The Man Behind the Scenes
The list of A-list sports stars and celebrities Carl Heinemann (’87) has worked with over the years is so vast and so impressive, listing just a few of them doesn’t do it justice.
But we’ll do it anyway: Kobe Bryant. Tiger Woods. Dan Marino. Brett Favre. Justin Timberlake. Carrie Underwood. Jewel.
When the spotlight is shining on those stars, Heinemann is usually the man making sure that lighting is perfect. For that reason, he’s not the kind of “star” you’d instantly recognize on the street.
But for the past 30-plus years, Heinemann has made a name for himself as a producer, videographer and even storyteller for big-time productions like ESPN and NFL Films, to name a few. A winner of two regional Emmy Awards, he picked up his first national Emmy in 2012 for a feature that aired on ESPN2 telling the story of Conner and Cayden Long, Tennessee brothers whose love of sports and dedication to each other touched a nation.
In early February, Heinemann was in New Orleans shooting his fourth Super Bowl for NFL Films. Two days before the big game — while walking along a crowded Canal Street holding a cell phone — Heinemann took time to chat with Campbell Magazine about Super Bowls, celebrities, his Campbell days and getting started in the business.
Q: You’re talking to us from downtown New Orleans just days away from the biggest sporting event on the planet … tell us why you’re there and what you’re doing?
For each Super Bowl, NFL Films flies in several photographers like myself for this game. NFL Films, to me, is like the upper echelon of sports television, and it was always a dream of mine to work in sports and work for them. When NFL Films asks you to work for them, you’re honored.
As for what I’m doing, I don’t exactly know yet. I’m a cameraman, a director of photography by trade, and I won’t get my assignments until just before the game. There will be probably 45 cinematographers and cameramen in town for this game, and everyone will have a different assignment. One person’s sole job may be to get the coin toss … another’s will be to simply film the AFC Team or follow a certain aspect of the game.
They even have four guys each at a corner of the field, and their jobs are to get the MVP as he’s coming off the field and film him saying, “I’m going to Disney World!”
By no means am I one of the top guys doing this. But I’m honored to be doing it. When you wear the NFL Films credential at these games, there’s instant respect.
Q: What’s your Super Bowl history? How many have you worked?
This is my fourth. A couple of years back in Miami, I remember when [NFL Films founder, the late] Steve Sabol addressed all of us before the game, and he told all of us working the game, “You’ll go out there today, and you might not get anything. But some of you … you’ll get that fog rolling in or the perfect shot of the ball coming through the fog on a long touchdown. Some of you will get that signifying moment. Just that one moment. That’s all we need from you.”
I’ve done what I do for a lot of years now, and I’ve met a lot of celebrities, sports stars and even presidents over the years. I don’t really get awestruck. But when Steve Sabol spoke to us, I was awestruck.
Q: Have you ever captured that ‘signifying moment’ in an NFL game?
In 2000, I was covering the AFC Playoffs for ESPN, and I was part of the Tennessee Titans-Buffalo Bills crew for the famous “Music City Miracle” game. [Editor’s Note: The Music City Miracle ended on a wild 80-yard kickoff return after a backwards
lateral for a touchdown with no time remaining to give the Titans a 22-16 win.]
I was set up in the end zone, and the Bills had just taken the lead with a few seconds left. I had my camera focused on the Titans sideline on the last play, and I was wearing a headset with the game in one ear, and I could hear the crowd noise in my other ear.
During the kickoff return, I hear, “We’ve got something,” and the crowd starts going nuts. So I turned to the field with my camera just in time to see [Titans kick returner] Kevin Dyson cross the end zone, run right by me and leap into the crowd, which was pretty cool.
That footage got a lot of airtime.
I was also approached by ESPN [in 2009] when the family of [former Titans quarterback and NFL MVP] Steve McNair allowed me to be the only cameraman at Steve’s funeral. I had developed a relationship with Steve and his family during his time in Tennessee, and because he had a very controversial ending to his life [McNair was killed by his alleged mistress in a murder-suicide in Nashville], everyone wanted to cover his funeral. His wife Michelle said if it was necessary to have someone inside, then I was the only one they wanted. When ESPN approached me, I told them if they wanted certain things, I’d only do it if the family approved. I told them not to get mad, because it was either me or nobody. I felt like it was quite an honor to be asked.
Q: Talk a little about your recent Emmy, the E:60 feature “Together”…
Over the years, I’d received a few regional Emmys, a few of those as a producer.
In 2011, I pitched about eight story ideas to ESPN and ended up shooting seven of them. Two were up for national Emmys — a long feature and a short one, and the short one I did [with ESPN journalist Tom Rinaldi] won.
