Want to talk hard knocks? Ask Monica Herndon about The Hit.
From time to time, I'm going to use this column to introduce you to some of the dedicated journalists in our newsroom. Monica is a Tampa Bay Times photographer beginning her second year as our beat photographer assigned to the Buccaneers. She's a rising star in this business.
But back to The Hit.
Three years ago, not long after joining the Times as a staff photographer, Monica found herself on the sidelines at Plant High School in Tampa covering a big rivalry football game against Hillsborough High.
A Plant linebacker had intercepted a pass or picked up a fumble. No one can exactly remember. But he had the ball and was running at full speed down the sideline.
Hillsborough players pursued from different geometric angles. Monica was standing on the narrow sideline, her finger on the shutter. One minute, she had the linebacker, in his golden jersey, in her sights. In an instant, he vanished.
He got pushed out of bounds and collided with her. Head on. She never saw it coming.
"I don't remember getting hit," she said.
The next thing she knew, she awoke on a stretcher in an ambulance a few minutes later with a serious concussion. A bump on her forehead grew into a tennis ball-sized lump. She was out of action for a couple of weeks.
That episode sticks with her, but she is as fearless as ever as she roams the sidelines at Bucs games. She loves the rush of shooting NFL football.
"There's so much adrenaline being on the field," she says.
Earlier this month, life moved at a slower pace. Monica got unprecedented access to the team's elite players to photograph portraits in full uniform. Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Donovan Smith, Peyton Barber and O.J. Howard all made their way to her makeshift photo studio set up near the 20-yard line inside the vast, air-conditioned AdventHealth Training Center, just outside the shadows of Raymond James Stadium.
The portraits she took will be used in our upcoming season preview section. We'll also use them for player profiles, photo galleries and social media posts. Her mobile studio spanned a couple hundred square feet. Monica chose orange as her main backdrop color. In past years, we've shot with black or red backgrounds. This year, she's playing off the color of the orange football that makes up the Bucs logo. Each player lined up for photos in front of the screen.
"It's also a nod to the team's original jersey color," she said. "It's a little bit of a throwback to go with the orange."
With photo editor Chris Urso and photographer John Pendygraft assisting, Monica moved purposely through a series of shots. Kneeling, outstretched on the artificial turf, or standing on a step ladder. For her last frames with offensive tackle Smith, she positioned the camera a few feet from the imposing 6 foot 6 inch 330-pound pillar of the Bucs' offensive line. She climbed the ladder to get at eye level and pointed her Canon camera at her target. Chris held a reflector screen while John manned the lights.
"With their help, I can focus on shooting the actual pictures," she said. Smith grinned as the shutter rattled.
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Game days are different. She's on her own, often in the oppressive summer heat.
"Not only are you roasting, but you're lugging heavy equipment up and down the field," she said. "It helps to stay in good cardio shape so that you aren't winded by the time you reach the end zone."
Photography runs through her veins. She got her first digital camera for her eighth-grade graduation from her parents. Her dad, Craig Herndon, was a longtime Washington Post photographer. (Fun fact: I met him when I was a summer intern at the Post a million years ago.)
Monica used to go out on photo assignments with her father. But knowing the challenges the industry faces, he tried to talk her out of making this a career.
"It was her mother who encouraged her to choose the profession," Craig Herndon told me.
We're glad she took mom's advice.
Mark Katches is the executive editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @markkatches
Lightning Book is coming
The Lightning postseason ended a lot sooner than any of us had expected. That stung. No doubt. But there's no denying this was a season full of records and accomplishments. And we have the photos to prove it. We are in full-production of our coffee table book looking back at the season. With many exclusive photos that have never before been published, our 160-page hardcover book will capture the big moments of one of the region's most beloved sports franchises. This collector's item will only be available through pre-sales directly from us. You can order it at www.boltsbook.com