Discover more from Bald Faced Truth by John Canzano
Canzano: Meaningless football game? Is there such a thing?
First-and-10 from a football stadium...
I got to thinking this morning about the first time I was ever credentialed to cover a sporting event. It was this week in 1984. The Raiders played the 49ers in an NFL preseason game at Candlestick Park.
I was 13.
My aunt, Nicole Bengiveno, was working as a photographer at The San Francisco Examiner. My parents drove me more than an hour into the city on a Saturday afternoon and dropped me off. My aunt handed me a spare camera, fastened a credential to me, and pointed me toward an adventure that continues almost four decades later.
I wore a short-sleeve polo shirt, jeans, sneakers and windbreaker to the game. The sun set, the wind swirled, fog rolled over the lip of the stadium — I was cold. I didn’t care, though. I was on the sideline at an NFL game, scribbling on a notepad, snapping photographs of Jim Plunkett, Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott.
At halftime, my aunt handed her jacket to me. In the third quarter, she dug into her bag and gave me a pair of gloves to keep my hands warm. She must have been worried about me. I watched her move about the sideline, anticipating the action, shooting photographs during the game. She handed off the rolls of film to a courier in the stadium tunnel, who rushed them downtown to The Examiner’s newsroom.
My aunt has photographed a number of presidents in the Oval Office and a pile of celebrities in their homes. She’s especially gifted with human-interest pieces, where she tiptoes around the fringes of a subject, unnoticed. But also, my mother’s little sister is a badass.
I once saw a picture of my aunt crawling on her belly in a war zone in Cambodia, eyes trained on the action, snapping photographs, while bullets sailed overhead.
She’s worked for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, National Geographic and Time magazine. She’s won all sorts of awards. But I’m forever grateful that she used one of her work days at The Examiner to help spark a young kid’s interest in sports journalism.
Here I am, all these years later.
Blame her, folks.
I’ve since worked for six newspapers and covered nine Super Bowls, five Olympic Games, a few World Series matchups, the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes and line of national title games in college football. But for me, nothing will ever beat that first-and-10 from Candlestick Park.
The 49ers won 13-10. The picture my aunt shot of me standing on the field after the game is one of my all-time favorites. I still had hair. My heart was fluttering. It must have been 10:30 p.m. but I was so lit up inside, I could have stayed up all night.
When she snapped that photograph of me on the field, 49ers linebacker Jack Reynolds happened to be jogging past. I resisted the urge to turn and shout his nickname — “Hacksaw!!!” — as he lumbered by. He was one of my favorite players. But my aunt had instructed me before the game, “Tonight, you’re a journalist.”
Since then, I never wanted to be anything else.
We stopped in at The Examiner newsroom after the game. Everyone was in a frenzy, on deadline. Proofs were approved. Plates were made. People shouted across the room and I loved every exhilarating moment. A photograph my aunt took in the second quarter was selected as the sports section’s lead art.
Sometime after that, the presses rolled and a newspaper was made. My aunt and I left the paper, stopping off for a late-night slice of pepperoni pizza on the way back to her house. It must have been midnight and I was still glowing. Between bites, she asked, “Any questions?”
I had only one.
“They pay you for this?”
Another college football season is approaching. There’s a pile of uncertainty. Re-alignment has sparked fears and doubts in the Pac-12 Conference. The loss of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten was a gut punch. The conference is now trying to pull itself together while angling for media rights money and access to the College Football Playoff.
The Big Ten and SEC are busy chasing new revenue and monopolizing the playoff. The sports world is shifting. Loyalty, tradition and geography don’t seem to matter. And I wonder what happens to fan interest if large swaths of the Pacific and Mountain Time Zones are shut out of the sport.
Frustration, for sure.
My aunt, who retired from The New York Times after 18 years, still lives on the East Coast and is still doing what she loves — taking photographs. I’ve tried to thank her over the years. I’ve dropped her notes once in a while and bought her meals when I’ve found myself in New York. But I don’t know if there’s anything I could really do to tell my Aunt Nicole how much I appreciated the gift of that “meaningless” NFL preseason game.
Sometimes, those games really do matter.
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