Photograph Like a Champion Today

San Pedro Today photographer John Mattera gets the opportunity of a lifetime

The photographer at Notre Dame, 20 years apart (1993 and 2013)

Being born and raised in San Pedro, it’s a common joke amongst our community to say that we all are connected to each other by just a few degrees of separation.

For those of us who have lived here all or most of our lives, many of us are still close friends with people we met during elementary school. Some friends are so close they’ve become family.

Along with being a very close-knit community, San Pedro is also a huge sports town. We are dedicated fans to many of the same pro teams: Dodgers, Angels, Lakers, Clippers, Kings, Ducks and even the Raiders and Rams, even though those franchises left Los Angeles many years ago.

There is one sport though that truly divides our town and even some homes and families: college football. Nothing can compete with the commitment and crazed devotion of a college football fan from San Pedro. No matter where you go in town, whether it be a home or a business, you can tell where their allegiances fall. From James Brown’s unbridled passion for UCLA at the San Pedro Brewing Co. to San Pedro Today‘s Jack Baric towing the USC line, with plenty of other colleges represented in between, this town’s passion for college football has been passed down from generation to generation.

It’s pretty obvious which teams dominate our Port Town though. It’s a three-headed monster of big name college football programs: UCLA, USC, and the University of Notre Dame.

I fall under the fan category of the latter team – the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. You can say I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid since my early Catholic school days at Mary Star of the Sea. Along with all of the history and tradition that surrounds Notre Dame, they also are the number one university in the country for graduating its student athletes year in and year out. It’s no surprise that they are one of the top school’s in the country.

We all know that the cross-town rivalry between UCLA and USC is a heated one, but did you know who USC’s biggest rival really is? That would be Notre Dame – a Catholic University located in South Bend, Ind., just a short drive east of Chicago.

The Notre Dame/USC rivalry started back in 1926 and is often called the greatest inter-sectional rivalry in college football. Both schools have each won 11 national championships, with the Fighting Irish claiming seven Heisman Trophy winners, one more than USC.

I’ve been lucky to see Notre Dame play many times. I went to my first Notre Dame/USC game in 1990 at the Coliseum and have attended each game played there since. I’ve also seen several games in South Bend when both teams have faced off against each other at Notre Dame Stadium, too. Last year, as per usual, I attended the rivalry game, but this time I wasn’t watching from a Coliseum seat. At the request of San Pedro’s own Shelley Smith of ESPN, I was able to obtain a media field pass to photograph the entire USC season of homes games for ESPNLA.com, which of course included the Notre Dame game.

Mattera on the field at Notre Dame Stadium.

My assignment for that rivalry game was to cover USC wide receiver Marqise Lee for an upcoming ESPN L.A. article. It was a dream come true to finally photograph a Notre Dame/USC game. The Fighting Irish defeated the Trojans to finish the season 12-0 and advance to the BCS championship. Unfortunately, the Irish lost horribly to Alabama in the BCS Championship game in Miami. Sadly, I was there for that, too.

I always dreamt of one day photographing a game in South Bend, not as a fan in the seats, but on the cool, green grass of Notre Dame Stadium. I had already photographed games at the Coliseum and the Rose Bowl, but my dream shoot always seemed out of reach. Luckily though, this past October, with the help of my friend Shelley once again, I was able to fulfill this longtime dream by being asked to cover another Notre Dame/USC game for ESPNLA.com, this time inside Notre Dame Stadium.

It had been more than 20 years since the last time I stood on Notre Dame Stadium’s field. My first experience occurred back on November 13, 1993, after the much hyped “Game of the Century” featuring #1 Florida State vs. #2 Notre Dame. Once that game clock ran out, I joined more than half of the stadium in storming the field in chaotic celebration. The Irish won in the last few seconds and took over the #1 rank in the country immediately after.

Cut to nearly two decades later – October 19, 2013 – and I’m back on the field of Notre Dame Stadium, the house that Knute Rockne built.

I’m the first to admit that I get too anxious on Notre Dame game days. I just wanted to get into the stadium and soak up the perfect college football atmosphere. Nothing beats football on a Saturday in South Bend – the fanfare, tailgating, bands, cheerleaders and famous leprechaun mascot all added to the spectacle of the day.

Once I had my media pass and obtained my green photo vest, I was ready to hit the field. Walking though the tunnel and realizing I was making the same walk that so many legendary Fighting Irish and Trojan football greats had made was surreal.

The only thing missing was slapping the famous Play Like A Champion Today sign inside the Notre Dame locker room before running through the tunnel. It’s a tradition that the Irish players do every time they enter and depart the locker room. Luckily though, I actually did that the following day when I toured the locker room.

