This weekend, my sports-shooting buddy, and dear friend, Mike McCaskey of the Chicago Bears organization died after a tough battle with cancer. I’m heartbroken.
I met Mike about 15 or so years ago. I was going to Chicago to teach a seminar, and I got an email from this gentleman. He said he was attending my seminar the following day and was wondering if I would consider taking a look at his photography and giving him an honest critique. He added that as his way of saying thanks, I could be his guest at the Chicago Bears football game the following day. I agreed, and we met in the lobby of the DoubleTree hotel in Rosemont, where we found a small table out of the way I gave him a critique.
Mike had two types of shots, landscapes and people. I went through his images, and I was (some might say) brutally honest (which is what he insisted I be). I said, “Mike, look…you’re not a landscape photographer. You’re a people person. Your portraits are just fantastic, but your landscapes…well…you should stop shooting landscapes and focus on people.” He took the critique like a champ, and we became fast friends that day (at the time, I just thought he was a Bear’s fan – I had no idea that the next day I’d be watching the Bear’s game from the Owner’s Luxury Suite. That was pretty mind-blowing).
It was Mike who, later that same season, gave me my first opportunity to shoot a real NFL game. I will never forget walking out of the “tunnel” with Mike, my gear slung over my shoulder, and we walked out onto Chicago’s Soldier Field on a bright, crisp day. It was a moment I’ll never forget.
He also got me my first NBA shoot, and we spent a glorious day together shooting a Cubs game and chowing on “real Chicago-style hot dogs” at Wrigley Field. He was such a great sports photographer — way better than he thought he was, but always the most humble guy out there.
Mike loved photography, and he was an incredible portrait and sports photographer because he was indeed a people person. When I’d talk with Mike about a particular player, what a beast he was last season, and what amazing stats he had, Mike would tell me about that player’s family, and what he did to help the community or about a foundation that player had started. I know Mike loved football, but he loved the people around it that made the game. As we moved through the stadium, he knew everybody by name, from the Elevator operators to the janitors, and he chatted with everyone and genuinely wanted to talk with them. He didn’t care who you were; he loved people.
When it comes to Mike, take all the things you know about NFL owners and toss them out the window. Mike wasn’t one of “them.” He was one of “us.” Funny as heck. Humble to a fault. You’d never know he had two nickels to his name. Mike spent two years volunteering in the Peace Corps in Africa. He was heavily involved in Chicago’s Ethiopian community back home. He was a born teacher, and on the faculty at Harvard Business School when he was called back home to manage the Bear’s operations where he became CEO for around 11 or 12 years.
My Favortie Mike McCaskey story…
I could share so many great stories about Mike, but today, in tribute, I’m going to share one of my favorites, and I hope you’ll take the time to read it. It will tell you a lot more about Mike McCaskey than a hundred articles you’ll read about him and his career on the Internet. Here goes:
11-years ago, back in 2009, my buddy and fellow sports photographer Mike Olivella (above) called me with a great idea. He shoots for Florida State University, and they give him a 2nd sideline pass for each game. His idea was to provide an amateur sports photographer the shoot of a lifetime by giving them the opportunity to shoot a top-level college game on the sidelines with us. We’d hold a photo contest (free to enter) and choose the best photo as the winner who would get to shoot on the sidelines as the grand prize. I loved the idea, and offered to fly the winner, get their hotel, meals, etc., and so the “Shoot on the sidelines with Scott & Mike” contest was born. We launched it here on my blog a few days later.
We had tons of great entries from around the country, and Alex Walker, a really talented sports photographer from Virginia, won the contest with a great shot of his son taken during a soccer game (shown above). We announced the winner and started making plans for Alex to come down to Florida to shoot the game.
But some sports shooters out there had other plans
For reasons neither Mike nor I still quite understand, a group of very vocal sports photographers got really, really, really mad about our contest. They started some incredibly hateful threads at a popular sports photography site that got so many comments; they had to close the original thread and start a new one so the hating could continue in full force. Besides just generally hating on Mike and me (OK, mostly me), their other gripe was that letting this one “amateur” on the sidelines would make the already hopelessly over-crowded sidelines that much more crowded. Still, worse yet, this amateur would basically “run-amok” endangering himself and everyone around him. This had to be stopped!
These sports photographers were so incensed that Alex would get to shoot this college football game that they went beyond the forums — they carried their angry protest directly to the school. They convinced them that letting this reckless amateur shoot the game was endangering the school, the other photographers, and even the players on the field. Their outcry was so loud the school felt they had no other choice than to revoke Alex’s sideline photo pass.
I wrote a post here on the blog about how these photographers were able to steal Alex’s dream from him in a post called “A great day for Sports Photography.” It was for a long time the most commented-on post ever on my blog. In that post, when I told how Alex wouldn’t be shooting on the sidelines, after all, you couldn’t believe the outpouring of support from friends of the blog. Lots of folks stepped up to send Alex all kinds of goodies, and we sent Alex a “care package” ourselves, but of course, I felt really awful about the whole thing.
