Profile in Courage

By Mark Neuling
Field Camera Operator for TechTV

Slug: San Jose, California
          Sept. 2003
For the last few weeks I have been in the zone.  Athletes get in that mental mind-set where they can seemingly do no wrong.  Every pass they throw somehow threads its way to the receiver; every shot they take hits nothing but net.  A hanging curve to Barry Bonds looks like a softball pitch at the church picnic destined to be parked in the bleachers 420 feet away.
Maybe it was because I was in a funk about work that the gods decided to smile on me.  For the last few weeks the stories I’ve been assigned have just been terrific.  Good, solid stories: more than just the usual forest of talking-heads that so prevails in television news.   It’s easy to find the zone when the subject matter is so interesting and characters are so compelling.  The technical theatrics of photography become secondary to the story itself. 
An older and wiser photographer once wrote us from his oracle that we have one of the best jobs in the world.  We get to go places and meet people that other folks only get to dream about, and we’re given the opportunity to tell their stories. 
In the computer my assignment for Thursday read:  [Goldman/NCAA amputee/San Jose/ 4-8 p-m].  Ah ha, a story I’m vaguely familiar with.
Several years back a football player at San Jose State University had a horrible accident and broke his leg during a game. Infection set in and after several days the leg had to be amputated.  He vowed to play again and has been practicing with a prosthetic leg.  I guess he was about to make his comeback.  When our assignment editor lists the shoot-schedule, the times indicate when we are to leave and approximately when we’re expected back.  The round-trip to San Jose takes about two hours of driving time, realistically I have only a couple of hours to shoot what we need.  I figure we’ll arrive at the end of practice, shoot some b-roll and get an interview with the player and his coach.  Of course things don’t always work according to plan.
Since I’m ending my shift three hours later than normal today I come in later than usual.  I get to my desk five minutes early and already there is a producer circling.  He needs to leave ASAP for a shoot scheduled unbeknownst to us for 11 am.  We’re already late and we haven’t even left the building.  Long story short –the shoot gets cancelled.
When I return, the assignment editor asks if I can stay a little later than 8pm in San Jose that evening.  It turns out that there may be a press conference after the game and that we need to cover it.  This may be our only chance to speak with the player and his coach. Press conference, game, what’s up?  College football is not played on Thursday nights.  I haven’t shot any football in nearly two years, and that was high school.   I can’t remember the last time I shot any college ball.  
The assignment editor asks me to call Jim Goldman for the lowdown.
Jim and I go way back, close to the start of our careers.  We don’t work together often and when we do  we make an unlikely duo.  He’s an East Coast Ivy Leaguer, I’m West Coast, state-college educated.  I’m probably a dozen years older and he’s probably a dozen inches shorter.  But he’s about the best reporter I’ve ever worked with; and he picks up the tab for lunch.
A shoot, especially big ones, are very similar to football games.  You need a game plan, you want to run certain plays, passes can be dropped, and sometimes you have to punt.  A reporter is like the head coach.  He’s the one calling the plays.  The photographer is like the quarterback.  He’s the one that executes them.  Jim discusses his game plan with me. We’ll arrive around 5pm. The game starts at 7pm.  We’ll get some b-roll of our subject warming up.  He’s hoping to get an interview with the prosthetist that designed Neil’s leg.  Maybe we’ll get the team trainer as well.  Most importantly we need shots of the player in the game.  If we get enough during the first half we may not need to stay any later.  Then, on Friday we’ll drive back down to San Jose for a one-on-one interview with the athlete; we’ll only have a 20- minute window to do it in.  The story is due to run Monday night.  I let the assignment editor know that I may be staying quite a bit later than eight.  She nods and I break for lunch.  I still have two more shoots scheduled.
I meet up with Jim about 20 minutes later than planned.  He hands me my field pass and we walk through the North gate onto the field at San Jose State University.  Jim has been busy working his contacts.  The game is to be televised by Fox Sports; we’ll get an ISO dub after the game.  The prosthetist is confirmed to give us an interview prior to the game; he’ll have an example of the prosthesis that the State player will be wearing.  We’ll also get footage of the actual accident from one of the local stations.  Jim never ceases to amaze me.  But this is all a part of his game plan. 

We wait on the ramp that the players jog down to get to the field.  They dribble out in two’s and three’s.  The visiting team players take the field for their warm-ups. They seem a lot bigger than the San Jose State players. Pretty soon a knot of cameras forms around a cluster of blue jerseys.  I pan with them as they go by. In my viewfinder I see the name PARRY and the number 32. 

Seven or eight television cameras and a nearly equal number of still photographers line the North end zone in the waning light of this Indian summer evening.  All have their glass trained on a six-foot one, 177 pound, fifth year senior as he goes through warm- ups alongside the other players.

Photographers waiting for Neil Parry to take the field before San Jose State's game against Nevada.
© Mark Neuling 2003.

The only difference, he is wearing an artificial leg.   One October evening nearly three years ago, a teammate rolled into Neil Parry, breaking his right leg.  The leg had to be amputated below the knee.  Neil endured 25 operations, numerous prosthetic legs, and mountains of red-tape in order to play football again.  Should he line up on the punt return team this evening he would be the first non-kicker amputee to ever play in a Division-I NCAA college football game.