Once on the sidelines, I heard the yellow-jacketed ushers directing us to our spots and welcoming all those that passed by. “Welcome to Notre Dame Stadium” was heard countless times. Many friends of mine who have also been lucky enough to attend the Notre Dame/USC game in South Bend have commented on how nice and welcoming the people in South Bend are. I can attest to that fact.

As the 237th consecutive sold out crowd of 80,975 people made their way into the stadium, you could feel the electricity build. This was the first night game of the year at Notre Dame Stadium. Both teams came running onto the field as their respective bands played their school’s fight songs. Players from both teams sprinted to the far end zone and took a moment to kneel and pray before kickoff. It was officially game time.

Being on the field for a sports event of this magnitude is an amazing experience. You could smell the freshly cut grass caress the crisp, cloudy Midwest sky. It even drizzled slightly, which made shooting the game a little more interesting. Luckily, I came prepared with proper rain gear for my camera and lenses. I wasn’t in sunny Southern California, obviously.

Surrounded by a slew of photographers from the around the country and several television cameras, I took my shooting position in the corner of the south end zone. From my point of view, I could see the famous campus landmarks of the Golden Dome of the administration building and the “Touchdown Jesus” mural of the Hesburgh Library. The famous mosaic mural towers over the north stadium wall and depicts Jesus with his hands raised just like that of a referee signifying a touchdown.

Notre Dame QB Tommy Rees delivers a pass during the first half of ND’s 14-10 victory over the Trojans. (photo by John Mattera)

I was nervous knowing how evenly matched these two teams were. Like most rivalries, season records could never predict the outcome of this special game. This was also the first game in which USC interim coach Ed Orgeron had taken over for the fired Lane Kiffin, so you knew the Trojans had something to prove.

A lot of the early game time action was directed toward my end zone, so I was able to capture many great images right off the bat, including Notre Dame’s opening drive, which stalled as the Trojans stopped the Irish on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line.

The first half of the game ended with Notre Dame leading 14-10. That was all the offense we would see for the night. In the second half, both offenses were stagnant. Notre Dame lost their starting quarterback to injury and USC’s offense could not put it in gear and failed on countless third down conversions.

During halftime, I was lucky to meet several of the ushers who were working in the end zone I was in. Many of these people have been involved with Notre Dame football longer than I was born. Their eyes had seen so much historic moments in Notre Dame Stadium, both good and bad. We shared a couple stories and laughs and before we knew it, the bands were heading off the field and the second half was just underway. Hopefully, I’ll be back one day and run into them once again.

Notre Dame survived the second half without their starting quarterback Tommy Rees, and won 14-10 over the Trojans. It was gut wrenching watching how slow the clock moved during the second half, especially when a team is just running the ball to run out
the clock, which is exactly what Notre Dame did.

I made sure to soak up every moment I had on the field that night. I even attended both of the coach’s press conferences and then, when the crowd dispersed and all was said and done, I finally made my way one last time through the tunnel. I was the last photographer to leave the field. As I was walking off, I heard one of the usher’s say, “Have a great night.”

I just looked back at him and smiled and said, “I already did. You do the same now. Good night.” spt

Notre Dame and USC have met 85 times and Notre Dame currently leads the series 45-35-5 (*including a 2005 USC victory that was vacated due to NCAA penalty).

For Love Of The Game

Shelley Smith, photographed at San Pedro High School (photo by John Mattera)

It’s November, the heart of college football season, and for Shelley Smith, that means no rest, several flights in-and-out of LAX and every Saturday spent at a different football stadium across the country.

But it’s not just college football that keeps Smith from curling up on the couch to the latest blockbuster hit, it’s also Thursday night NFL games, pre-season NBA games, the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal and the continued lockout talks of the NHL strike.

It’s these precise reasons though, that get Smith out of bed each and every morning, well these and her daily trips to the local San Pedro gym, Hey Day Fitness, where she can talk sports without the pressure of a camera in her face.

Smith loves her job, and she loves it because “no single day is the same.”

Smith joined ESPN in 1997 and quickly became one of the leading ladies in sports journalism. She has climbed the ranks and has had great success in doing so, including four Sports Emmys, one of which she received in 1997 for her segment on Magic Johnson as part of an ESPN production on AIDS and Athletes.

But she didn’t start at the top. For Smith, having an interest and passion for journalism started at a young age. But back then, it was an interest in breaking news and features, she hadn’t even considered a career in sports.