The only person that felt worse was Mike Olivella. Here he tried to do something nice, and not only did Mike and I wind up getting barbecued at a level I don’t think either of us had ever experienced in our professional lives, but Alex wound up without a shoot to boot. Luckily, Alex took the news like a pro. He was incredibly gracious, understanding, and was just happy to have won and didn’t want anything else — no replacement prize — nothing. Now I wanted to meet him in person even more.
I hate asking for favors, but I needed a favor…
I hate calling friends for favors, but in this instance I felt I just had to. I picked up the phone and called Mike McCaskey. I told him the whole story about Alex losing his sideline photo pass, and the opportunity to shoot a real college game, and Mike said, without hesitation:
“The Chicago Bears would welcome Alex on our sidelines!”
I was thrilled, and I called Alex to tell him the news that he was now shooting an NFL game at Chicago’s Soldier Field (Whoo Hoo!!!). It was one of the most fun phone calls I’ve ever made! Alex was blown away (Mike Olivella and I were thrilled beyond thrilled for him), and we arranged Alex’s flights, hotel, and so on, but I asked Alex to keep all this quiet until after the game, so the angry sports shooters wouldn’t try to ruin this shoot for him, too.
Jumping ahead to the game
Well, the plan came together, and Alex flew to Chicago to shoot “Da Bears.” We met Alex early that morning for breakfast, and he was just a wonderful, down-to-earth guy, and a very proud dad of his son, who just earned a college scholarship with his soccer skills
We talked a lot about our families, jobs, and life in general, and I really enjoyed getting to know him. Before you knew it, we were at Chicago’s Soldier Field. We met up with Bears Chairman Mike McCaskey as soon as we got to the stadium, and Mike treated Alex as though he was the single most important person at Soldier Field that day. Mike invited Alex to join him for lunch in the owner’s suite and even went out shooting with Alex during the tailgating festivities. He couldn’t have made Alex feel any more welcome or at home than he did. It was a wonderful thing to see.
I know a lot of Bears fans only know Mike as part of the ownership or management group, but I can tell you they would have seen a side of Mike McCaskey, (one that I’ve seen time and time again), that would have made them really proud to have Mike leading their organization. I wrote about Alex’s trip to the Bears game right here (without ever mentioning that it was in place of the shoot Alex had lost. In fact, I just called the post “Shooting On The NFL Sidelines”).
The shot you see above, is (from L to R): Mike Olivella, me, and contest winner Alex Walker, taken on the Bears Sidelines by Mike McCaskey.
McCaskey saved the day
I could share dozens of stories like that about Mike McCaskey, about him helping people, caring for people, and truly being one of the “good guys,” but that surely is one of my favorites.
My least favorite Mike McCaskey story?
It was the time he got the shot and I missed it big time! We’re shooting a Bear’s game together on the sidelines at Soldier Field, and there is a good chance that Devin Hester, (Bear’s wide receiver and Return Specialist) is about to break the all-time NFL punt return record, so Mike and I set up on the opposite end-zone just incase Hester breaks out and heads for six, we’d be in place to get the shot. Sure enough, Hester finds a hole and sprints straight down the field right at Mike and me. We’re in a perfect position, at the right time and the right place, but I started shooting a few seconds too early, and as Hester is at about the 10-yard line the buffer fills on my camera, and I go down from 12-frames-per-second to about 1-frame per second, and I missed the shot. Mike didn’t start too early, and of course, he absolutely nailed it.
So, Mike has this incredible history-making shot — sharp as a tack and perfectly composed, and I’ve got a shot about 2-seconds too soon (seen below). What does Mike do with his shot? He pays to have it printed on a huge pano-sized canvas — and he donates it to raise money for charity. That’s the Mike I knew and loved.
He was part of “Team Epic”
Every year a bunch of us friends get together and we meet up for a week or so where I’m hosting a local photo walk, and we call this group of friends, “Team Epic.” Mike was part of our little group.
What was so cool about having Mike on the team was that he was just “one of the guys.” He wasn’t Mike the Bears guy. He wasn’t Mike the rich guy. He was just one of the gang — just having fun, taking pictures, and laughing throughout it all. We were in Lisbon together the year before, and Mike was a big music lover. In the GIF below, I was playing a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout A Thing” from the soundtrack of the movie “Sing” because I knew Mike would love it. Our buddy, Italian photographer Robby Pisco comes up while I’m playing the song. He starts dancing and says, “Dance with me Mike” and without missing a beat, Mike (in the pink shirt and white hat below) just starts dancing, and somehow one of our team epic members caught that moment on video, and it became “A thing” during the trip with everybody wanting to “dance with Mike.” He really was just one of the guys. I loved that about him.
I miss Mike already. I’ll miss our dinner’s the night before my Chicago seminars. I’ll miss shooting alongside him, laughing along with him, having access to his wise council, and singing the Bear’s Fight Song together each time we’d meet. I’ll miss the blessing of having a friend like Mike. He’s “…the pride and joy of Illinois.”
I’ll sign off the same way Mike and I ended every email and text to each other: