Once a year, top draft-eligible prospects descend upon Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana, and hope to imprint themselves into the eyes, minds and notebooks of NFL scouts, general managers and coaches. During the week-long camp, these young men are put through both physical and psychological tests, classifying the combine as one of the most important and most exhausting job interviews these players will ever go through.
As a sports photographer and writer, I take pictures for a living and write about it, but it feels like so much more than that. Obtaining credentials for events such as this is not always easy, and I’ve had my share of denials. Usually, the editor or supervisor you work with will submit what’s called a “media request” in your name. It has been my experience that the communications office will not even look at the credential request if does not come from a supervisor or if you can’t prove who you actually work for. It sounds a little silly, but I can’t tell you how many people who are not affiliated with a publication, either print or online, will try to get credentialed. I actually admire their moxie. Not long ago, I felt as if I was never going to get credentialed for anything. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get approved the first, or fifth time. It will happen. Baby steps. Last year was the first time I received a media credential for the combine, and I was in photog heaven. I assumed I would be on the field at the stadium, taking photos of top prospects like Saquon Barkley, Will Hernandez, Josh Rosen, Shaquem Griffin and Baker Mayfield. I made sure all my extra batteries were packed, bought a few spare memory cards and managed to smuggle my monopod into my carry on. I was ready.
I was delusional. I would be taking pictures of the prospects, but would not be at the stadium. Oh no, I wouldn’t even be allowed in the stadium. Rather, I would be confined to two areas of the Indiana Convention Center: the Media Room, with dozens and dozens of media-related folks, sharing power outlets, bad food and even worse coffee, and the Interview Room, literally on the other side of the convention center. You chose one or the other. It wasn’t worth the walk to go back and forth. My look of half annoyance and half confusion at the NFL’s “no outside media in the stadium” rule was written all over my face, but in the interest of purely fitting in - considering it was my first rodeo (er, combine) - I picked up my credential from the Media Room, made my way to the Interview Room, found my team, set up my equipment and waited for the first wave of eager, young, and at times slightly conceited football hopefuls to come through.
Let me paint you a little picture of what life in the Interview Room - my home for the next four days - was like. If any of you reading this are actors or aspiring to be, then you are familiar with a cattle call. This felt no different. Groups upon groups of people convened in one area, standing around, patiently and impatiently waiting to do their job. There was an unspoken vibe as everyone was sizing each other up; after all, sports media is a highly competitive field. You didn’t shake hands by looking people in the eye; you did so by looking at their credential and trying to see who they were working for. If you found someone you wanted to get to know professionally, who was understanding of your hustle, and whose work you respected, you exchanged business cards. It was a twisted and backwards form of speed dating. The Interview Room itself was a long, rectangular room with eight podiums, all dressed up with NFL Scouting Combine logos, fitted with NFL Films microphones. I’m not sure exactly how the podium interviewees were chosen. The first three podiums seemed to feature the most popular athletes and the rest felt like a crapshoot. Parallel to the podiums were two large raised stations for video cameras, some set up by teams, some by TV stations and others by those who knew to get to the room early enough to grab a spot. Behind them, Sirius XM radio had a small setup where players were interviewed on air after they were interviewed by the hungry throng of reporters. Near podium one sat six round tables where I was told the lesser known players would be seated. But then again, I can’t attest to that because I’d hardly classify players like Kyle Lauletta, quarterback from the University of Richmond or JK Scott, punter from the University of Alabama, as lesser known or not as popular. When I asked the “kids” dressed in button downs and slacks holding the day’s schedule what their reasoning was to why and how each player was placed where they were, I received a shrug in response. As I went about my day and took picture after picture, giving myself a silent attaboy for the good shots and happily deleting the not so good ones, I couldn’t help but notice the lack of one major thing in this large, rather uninviting room: women. But that’s another article for another time.
I really loved every minute of my time in Indy. What made it the most special for me was being up close and personal with the players. Being in that room wasn’t about how fast you ran the 40-yard dash, or how many times you could lock out your elbows with a 225-pound press above your head, or even how high or how far you could jump. For me, it was about getting to know those players. It’s less about the technical sports stuff and more about the person and their story. Everyone has a story, everyone comes from somewhere, and for most of these guys, this is all new to them. We are putting them on the spot, whether at a podium or at a table, and expecting them to answer an array of questions: some regarding what they accomplished at the combine and their future goals, some more personal about home lives and past lives, and some just down right stupid questions.
But for that brief moment, when I got to look at them through my camera lens and politely asked if they’d smile for me, their guard was lowered. It’s not about their stats; it’s about how I got to see them and how they chose to be seen. That’s what a photographer does for a living: a good one, anyway. Usually, our interaction was brief, but sometimes I got to sit down and have a conversation, getting to know them a little better- or for the first time - and sometimes it changed what I saw when I edited my photos later on. I usually left our “meeting” with a thank you from whomever I was speaking with, and I always wished them luck and hoped to see them again, followed by a quick high five or a handshake. What makes what I do even cooler is when I saw those players again, later on in the week, I was greeted with another high five or the proverbial fist bump. I can venture a guess that the same player who had a reporter ask him about the time he took a pack of gum without paying for it in the fifth grade doesn’t get a greeting like that, if at all.
Even further, the icing for me isn’t seeing my photos on an online publication or a local paper, which is where I usually sell my work, but being tagged in photo on social media with a caption that reads, “Thank you @a_m_terzuoli for the (insert complimentary adjective) shot.” It’s what I like to call the “little things.” So you see, while I may not have been classified as “the NFL media,” the chosen few who got to hang out in the stadium and catch the perfect drill on film, I felt just fine being the person in the interview room capturing a different type of perfect moment. For now, I’ll choose my type of moment, and write about that, every time.