. Even the greatest offense on earth needs a strong defensive counterpart to keep the other team from scoring if the team as a whole has a chance to win.

As a photographer, we are very much like the quarterbacks of our creative teams. It is our job to understand the playbook. Everyone is looking to us to make the right calls in the huddle. When the whole game is on the line, we bear the ultimate responsibility. And, in the end, we will get the bulk of the praise or criticism based on the results.

But, also like those quarterbacks, we don’t operate alone. We have a team made up of stylists, hair and makeup, assistants, techs, models, producers, art directors, and a host of others who must do their jobs in order for the team to succeed. And like any signal caller, our job can be less about our own individual skill set than it is about our ability to get the most from all the other talented people in the huddle.  

We may get the ultimate glory. It’s the nature of the sport. But we don’t win the games alone.

Football, and Life, Is a Game of Inches

Sure, we all love the highlights. ESPN, and the entire industry that surrounds it, is based on cherry picking the most amazing moments of a game then serving them up to us in 30-second clips. But the reality is that while those plays sell tickets, games are actually won or lost by the often mundane moments that rarely make it onto SportsCenter. The key block the walk-on offensive lineman threw to free the running back for his 80-yard touchdown run. The long pass the quarterback didn’t throw, instead opting for a short crossing route to his tight end that picked up a crucial first down.

There is nothing sexy about any of those moments. No one will be telling their grandchildren about the time the cornerback made a routine tackle in the open field. But sometimes simply doing your job day-in a day-out is what is required to win the game.

You can’t shoot a dream job for an international client every day of your life. Well, maybe some of you can, but that would be the exception. Instead, most days are about putting your head down and grinding. Making your cold calls. Practicing your craft. You may not score a touchdown, but you are toughing out those few crucial yards to get the first down and keep the drive alive. It is in these moments that we win the game. Never take them for granted.

The Right Strategy Can Overcome Overwhelming Odds

Ever see a score crawl across the bottom of your screen where some unranked team has suddenly beaten the top team in the country and wonder to yourself “How the heck did that happen?”

If sporting events were played on paper, there would never be any reason to suit up in the first place. You could just go down the roster and see which team has the biggest and fastest players. You’d calculate the relative number of All Stars, figure out each coach's winning percentage, and voila.

But there’s a reason we still play the games. Even if it doesn’t always seem like it, anyone can beat anyone on a given day. Sure the odds may be against it. Sure, if it were a best-of-seven series versus a one game winner-take-all playoff, the result may be even harder to obtain. But given the right opportunity and right attitude, anyone can rise to the moment.  

But while it may seem spontaneous, rising to moment usually comes from a well crafted game plan. A deep study of the terrain. A complete understanding of the competition. Knowing their strengths, and their weaknesses.

As photographers, we face daunting odds. We may not have the name recognition. We may not live in the right market. We may not have the marketing budget. We may not have the right connections. But just like Appalachian State heading into the stadium to face Michigan, the game still needs to be played. And, if you put together the right strategy, David can slay Goliath. Just because the odds are against you doesn’t mean you can’t emerge victorious.

A Winning Attitude Can Make the Difference

As a high school quarterback, I won two championships and only lost one varsity game. That one loss happened to be the last high school game I would ever play but that’s OK. I’m not bitter.  

Really, I’m not.  

Why are you looking at me like that?

OK, maybe that did suck a bit, but it’s hard to really complain when the vast majority of my memories were of positive results. I mention this not to brag about something that happened (gulp) over 20 years years ago, but to contrast that to my time as a college football player.

Despite a roster rife with talent, my college team could never seem to break the .500 mark. As an incoming freshman, I remember being so impressed by the level of skill on the practice field. A number of these guys were legitimate pro prospects. Several had transferred in from some pretty illustrious programs. But, as soon as the games started, we… just… lost. Not every game, of course, but far more than the team's quality seemed to dictate.

So what was the difference between my high school team and my college team? Yes, it was college versus high school, but even looking at each team respective of their competition, the results just didn’t seem to square.  

Even in their own context, my high school team wasn’t any more talented than other teams in our conference. I was the only player from our team that went on to play college ball, so it’s not like we were all High School All Americans. Conversely, my college team had people with legitimate NFL speed and size, and we were even coached by an NFL Hall of Famer. Those should be the right ingredients for success.

But as the season slogged along and the losses piled up, I started to realize a slight, but significant difference between the two teams.

In high school, we went into every game expecting to win. My teams were successful, but so were the teams that came before them and the teams that came after them. The team had built up a winning tradition and with that came a winning mentality. It never ever dawned on us before a game that the other team might actually be better than us. Sure, we knew that we could lose if we didn’t play up to our potential, but the idea that we ever actually should lose was as remote a concept as going to the moon.

When we did lose that final game, I remember looking around at my teammates faces in the postgame locker room and seeing looks of shock and regret. It was really at that moment when it first dawned on me how it wasn’t until that very moment that most of them had ever even considered the prospect of losing.

On the other hand, when my college team would lose, the postgame attitude wasn’t much different than any other day. No one was particularity devastated. Only a few were genuinely upset. No one even seemed surprised. As the season wore on, I began to realize that the reason they weren’t upset after the game is because the went into the game never expecting to win in the first place. They had accepted the inevitability of their own demise before it even happened. They didn’t believe in their own capacity to come out on top. They didn’t believe in themselves. And when you don’t believe in yourself, the game is already lost.

This is perhaps one of the most important lessons I use every day as a photographer. To be a successful artist, at any level, you are fighting against great odds. You may not always have the biggest, fastest, or strongest guys/gals on your side. Your competition may genuinely be better than you in one way or another. But regardless of the stakes, you have the head into each game believing that you are going to win. You have to believe that you deserve to win. Then you have to put in the work to make that a reality.

Everyone Gets Knocked Down — It’s the One Who Gets Back Up That Will Win in the End

There isn’t a single player in the NFL Hall of Fame that went through his entire career without getting knocked down. Football, like life, is a constant battle for every inch. Every snap of the ball is a chance to prove yourself all over again. The hero of one game can just as easily be the goat in the next. Forgotten men can remake themselves and rise from the ashes to assume their rightful glory. But nobody, absolutely nobody, lives life undefeated.

As a photographer, you will experience both highs and lows. Hopefully more of the former. But, just like any champion knows, even when you get knocked down, the important thing is that you get back up. If they knock you down again, you get right back up again. You don’t stay down.

Do this enough and you’ll learn not to fear being knocked down in the first place. Do this enough and you’ll begin to believe in your own strength to overcome. You will learn to absorb the hits and roll with the punches.

No matter what life throws at you, you will get back to your feet. Because you are a champion. You believe in yourself. And when you believe in yourself, you can make any dream come true.

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