The short one was about the brotherly bond between Conner and Cayden Long, two boys who compete in triathlons despite Cayden having cerebral palsy. Their story is amazing, and their dad is an amazing man. He purposely worked the third shift for UPS and during the day helped his boys train and took his kids to school.
I’m a father, and talking to him touched me. There’d be times in the past when my son would come in and tell me he wants to throw, and maybe I’d be watching TV and would say ‘Maybe later.’ But I learned something from him … you do what you can for your kids. You be the best father you can be. Get your butt off the couch. This guy’s working third shifts and hardly sleeping.
As for the Emmy, it was a high point in my career. Any time you get recognized by your peers — no matter what you do — it’s an honor. My career is not one where you can have a big ego. You’re not in front of the camera … the best cameramen and directors are generally laid back and don’t get too caught up in the accolades.
My wife did post a picture of the award on Facebook. That was the extent of my bragging, I suppose.
Q: Of the athletes and celebrities you’ve worked with, who has stuck with you and made the biggest impression on you?
I was a fan of many of the athletes I’ve worked with, so meeting people like Wayne Gretzky and Dan Marino or Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus … it’s pretty darn cool. I lived in Miami for 10 years and went to high school there, so meeting Marino was a big moment. You can’t make a big deal out of it because you’re a professional, and in the end, we all put our pants on the same, but it’s cool.
A few weeks back, I was in Oxford, Miss., shooting an Ole Miss-Kentucky basketball game to get the footage they use during the telecast like the outside of the arena or perspectives TV cameras don’t get. I was on the court during the shoot-around, and there was a man next to me with a hat on and a ratty coat. He looked at me, nodded at me and we said “hello.” Then it occurred to me … wow, that’s Morgan Freeman. I work with athletes and musicians a lot, but I don’t see a lot of movie stars. I mean, that’s the guy who plays God [in the film “Bruce Almighty”].
Q: Can you tell us about your time at Campbell University and what got you started in the business?
I transferred to Campbell and went there for about three-and-a-half years before graduating in ’87. I wasn’t the most studious person, but I got through.
I was in communications studies with [current Campbell Sports Information Director] Stan Cole, and everything in our TV classes came out of a book since we didn’t have a studio or equipment on campus. Stan and I both played tennis and competed against each other in that and when we both wrote for The Campbell Times.
By the time I was a junior, I did everything I could to get an internship in television. And luckily, I had a great uncle who for 30-plus years worked in TV in New York City. I called him that year and said, “Hey, we share the same last name, and you’re my dad’s uncle, so can I get an internship?” He got me in touch with someone at NBC, and so I worked in Manhattan for three months in 1986. I worked in the unit production department booking big events, which gave me the opportunity to hang out on the sets with guys like Bob Costas, Marv Albert and David Letterman.
Here I am, this college kid hanging out with these guys having cocktails at Hurley’s and meeting Tom Hanks and Paul Shaffer.
My career came full circle recently when I was asked to work the NBA playoffs for TNT with Albert, and then I worked for Real Sports on HBO with Costas. Neither remembered me, but I told them both about my summer in New York. So don’t forget … the person you meet tomorrow may be the same person you’re working for 20 years later. It’s good advice to never burn bridges.
Campbell University was very good for me. It got me where I needed to go. And I’d be willing to talk with any Campbell student today who’s looking for advice in this profession.
- In 2011, Carl Heinemann, Tom Rinaldi and their team produced “Together,” for ESPN’s E:60. The feature tells the story of 8-year-old Conner Long and his 6-year-old brother Cayden, who was born with cerebral palsy. Team Long Brothers was established in 2011 by Conner, who was determined to include his brother — who’s confined to a wheelchair and cannot walk or speak — in the kid triathlons, two-mile races that include running, swimming and biking. Conner and Cayden participated in their first triathlon in Nashville and finished 31st out of 32 participants. But their placing mattered to nobody. Conner’s dedication to his brother, and Cayden’s smiles and laughter during the races touched everybody who witnessed it and touched Heinemann, who pitched the story as a short feature to ESPN later that year. The feature landed Heinemann his first Emmy, but more importantly, it shared the brothers’ story with the nation, and gave the family some positive national notoriety. In 2012, the boys were named Sports Illustrated Kids’ “Kids of the Year.” “The biggest thing I got out of this was meeting this awesome family,” Heinemann said. “Would they have gotten the notoriety without my story? Maybe or maybe not. But I’m glad they did. They deserve to be stars.”]