Prosthetist Mike Noller being interviewed by a news crew from KGO-TV.
© Mark Neuling 2003
The team huddles up and returns to the field house.  Jim has found Mike Noller the prosthetist who designed Neil’s fiber-carbon leg.  He gives us a quick rundown on the technology behind Neil’s prosthetic leg and some insight into Neil’s return journey to the gridiron.   A CBS News crew piggy-backs on our interview.  Other crews also interview Mike; this is the real crux of our story and Jim found it first.

We notice a cluster of television crews gathered around Neil’s parents up in the bleachers.  Jim fingers the yellow field pass tied to his jeans.  “We were given these with the understanding that we would leave Neil’s parents alone,” he tells me.  We briefly discuss our options and decide not to bother going in the stands, why risk getting kicked out.
San Jose State’s opponent this night is the Nevada Wolf Pack. Even though we don’t need any game highlights I decide to shoot some anyway. You never know.  I continue in the zone I’ve been in for the last two weeks.  I can sense touchdowns a play or two early.  The scoring runs come my way.  Nevada scores early and often, they don’t punt at all in the first half.
The third quarter passes, San Jose State trails by a couple of touchdowns.  Finally, early in the fourth quarter Nevada is stopped and they have to punt.  Neil Parry sprints onto the field and lines up at his left tackle position.  He makes contact with one of the Nevada players at the line of scrimmage and trails the play down the field.  The punt return only goes for two yards; Neil trots off the field to the applause of the crowd and the congratulations of his teammates.   It is the only play that he is involved in that night.
After the game a long line of journalists forms outside the field house.  When we are let in you would have thought that gold had just been discovered inside.  A few friends and family members of the players and coaches watch as the media hoard streams past; their mouths are agape as we invade the building with our cameras, tripods, boom mics and tape recorders.  They stare at us in disbelief.

We are led into a large meeting room.  There, sitting at a table head in his hands sits Neil Parry.  The television crews start to set up their cameras in a semi-circle in front of him.  Some producer screams that he is from CBS News and that he has a tripod coming.  I quietly go about my business and set up my sticks next to him.  Another shooter says to no one in particular for everyone to calm down, and then moves aside some tables to give us more room.  The tripod from CBS never does show up.

Neil Parry awaiting questions from the media.
© Mark Neuling 2003

Somehow Jim gets in the first question.  It is evident that Neil feels pretty dejected.  His answers are brief; he’s disappointed he didn’t play more; the leg feels fine, but his team lost.  That pretty much sums it up.  Jim and I wrap it up and make our plans for Friday.
I arrive at the field house a few minutes early; a sat-truck is parked out back.  It’s hot and the campus is quiet save for a few of the athletes lounging about. I spot the Sports Information Director and he directs me to park in a loading zone.  I tell him where I’m from, he says he’s been trying to get in touch with Jim all day and wants to know if we still want our four o’clock slot.  “Oh yeah,” I tell him.  I call Jim and leave him a message, “I’ve arrived and I’m going to start setting up.”

Some of the media gathered to interview Neil Parry after his return to football.
© Mark Neuling 2003
Neil sits in almost exactly the same spot he was in the night before.  A crew from ESPN’s SportCenter is furiously trying to get set up for a live-shot.  There are problems with one of the IFB’s, the cameraman is another old friend of mine; he can’t hear the director back in Bristol, just the truck operator. I quietly go about setting my lights and tripod up.  Neil is drained; he has been giving interviews all day, starting with the Today Show.  He still has a banquet to attend that evening and an interview with Paula Zahn of CNN.  His fifteen minutes of fame is going to stretch well beyond 24 hours.
The ESPN interview begins and Neil’s answers sound about the same as the one’s he’d given the night before.  At one point during a break he asks the SID about all the attention his parents had gotten in the stands the previous evening. He sounds perplexed by it all. 

Finally it’s my turn, except that my reporter hasn’t arrived.  The other crew breaks down and I set up, Neil takes a break at a computer.  The SID thinks Jim may make it down by four o’clock, I wonder if he’s stuck in traffic.  If he doesn’t show soon I’m going to do the interview myself.
By 4:05 I’ve placed a microphone on Neil, locked my camera down and started the interview.  It’s just us, the SID and one of Neil’s friends.   We don’t talk about the game at all.  I ask him about his recovery, his prosthetic leg and what his plans for the future are.  I find him to be warm, articulate and surprisingly modest despite the media barrage he’s endured the past several days.  I look down at my watch, it’s nineteen minutes past four; we wrap a minute early.
As I’m loading the gear into the car I get a call from Jim.  The news department had decided to air the piece on that night’s newscast; he’d been editing all day and had just gotten my message.  He had given the assignment desk the heads-up that he didn’t need the shoot, but the assignment editor was out sick and I never got word of the cancellation.  My entire afternoon of work was for naught.

But it wasn’t.  Even though my interview may never see the light of day I felt good about it.  And I got to meet an extraordinary young man.  Why would an amputee who was a walk-on player to begin with, endure the operations, hard work, doubts and bureaucratic hassles just to play football again?  It has to be for more than merely the love of the game.  No words of mine and certainly no pictures can speak of the guts, determination and courage of Neil Parry.  
The sage was right; this is one of the best jobs in the world.

Neil Parry - San Jose State University, class of '04. The author, class of '77.
© Mark Neuling 2003

© Mark Neuling 2003
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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