The story behind the cover

Publish date:

In the euphoric aftermath following Carroll (Mont.) College's 17-9 win over the University of Sioux Falls last Saturday in the NAIA football championship, AP photographer John Russell snapped a photo of Carroll junior linebacker Brandon Day celebrating on mud-caked Jim Carroll Stadium in Savannah, Tenn. That image appears on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated as part of our PICTURES OF THE YEAR issue. Day, 21, tells's Richard Deitsch what it means to be a Carroll football player and what he was feeling when Russell took his photograph. Russell also gives us the story behind the picture from his perspective.

The big word we use around here is brotherhood. I know it's kind of cliché and lots of teams use that stuff but it's real here. We play for each other and we believe in the tradition that our coach (Mike Van Diest) has developed. I was born in Boise but my family moved to Helena when I was 8. Helena is a quintessential Montana town. You can see the mountains everywhere and be at three different lakes in 15 minutes. I started playing organized football here in the fourth grade and played linebacker and tight end at Helena High. There are about 1,400 students here at Carroll and I share an a house about a mile from campus with wide receiver Travis Browne, free safety Tyler Pasha, and wide receiver Stevie Sloan.

What I want people to know about players at our level is that we play because we love the game. A lot of players, especially the ones on this team, were recruited to play at big-time schools. But they came here because they love football. It doesn't matter about the recognition that bigger schools get. It's about coming to a quality program and winning. That's what Carroll is about. I was recruited by Montana and Montana State and I talked to Northern Arizona. I don't know if I would have gotten a scholarship but Montana told me I had a chance play as a true freshman. The reason I chose Carroll was when I visited the campus, it just fit for me. The older guys were totally accepting of me from the moment I stepped on campus. There was none of this 'I'm a senior and you're just a recruit stuff.' They just accepted me. Coming here was the best decision I ever made.

Last year we lost at home in the NAIA quarterfinals against St. Xavier (Ill.). They were a great team but we kind of beat ourselves. It was hard losing. It was only my second loss at Carroll (the school has won five NAIA titles over the past six seasons, including four consecutive titles from 2002 to 2005) and it was hard looking at the seniors. We all wanted so much more for them. I knew I had two more years left and we would have a chance to win again but just looking at those seniors, most of whom will probably never play football again, we wanted to go out big for them but we didn't pull it off.

Sioux Falls is a great team and they won the NAIA championship last season. They had the player of the year in quarterback Chad Cavender and came in averaging 46 points per game. We had the top-rated defense in the country this season. It was the best offense against the best defense. What more could you ask for? We knew we were going to have a big challenge but I think we were comfortable with the challenge.

We flew to Tennessee last Wednesday and the rain started on Friday. It was steady and hard and never really stopped. There was standing water on the sidelines and it was up to your ankles. I remember one play just going face first right through this huge mud puddle as I tackled one of their backs out of bounds. Mud games are the best. As a defense, we probably had our best game of the season. The defensive line shut Cavender down. They kept him in the pocket so he could not scramble much. (Junior middle linebacker) Owen Koeppen was flying around the field like a crazy man.

After the game, I remember a guy who was standing around with a camera but I had no idea he was taking that picture. But I know exactly what I was thinking when he took the photo. I got up on my knees, I thanked God, and I thought about my grandfathers, Howard Day and Dale Gullings. They passed away this July and October, respectively. I thought about them and I wished they were there with me. I also thought about my teammates.

On Friday night before the national championship game, after the banquet and the meeting with coaches, the entire team gathered in a private dining room at the team hotel. The idea was anyone could go to the front of the room and talk to the team and say whatever they want. A lot of guys came up and told their stories of how they got there. The overall theme of the night was the love we had for each other and the brotherhood that this team has. There was a bunch of us that talked about if won the game, we were going to slide across a big mud puddle.

The photo was taken of me at the 40-yard line, and No. 7 in the photo is Zach Richardson, our starting strong safety. No. 89 is Kyle Moore, a backup tight end. After the photo, I gave Zach a hug. There were a lot of hugs given out that day. I have a couple of tattoos on my arms that you can see in the photos. The word LOVE is on my left arm. My right arm has the word FAITH on it. The words are written in Old English. I have a couple of cousins that went through tough times in their lives and one of my cousins, Trevor Brents, has FAITH on his right arm. That's where I got the idea from. If you look in my left hand, you'll see a hat that says CARROLL COLLEGE: NATIONAL CHAMPIONS. My right hand is totally covered in mud.

Some of my teammates have seen the photo. What did they say about it? They said it was a pretty cool picture.

The man behind this week's cover image is 39-year-old John Russell, who works as a contract photographer for the Associated Press and is the team photographer for the NHL's Nashville Predators. Russell lives in Franklin, Ky., and based in Nashville. He also shot the NAIA championship games in 2004 and 2005. Below, Russell describes his photograph.

Honestly, the shot was the last frame on my card. The celebration had started a couple of minutes before that and the Carroll players were going crazy. I noticed the guys running and sliding on the center of the field and I took off toward there. Obviously, I was in the mud and I was already messy from guys running out of bounds all game. Mud was flying everywhere. I wanted to get close to the guys sliding on the field and tried to get to a low angle for the shot.

That's when Brandon came at me. He slid and then leaned back like you see him in the photo. I was crouching a little when I took the photo -- I shot it as I was running. I would have liked to have framed it a little better. I got a shot of Brandon just as he was hitting the ground sliding and I got the one when he came up on his knees. Then my card was empty.

Generally, from a game like that, the AP wants five or six action photos and some jubilation and dejection shots. I went into the press box and started editing, and sent out the photos about 35 minutes after the game was over. It was one of 11 photos I sent to the AP. You always call to check that they received the images and an editor told me the photos had been tagged as one of the AP's top pictures of the day. I was pretty happy. Now this. It's every sports photographer's dream to get the cover of SI. I thought if I ever made the cover, it might be for a Titans game. I never thought it would be from a game in Savannah, Tenn.

Own a collectible reprint of the Dec. 24th Sports Illustrated cover.