This week's cover picture of New York Jet Quarterback Joe Namath is a notable milestone for Photographer Neil Leifer, whose 100th SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover it is. His first, slightly coincidentally, was of another New York quarterback, Y. A. Tittle of the Giants, whose likeness graced our issue dated Nov. 20, 1961—back when Neil, now 29, was not even old enough to rent cars at the far-flung airports to which his assignments carried him.
Since those days Neil's cover subjects have ranged from Kentucky Derby Winner Candy Spots (SI, May 6, 1963) to the entire starting lineup of the St. Louis Cardinal baseball team and Manager Red Schoendienst (SI, Oct. 7, 1968).
Our cover picture, for obvious reasons, is usually the most important illustration presented each week by the magazine and it can also be the most difficult to capture. "Neil is often given this assignment because he brings it off so consistently," says Picture Editor George Bloodgood. Leifer's own favorite cover, however, was neither his most difficult nor, to his mind, his best picture. It emerged from the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, and showed the torchbearer circling the track at the opening day ceremonies (SI, Oct. 19, 1964). "You see," explains Neil, "it was my first Olympics and I was so moved by being there, more than by any Olympics I have covered since. To have presented a moment from that particular Olympics on the cover was really thrilling."
Another of Leifer's choices was the outcome of his gift for persuading balky subjects to behave. The cover was the group portrait of the Cardinals. "I was all set up, but I was only given about five minutes in the locker room to get the shot," Leifer recalls. "The players were all in civvies and impatient to climb into uniform and get out on the field. I had to convince them, first, that the picture was important and that it would work, and then shoot it before the group broke up into horseplay and giving me the bird."
October 8, 1972
Perhaps this is why Leifer prefers news-coverage action shots to any other sort of cover try. Even Duane Thomas can't flip Neil the bird when he's trying to sweep end. "My idea of the perfect cover is the hero of the game making the big play," says Neil, "or a shot of a moment or an event that has helped shape sports history, like the first Clay-Liston fight."
The easiest cover assignments? "The big heroes," says Leifer. "Ali, Namath, Mark Spitz, Bob Seagren—they all seem to have a sporting charisma. Everything they do, even in the studio, is visually right."
Well, not always. To prepare for a multiple-exposure cover shot of Namath dropping back to pass (SI, Oct. 17, 1966), Leifer worked for two days in our New York studio with another photographer, John Iacono, acting as Namath's stand-in. "When Namath moved in he just didn't look nearly as good as John," says Neil. "I had to tell him to study John's moves and try to imitate them."
Which demonstrates another reason why Neil Leifer is the man of 100 covers. He has his courage.