A Denver native, Smith attended the University of Nebraska, where she majored in journalism and political science. During her time at Nebraska, Smith wrote for the college newspaper and through this came an opportunity for lunch with an alumnus, who happened to be the sports editor at a major newspaper in Denver.

“In college I thought I wanted to go into news or features reporting,” she says. “That all changed when the editor called me and offered me a gig in the sports department.”

Smith shooting a story on the “most dangerous golf hole in the world” along the DMZ in South Korea for ESPN in 2009. Smith originally covered the golf course in 1988 for her very first Sports Illustrated story. (photo by Dylann Tharp)

The editor took notice in Smith, and she never looked back. Now a sideline reporter for ESPN, Smith is an award-winning journalist and author of three books, with a fourth — Al: The unauthorized biography of Raiders owner Al Davis – on its way. But she says it’s been a constant challenge, and she has always set out to outwork and out prepare her peers.

“You make your own luck in this field by working hard,” says Smith. “If you are well prepared and work harder than anyone else you can make up for what you lack in talent. It is really about taking the extra time and getting it right, but don’t get me wrong, I have been lucky to be in the right place at the right time a couple times.”

Case in point, the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. Smith was in Seoul covering the Olympics for Sports Illustrated when word broke that Canadian Ben Johnson would be stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids. Upon hearing the news, Smith, along with a photographer, raced to the airport, where Johnson would soon be boarding for a flight to New York – Smith got on that flight, sat with Johnson for 45 minutes and conducted the first one-on-one interview, an exclusive.

“When I got on that plane I knew it would be my big break,” she recalls. And it was.

The Ben Johnson exclusive is arguably Smith’s biggest story ever – and she says she will never forget the rush of it all.

“I knew it would be the biggest story I would ever cover,” she says. “It was the middle of the night, a double-decker plane, and I knew I was sitting on something huge. It was the greatest feeling in the world to get off the plane with hoards of reporters waiting for Johnson’s arrival and walk past them knowing I already had the story.”

This was just the start for Smith, who was offered a position with Sports Illustrated in 1989, and six months later was asked to make a move to the West Coast from New York.

“When I was in college, we print journalists thought broadcast journalists should be in the drama department,” she says. “We thought we were the only serious journalists – so when I accepted the position at Sports Illustrated in 1989, I had reached my destination, I was a writer and that’s what I wanted.”

Upon arriving in California, she made her home in San Pedro.

“I loved San Pedro,” she says. “The air was clean, it was a affordable and it didn’t seem like big, splashy Los Angeles.” Smith’s daughter, Dylann Tharp, was three at the time, and she wanted her to grow up in a good community.

“It was important, with all the traveling I do, to have a place to come home to,” she says. “A place to exhale – I have stayed in San Pedro ever since.”

Tharp, now 26, was a fixture on working road trips. Smith remembers various all-star games where Tharp would sit on the floor next to her and play with Barbies while Smith covered the game – so much so, that Tharp began to interact with the players and would later track them down for her Mom.

“I took Dylann with me a lot,” says Smith. “She grew up with Charles Barkley essentially – they are still good buds. She was with me on the NBA or NCAA tournament trail and also went with me to all the bowl games.”

“There is a photo above my fireplace where Barkley is holding her at the Minnesota All-Star Game, after chastising me for using my kid to do all my work, my producer said, ‘Does she know Shaq?’”

Tharp, after graduating from San Pedro High School, captained the University of Oregon soccer team and in 2007 was named to the Pac-10 second team. She majored in art and communications at Oregon, and is now living and working in Los Angeles.

Since Smith joined ESPN in 1997, she has recorded hundreds of articles and reports on topics ranging from the Olympics to the O.J. Simpson trial. She has covered Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, the BCS national championship game, the NHL Stanley Cup, golf and tennis championships, ski racing, weightlifting, boxing and motor sports.

“I’ve always wanted to write stories,” she says. “Making the transition to ESPN was difficult, it was a lot of training – hair training, make-up training, where to stand training, voice training — but I love it, I love being a sideline reporter. I love my job, and I love even more that everyday presents a different challenge — no day is the same.”

In addition, she is the co-founder of the Magic Johnson Foundation newsletter, serves on various committees for The Boys & Girls Club of San Pedro and is a volunteer writer for many charity organizations, including the Serra Project, which provides homes for AIDS victims.

Smith plans on walking the sidelines for sometime. She loves that her weeks can range from USC football, to Lakers basketball, to baseball and the NFL.

“I am writing a book on Al Davis, which is the hardest thing I have ever done,” she says. “But I have also found a new passion for jumping on stories. I love my job, I love it all. Everyday is different, the sports world is always changing, and something is always happening.” spt