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Column: News photographer shares 'weird' experience of empty Bills opener

Column: News photographer shares 'weird' experience of empty Bills opener

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James P. McCoy photographing the Bills Jets from the Stands

James P. McCoy, of The Buffalo News, photographing the Bills from the stands at Bills Stadium on Sept. 13.

The best way to sum up photographing last week’s Bills home opener against the New York Jets in one word: “Weird.”

I have been covering the Bills for a long time, since 1983. The quarterbacks were Joe Dufek, Joe Ferguson and Matt Kofler. I have never missed a home game and have traveled to almost every away game. That includes every playoff and all four Super Bowls.

I have seen a lot of football, but nothing prepared me for Sunday’s game. Covid-19 has changed everything about the coverage of NFL games, including the photography.

I always arrive three hours early to beat the traffic and get through the media security checkpoints. Usually by 8:30 a.m., there are traffic jams and Bills fans everywhere. This time, I was one of a few cars on the road to the stadium. No traffic jams and worst, no Bills fans. That usual football atmosphere and energy was missing. I called a fellow photographer from my car to warn him just how eerie it felt.

I checked in at the Bills security gate and answered the Covid-19 survey questions. I parked in the media lot next to the field house. It felt like a Friday Bills practice – cars of media members and zero fans. Walking through the empty parking lots was sad. Not a single tailgater.

The media check-in has become a much longer process. Every media member is required to watch a 45-minute instructional video on Covid-19 and the NFL’s guidelines before entering the stadium. My temperature was taken, and I could pass through to another security checkpoint. My gear was X-rayed, and I went through the normal metal detector.

I knew in advance that I was only allowed to photograph from the first row of the stadium. I was no longer allowed on field level. I told a photographer I was walking with that I have never been in the stands for a Bills game. It felt surreal.

The photography workroom was shut down due to NFL restrictions. No media allowed on the field or near the locker rooms. Normally, we edit and transmit from a workroom near the tunnel at field level. I set up a workstation near a closed concession stand on the 100 level of the concourse. Other photographers did the same thing.

As I walked down from the 100 level to my new shooting location in the front row, I stopped and looked around the empty stadium. The weirdness feeling turned to sadness. I felt bad for all the fans who could not be there.

Players came out to the field to warm up in front of just a handful of media members. There usually are not a lot of fans in the stands during warmups, so it didn’t seem that different yet. I treat game days just like players do: I warm up, stretch and focus on shooting the game.

I was shooting from a new vantage point that I have never shot from before. I could move around in the front row, but I was no longer allowed to sprint up and down the sideline to cover the play. My running style was now a fast walk up and down the aisle to get to the next shooting spot if another media person was already in the first row. I was required to social distance from other photographers. I was forced to change my shooting style and technique.

The media that was relegated to the front row all understood the new rules. Everyone wore a mask and social distanced. The shooting aspect was not that bad. Walking/running around the stands was difficult and exhausting. I normally run several miles during a game. This game felt like a marathon with adding running up the aisle to the concourse to edit.

With no sounds from the stands, I could hear everything the players were saying. I could hear coaches from the Bills and the Jets sidelines screaming in plays. I could hear the refs talking to the players after the whistle. I could hear players yelling in the huddle. I could hear players trash-talking.

A still photographer heard another photographer’s runner cheering on the Bills and yelled up to him, in jest, “Hey, fans, be quiet.”

The sound engineer played crowd noise during the game. It was nowhere near as loud as a real Bills game with fans. It gets so loud at the games that I wear earplugs.

Normally, I sprint to the middle of the field and shoot the coaches and players shaking hands at the end of the game. I shot the postgame handshake from the front row, but it was not the same.

I was able to adapt and shoot some good images from angles I never shot before.

I passed a group of media members hanging out by their cars after the game. Their first question, “How was it?”

I shook my head and just smiled. I wasn’t sure of the words.

I received several texts from photographers, several former Bills players and personnel asking me my thoughts of the game. My one-word answer: “Weird.”

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I studied photojournalism at Syracuse University. Winner of 43 AP awards and national sports awards since 1993. Grew up in Patchogue, Long Island.

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