My cameo as a Sports Illustrated cover model

Decades, though it feels more like eons, ago, when I was a junior at St. Agnes Cathedral High School, in Rockville Centre, New York, I had the good fortune of catching the attention of Sister Malachy, a Dominican nun who taught English, moderated the student newspaper and sparked my interest in photography, which burns brightly to this day still. It was through her help too, that I landed a small but memorable spot on the cover of the Aug. 15, 1966 issue of Sports Illustrated. 

Sr. Malachy was a hefty woman who looked even more so under the layers of ivory-white cloth of the habits Dominican nuns wore then, in addition to a bonnet, leaving only their faces and hands exposed, in deference I suppose, to their lifelong vows of chastity and modesty. 

Sr. Malachy at work. 

Sr. Malachy’s was not a shy or reticent type. One day, at the beginning of the school semester, I remember her walking into our English class, and the fifty-odd noisy students ignoring her entrance. She pounded her fist on her desk, rattling everything on it, and said, “GUYS, CAN IT!” Silence fell on the classroom as if had been struck by a bolt of lightning. 

Most of the time, though, Sr. Malachy was a patient and loving English teacher who worked with the few students on the staff of the “Agnesian Rock,” the oddly named student newspaper, and which included me and another student as photographers. In my case, she taught me the rudiments of photo composition and how to develop black-and-white photos in the school’s primitive darkroom.

And thanks to Sr. Malachy, I caught the photography bug. I spent a good part of my junior and senior years in high school taking pictures or in the darkroom, and became quite a good shooter. One of my photos, a dramatic vertical shot of the nearby cathedral’s bell tower picked up first place in a contest for budding high school journalists.  

Sr. Malachy encouraged me and even let me borrow some fairly sophisticated camera equipment, including a bulky Rolleiflex and a 35 mm. Contax camera. I don’t know where she got such slick photo toys for me to play with.

A lot of my photos were of sports events, although my athletic ability was nil and so was my interest in sports, particularly football. Still, I managed to take decent pictures of St. Agnes’s football and basketball teams by using the simple formula of a medium telephoto lens, fast shutter speed and a medium lens opening—and just following the ball wherever it went. 

I don’t know either how Sr. Malachy knew George J. Bloodgood, at the time deputy photo editor at Sports Illustrated, or mentioned my name to him. Perhaps he had children enrolled at St. Agnes. 

But it was through Sr. Malachy and Bloodgood that I got a one-day gig as a model—or a prop, really—in a photo shoot of a cover of Bear Bryant, then coach of the University of Alabama football team and considered by many to be the best football coach of all time. I didn’t know Bear Bryant from Pope Pius X. 

To watch the shooting a magazine-quality cover photo was memorable. I recall the one head photographer (John G. Zimmerman according the masthead of that issue of Sports Illustrated), and about a half-dozens assistants scurrying around the warehouse-size studio loading cameras with cartridges of Polaroid film for the test shots, and moving lights. 

There seemed to be enough paraphernalia—tripods, lights, projectors, cables, ladders and whatnot—to reshoot the burning of Atlanta scene from Gone with the Wind. 

The concept was to project a slide of a football stadium onto a huge screen and to pose Bryant in front as if were talking to a player. He didn’t arrive until the afternoon, and the photo crew spent most of the morning shooting innumerable test Polaroids and repositioning the equipment, just so. 

My role in this show was to wear a football helmet, shoulder pads and jersey and stand on Bryant’s side to frame the photo. At the time I was 17 years old, 6’2″ tall and all of 165 pounds, hardly an ideal frame on which to hang the uniform of a Godzilla-size football player. The shoulder pads kept slipping and sliding all over the place. 

During the shoot, Bryant jokingly kept calling me “moose” probably because he noticed how nervous I was. I didn’t know much about Bryant or his fame—or how he carried on with his players—but he struck me as a hell of a nice guy, the personification of everyone’s favorite uncle. 

And there I am, under that #21 helmet. What did you expect? A swimsuit cover of a 
scrawny Cuban teenager in a Speedo?

For my efforts I earned $100, a handsome sum compared to my other myriad jobs during high school, that ranged from bussing tables, driving a delivery truck, working at the public library or packing groceries. 

Ever since I’ve wondered if I might have gotten a foot-in-door job at Sports Illustrated, as one of the guys fiddling with the lights or loading film, or some other gofer-level job that might have allowed me to learn photography. 
Instead, I chose to study chemistry in college, to satisfy my dad’s projected aspirations. That turned into a disastrous idea that lasted only one semester after which I hurriedly switched to Political Science.
When I take pictures today, I occasionally think back to that might-have-been moment that came my way, thanks to Sr. Malachy.  

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