John Biever. Walter Iooss. Mickey Palmer. Tony Tomsic.
Unless you are a hardcore sports fan -- or a fan of SI's swimsuit issue, in Iooss’ case -- the names above are unlikely to be very familiar to you. But this quartet of men share an amazing sports streak: They are the only photographers to shoot all 48 Super Bowl games.
This small and most exclusive club will be featured in an ESPN Films and NFL Films documentary entitled “Keepers Of The Streak,” airing Friday at 7 p.m. ET. Director and producer Neil Leifer (who knows a thing or two about sports photography) has composed a delicious-looking love-letter for the four lensmen, and it’s a must-watch for sports media junkies and fans of Sports Illustrated photography alike.
The doc opens with a beautiful shot of all four men meeting at the 50-yard line of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of the first Super Bowl on Jan. 15, 1967, and we quickly learn how each entered the business. (Biever’s father, Vernon, the longtime team photographer of the Packers, got his son a sideline pass to shoot the first Super Bowl when John was just 15 years old.) Throughout the film, Leifer shows the quartet working at last year’s Super Bowl in New Jersey, and it provides an honest look at sports photographers that we don’t often see. We learn of the near-misses to the streak over the years, including Palmer checking himself out of the hospital following a heart attack prior to Super Bowl X to make the game.
But the doc is most interesting looking at the past. For the NFL-AFL Championship in 1967, the NFL handed out 338 media credentials, with about 75 percent of those credentials going to print journalists. Palmer was working for Look Magazine at the time; Iooss was shooting for Sports Illustrated. "The game had no sense of pregame drama," said Iooss. "It was setup in a stadium too big."
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Still, Iooss landed the SI cover that week with a portrait of Packers wide receiver Max McGee.
The next year, Leifer (who shot 14 Super Bowls), took his most famous Super Bowl photo ever -- a shot of Jerry Kramer carrying Vince Lombardi off the field following Super Bowl II.
The most famous early game -- the Jets win over the Colts in Super Bowl III -- naturally gets a lot of attention. As SI’s senior photographer, Liefer was assigned the favored Colts during Super Bowl week, which meant Iooss was left with the AFL’s Jets.
"I got the secondary assignment," Iooss said. "Believe me, no one thought the Jets were doing to win."
But the Jets turned out to be the story and Iooss camped out at the Galt Ocean Mile Hotel in Fort Lauderdale where he shot some amazing shots of Namath walking on the beach.
"I remember Walter being there that day because he was a pain. He was all over with his camera, taking pictures," says Namath, in the film.
That week, Iooss ended up shooting one of the most iconic NFL photos of all time -- a confident Namath sitting poolside in Fort Lauderdale talking to reporters about why the Jets would win.
"The picture at the swimming pool prior to our Super Bowl, well, that turned out to me a memorable picture," Namath said. "Every time I look at it, it gives me good vibes."
The still photos in the documentary from the first 15 or so Super Bowl games are remarkable to see because you are seeing something you never see today -- sunlight. Iosss talked about how the shift to dome stadiums and kickoffs at night has eliminated the sky from Super Bowl photos. The game has also morphed into a mega-event, with more than 6,000 credentials handed out. Photographers can no longer shoot from behind the bench and they now work with digital cameras (Super Bowl 37 in 2002 was the first digital Super Bowl for Sports Illustrated.) Leifer shows Tomic limping to the field, at 78, as a symbol of forging on in the modern game. The film concludes with the four men -- all in their 70s except Biever -- vowing to continue the streak.
"Why do I keep coming back?" says Palmer. "It’s the streak, truthfully."
Adds Iooss: "I don’t know how long I will go on. As long as I can."