A 54-Year Super Bowl Streak Comes to an End

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In the lead-up to the Buccaneers’ last Super Bowl appearance, in January 2003, legendary Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. spent a few days with Warren Sapp, a star defensive end on Tampa Bay’s vaunted unit and a future Pro Football Hall of Famer. Iooss, who had been given his first SI assignment at age 17, captured Sapp in his hotel room four days before the game, sorting through a stack of Super Bowl XXXVII tickets. He documented Sapp’s pregame calm in the locker room as the seven-time Pro Bowler listened to music. “Those games are always tense,” he says.

Through his more than five decades of experience, few have captured the emotional swings of coaches and players more than Iooss. Now 77 years old, he has seen the joys and the agony at every Super Bowl. But after attending the first 54 Super Bowls, Iooss’s legendary streak will conclude this weekend amid the coronavirus pandemic when the Chiefs play the Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. “In a normal circumstance I would [go], but I can’t risk it,” he says. “It’s going to be very strange to watch it on TV like everyone else does.”

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Iooss witnessed Packers quarterback Bart Starr win both Super Bowls I and II, but days before Super Bowl III, he took “maybe my favorite Super Bowl picture”: Jets quarterback Joe Namath lounging at the team’s Ft. Lauderdale hotel holding an impromptu press conference. That week, Iooss was assigned to follow the underdog Jets and their charismatic quarterback. Fellow SI photographer Neil Leifer covered the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. Sportscaster Brent Musburger, who was then working for a Chicago radio station and writing an occasional column, was seated to Namath’s right in the famous shot. Years later, Musburger told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Iooss’s picture of Namath poolside was the “only picture I got the athlete to autograph for me.”

“Had the Jets lost that game, that picture would have never been seen,” Iooss says. Instead, it ran in a spread documenting New York’s victory. “Broadway Joe Namath is the folk hero of the new generation,” SI’s Tex Maule wrote to open his story.

Another of Iooss’s memorable impromptu shots came just two years later, when the Colts defeated the Cowboys in Super Bowl V. While an Iooss photograph, one of Colts kicker Jim O’Brien’s championship-winning field goal, earned the magazine’s cover the following week, it was a photograph of Cowboys cornerback Mel Renfro despondent on the Dallas bench that might be more lasting. “Defeat,” Iooss says when asked what the image emotes. He simply walked up to Renfro to document the scene.

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The radiating sun behind Renfro marks another difference from many modern games. “Sunlight,” Iooss says. “When they actually played games during the day, that was nice. You look back at the games played in the sunlight. There’s something different. There is something beautiful. Late [afternoon] light. To be there, that makes a difference.”

In recent years, as more and more people have been allowed onto the game’s sidelines, photographers have continued to get pushed back farther away from the benches. As a result, Iooss has grown fond of setting up in the end zone, either elevated or on field level, where “at least you can see everything.”

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This year’s game presents another unique challenge to photographers. Due to a maximum of 22,000 fans being in attendance in Tampa, the game’s background might not appear as rich without a packed stadium of fans. “I’ve always been obsessed with backgrounds, whether it be at the Super Bowl or a golf tournament, because if your background is bad your picture’s not that great,” Iooss says.

Still, Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady should enrich the scene, one Iooss will for once witness from home.

“This is the best matchup possible,” he says. “Brady’s greatness against [Patrick] Mahomes, who is remarkable, too.”

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Full Frame is Sports Illustrated's exclusive newsletter for subscribers. Coming to your inbox weekly, it highlights the stories and personalities behind some of SI's historic photography.

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