None of them knew the color of the ground. For years they'd worn it on their jerseys, tasted it, torn it up, glided over it at pupil-popping, whiplash speed. Lost in the moment, a football player's surroundings become a kaleidoscopic blur. From the sidelines Walter Iooss Jr. has made sure those moments lasted. Bringing that blur into perfect focus, Iooss has taken some of sports' most indelible photographs for more than five decades—his most iconic being The Catch by the 49ers' Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFC title game. Long before that, as a 15-year-old in East Orange, N.J., Iooss was glued to the radio as the Baltimore Colts triumphed over the New York Giants in an overtime thriller to win the 1958 NFL championship—dubbed (by SI) at the time the Best Football Game Ever Played.
Less than a year later Iooss was at Yankee Stadium shooting his first roll of film from the stands as the Giants beat the Chicago Cardinals in a regular-season game. Despite his proximity to New York, however, Iooss's heart never belonged to the hometown team. "I have this special affair with the Colts," he says. "Johnny Unitas to Raymond Berry, I've always loved that connection." Iooss began shooting for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 1961, the same year he graduated from high school, and he has shot more than 200 covers, over 50 of them on NFL subjects (and another 11 of them women in swimsuits). From his viewfinder the game was pure when it was dirty. "I loved football the most when you could see the players' faces, when there was mud on them. Now they wear plastic masks and play on artificial turf," says Iooss, 67. "But that's the way it works when you get older—you lament what's taking place and miss the past." For this issue Iooss turned his lens on nine of football's living legends, capturing lines and wrinkles, and also pride—a lifetime's worth of moments. Their surroundings no longer a blur, they remain compelling focal points. "They were all stars once, and they still have an appeal," Iooss says. "For me it's been a journey back to my childhood."
QB New York Jets
July 3, 2011
"Even today you can still see why Joe was the prince of New York," Iooss says. "He's got such charm, and those flashing eyes. He just kept talking and talking. It's tough to shoot when he keeps talking. His daughter, who just had a baby, had to stand behind me and say, 'Daddy, Daddy! Stop talking! Pay attention!' He was so classic."
A two-time AFL player of the year, the 68-year-old Namath made the most famous guarantee in Super Bowl history—and delivered.
RB Green Bay Packers
"Jim Taylor and his old helmet, he's like Barney Fife and his bullet. He's so proud of being with the Pack," Iooss says. "He's so proud of his condition too. He has, like, no lasting injuries, which is amazing. He told me how he once hurt his knee, and through a pad and the adhesive tape holding it together, they stuck him with a needle and sent him back into the game numbed out."
Ramrod straight at 75, the NFL's leading rusher and MVP in 1962 has settled into the golf life in Baton Rouge.
RB Cleveland Browns
"He's a handsome guy, but he's so tough. He's still frightening looking, almost menacing," Iooss says. "He has a little walker and is sort of bent over now. I asked him if he ever got a helmet-to-helmet hit, and he said, 'You see this arm? They'd have to deal with that. No one was going to hit me like that. You have to take care of yourself out there.'"
An ironman during his nine-year NFL career, Brown, now 75, remains one of the game's strongest voices.
QB Washington Redskins
"Sonny was such a swashbuckler—he was the reincarnation of Bobby Layne, a wild man on the field," Iooss says. "He has such a fun-loving personality. You always got the impression that he was a party guy. It's faded a bit, but he still has that sparkle in his eyes. He's a guy you'd like to hang out with, like any minute a party could break out around him."
A signal-caller for 18 NFL seasons, his last 11 in Washington, the 76-year-old still calls Redskins games from the radio booth alongside Sam Huff.
WR Baltimore Colts
"In his office in Tennessee there was a picture of him that I'd taken. That was the most meaningful part of this project to me, because I had gotten into his space without him knowing that I worshipped him as a kid. So that was a pleasure. But shooting him was difficult because of all the baggage that I was carrying—the hero worship."
The 78-year-old set a record with 12 catches for 178 yards and a touchdown in the 1958 NFL title game.
C/LB Philadelphia Eagles
"He still has a clear memory of his hit on Frank Gifford in 1960—the most famous hit in football," Iooss says. "I asked where he hit him, and he took his arm and wrapped it around my neck. You could still feel the power. He's 86 and can probably still take you down. But he seems almost angelic. You almost wanted to hug him. He's very sweet."
A legend in Philly, the man known as Concrete Charlie was a five-time All-Pro and the last to play both sides of the ball full-time.
RB/FL Baltimore Colts
"Dealing with Lenny was like dealing with a reverend. He's very calm and soft-spoken, he's so gentle and so sweet," Iooss says. "I loved Lenny's shoot because it almost had a Biblical, spiritual feel to it. I shot him and Art Donovan at the InterContinental Hotel in Baltimore. The Colts are still a part of that community—there's still a special bond."
Staring down the challenge of being a pioneering black player in a Southern town, the 77-year-old led the NFL in yards per carry four times, averaging 4.8 for his career.
LB New York Giants
"The game's changed so much. Huff said if guys in his day ever jumped up in celebration and bumped asses, they would have beat them to a pulp in the locker room," Iooss says. "If anyone came across the middle against him, watch out. He's proud that he was mean and vicious. He looked like a CEO in his tie and jacket, and he wanted to run the show."
The ferocious hitter, now 76, began breeding horses in the '80s and has a therapeutic riding center in Virginia.
DT Baltimore Colts
"He was so charming with that big smile of his, but you could tell he was in a lot of pain," Iooss says. "He's in a wheelchair and uses a walker. He has artificial knees, his hips are gone. He was one of the guys who came back from World War II to play football—that's how long ago his era was. He was such a personality in his day, and he still is."
Known as Fatso and the Bulldog, the five-time Pro Bowler can still muster the playfulness of a pup at age 86.