Round Two: The risks of underground stadium photography

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

[This is Part 2 of Tales from the Open Road: A Sports Odyssey Across America. Read Part 1.]

From the moment I slid underneath the fence at a locked-up Rich Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, on a Sunday afternoon in April 1994, I realized that my new hobby of photographing stadiums and arenas was going to require a little risk taking.

And by risk taking I mean … law breaking.

Not first-degree felonies, mind you. And not any sort of vandalism. Just some trespassing here and there to get the photos that my wife Kim and I drove hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles to get.

Like at Rich Stadium, for instance. I slid underneath a fence, ran onto the field, took a bunch of photos and left the premises. No harm, no foul. Trespassing? Yes. The second coming of John Dillinger? I didn’t think so.

But certain security guards did.

We discovered early on in our stadium travels that there are basically two types of security guards. The first see themselves as part-venue protection, part-public outreach — like the nice security guards we dealt with that spring of 1994 at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium and Chicago’s new Comiskey Park. With the Pirates and White Sox out of town the days we were in those cities, and the security guards at the two stadiums therefore not having much to do besides sitting at a desk watching surveillance monitors, they decided to break their boredom by giving Kim and I impromptu personal tours of both venues. Much to our shock, the guards took us down the team tunnels, into the dugouts and out onto the fields, where I stood in the same batter’s boxes where legends like Willie Stargell, Dave Parker and Frank Thomas plied their trade.

We weren’t sneaking around those stadiums, either. We found an unlocked door, walked in, and in both instances it happened to be the security office. We simply asked if there was any way we could get into the stadium to take a few pictures. When the guy in Pittsburgh asked us where we were from, I figured any chance we might have had of getting in was gone. “Um … Cleveland,” I answered (this was “BL” — Before LeBron. Because before LeBron, many people outside of Ohio had never heard of Akron or knew where it was, so Kim and I always just said we were from Cleveland. It was close enough). Well, we’re definitely not getting in now, I thought; Cleveland is probably the last place this guy wanted to hear.

“Follow me!” he said cheerfully, and off we went into the bowels of the stadium. Since the Steelers pretty much owned the Browns at Three Rivers Stadium, he must have felt sorry for us. That, or he wanted us to get a good look at where our hometown NFL team took its beatings.

And then there’s the second kind of security guard. Rather than describe this type, just think: Tackleberry from “Police Academy.” You know, the kind that likes the job … too much.

We found that more often than not, security guards won’t let you into the stadium/arena they are paid to protect. It’s hard to blame them: It’s their job, and if someone gets in and wreaks havoc, they’ll be fired. But some of them seem to take a little too much joy in saying no, like it’s making their day to ruin yours. This was especially disappointing when, after driving nearly 3,000 miles in the summer of 1996 to see my favorite stadium, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, the security guard — who could have passed for John Candy’s twin brother — refused to let us past his post on the outer perimeter of the iconic stadium. The massive concrete structure of the Rose Bowl was right there in front of us, and we couldn’t get in. It was like dangling filet mignon in front of a hungry German Shepherd. We gave him the sob story of how we had driven all the way from Cleveland, Ohio, to see the Rose Bowl stadium, but it wouldn’t have mattered if we had just landed from Mars. He wasn’t letting us in.

Right then, I knew going forward that we would just have to be more resourceful. Take more chances. Be bolder, craftier, more creative. Earlier on that same drive to California, we had stopped in Salt Lake City, Utah, to see Rice-Eccles Stadium at the University of Utah. It was locked up pretty tight; no getting into this one. “Oh well,” I told Kim. “I got some pictures of the outside, anyway.”

“Give me the camera,” she said. “I’ll crawl under the fence.”

I had tried this a few minutes earlier, but I didn’t fit. So I handed the camera to her, she easily slid under the metal fencing and disappeared inside the stadium for a good 10 to 15 minutes. She returned with a roll full of pictures and a brown shirt that used to be white before she slid through the dirt under the fence.

Mission accomplished. That’s what we needed more of: moxie, in a G-rated Bonnie & Clyde sort of way.

Three summers later, we showed that moxie at the University of Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium — and nearly got arrested. We did the old slide-under-the-fence trick and leisurely went about photographing the inside of the stadium from just about every angle. Maybe a little too leisurely, because as we reached the fence to slide back under and get in the car just on the other side, a voice boomed from almost directly above us: “YOU THERE, STOP RIGHT NOW!!!”

We looked up and there, leaning over a railing on the second level of the stadium just above us, was … Tackleberry. A University of Louisville security guard in full battle regalia. And he wasn’t happy.

“YOU STAY RIGHT THERE!! I’M COMING DOWN!!!” This guy meant business.

He disappeared; he was on his way, and he was on his way in a hurry. Kim and I looked at each other and, almost simultaneously, said: “Let’s go!!!!”

She quickly slid under the fence, then I went. We jumped into the car, I tried not to fumble with the keys, started it up, reversed hard away from the fence, slammed it into drive and did a regular Starsky & Hutch in the gravel parking lot, rocks and pebbles spewing out from under the tires as I floored it toward the main road. We were gone before Tackleberry could reach the fence. Victory!

As close a call as that was, what happened at the Citrus Bowl stadium in Orlando, Florida, in the summer of 2001 was even closer. Of course, the security guard wouldn’t let us in; try as we might, it was a no-go. We gave him the Cleveland speech, everything. He didn’t budge. We walked back to the car and, as Kim started to get in, she said: “Walk over that way a ways and see if you can get in. I’ll move the car over.”

“I can’t do that,” I told her. “I’ll still have to cross over the main concourse, and he’ll see me.” There was a good 20, maybe 30 feet of open space between the outer wall and the inner entrance area to the stadium. It was No Man’s Land for an amateur photographer looking to take pictures of a football stadium.

“Just wait until he’s not looking, then run in,” Kim said. “Get your pictures, just don’t run around the stadium like you usually do. Then when you come back, wait until he’s not looking and run back to the car.”

Sounded like a solid plan. Really, what could go wrong?

I crept up to the outer wall, stepped a few feet inside — I was probably 30 feet from the security guard’s post — and peeked around the corner. There he was! I’m going to get arrested this time for sure, I thought. I peeked again; he was still there, but facing the other direction. It was now or never.

I bolted across No Man’s Land, hoping the soft padding of my tennis shoes on the concrete surface didn’t catch his ear. I somehow made it to the other side undetected and just kept on running until, moments later, I was standing on the lush grass of the end zone, directly underneath the goal post, breathlessly snapping pictures of the famous football stadium that had been the site of so many Ohio State bowl games. It was a gorgeous Florida afternoon, and even though I knew I was up against the clock, I wanted to savor the moment.

As I soaked it all in, I decided on one more picture, a shot looking across the field from one end zone to the other. I put our 35-millimeter point-and-shoot up to my face, clicked and, with my right eye still peering through the viewfinder, saw something move in the distance ahead of me. That’s weird, I thought. Why is something moving down there?

I pulled the camera down and looked. To my horror, at the other end of the field was a golf cart with two men in it — and it was barreling straight toward me! I turned and ran as fast as I could — which isn’t all that fast — back the way I had come. As I exited the grass of the football field, I glanced behind me to check the progress of the golf cart: It was already at midfield and gaining fast; no way could I outrun it. I’m in trouble, I thought. I heard the guys in the cart shouting at me as I reached No Man’s Land. All I needed now was for the security guard to be looking in my direction, and I would be finished. I stopped and looked: Luckily the security guard was nowhere to be seen, and I bolted across the concourse, through the open gate and to the waiting car which Kim had the foresight to move for just such an instance like this.

I jumped into the car. “Hang on!” I said. “What’s going on?!” she asked. “I’ve got two guys in a golf cart chasing me out of here, and they’re moving fast. We gotta go!”

And with that, we tore out of the Citrus Bowl parking lot to enjoy the rest of this beautiful summer day in Central Florida.

And, more importantly, our stadium pictures.

[Next week: The third and final installment of Tales from the Open Road: A Sports Odyssey Across America]

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.