Enjoy this interview with former Steelers team photographer Michael Fabus - one of hundreds by Ron Lippock used in the writing of Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades (available here via Amazon).
The interview has a number of funny anecdotes about photo shoots with Gregg Lloyd, Louis Lipps, and Rod Woodson. It also discusses Dan Rooney, Chuck Noll, and Ben Roethlisberger - with stories showing how they treated those around them and about their passion for travel, flying planes, photography, and more!
First, can you tell readers how you got started as the Steelers photographer?
I was helping out Harry Homa – the Steelers photographer – in 1980. He passed away in 1985 and the team asked me to take over the position as an independent contractor. In 2000, they made me a full-time employee. At the time I was only one of three or four full-time NFL photographers.
How did you start the photo shoots with the players and team photos?
The team photos were pretty good. When Chuck was there he’d always take control and tell everyone where to sit and where they were supposed to be. When I started doing it I actually took a picture of each players number and put it where they were supposed to be to make it easier.
In 1993, they had those City of Pittsburgh gold jerseys, so I had them wear both jerseys and took pictures of them in both – the black jersey on top and I just had them pull it over top for the next one.
At the Super Bowls it was easier – the NFL set everything up for you. Against Dallas I almost did their team photos too – their photographer was Jerry Jones’ personal photographer and he asked me if I could do it in case he got tied up with Jerry, but he ended up being there and taking them.
Was there a learning curve for you at first – shooting at your first Super Bowl?
In ’84 we went to Miami and played Marino. That was the first time I traveled with the team. When we went to the Super Bowl I was out of my element my first time. There were so many photographers vying for positioning….
Who were some of the players and coaches you enjoyed working with most?
Mike Webster was a good guy. I liked working with him. I took a lot of family photos with Ron Blackledge – the Steelers line coach asked me to take his family photos, I went to his house and he had two enormous dogs in his front yard. I just walked into his yard and petted them and knocked on the front door. He looked at me in shock – he didn’t know how I got past his dogs!
Dick Hoak was a great guy too. And Chuck Noll – one thing not many people knew about him was that he was a photographer. Before every game he’d stop in the PR office and we’d talk photography. Once he asked me if I knew anyone who would want his darkroom equipment he wanted to get rid of. I said I’d buy it and went to his house to pick it up. He filled my car up and said I could have it. It must have been over $1,500 worth of equipment.
I used to fly with Dan Rooney in his airplane. I’d take pictures of this or that for him – of the landscape… I’d move side by side to get the pictures. When we landed I looked green, Dan said. I just told him I needed to get my feet on the ground. Chuck would go to sometimes and he told me he had an airplane seat. He said he wanted me to sit in the seat that hung outside of the plane door – and that once I got in it he’d hand me the camera! I said no! He might have been kidding…I’m not sure.
What were some of your favorite player photo shoots?
For the Steelers Digest in 1981, we had a great cover of Rod Woodson. Bob Labriola had the idea to dress Woodson up in a Superman costume. He said I had to sell it to Rod though. So I went to his locker and told him I wanted a picture of him in a Superman costume, and he asked why I wanted to do that. That year, he wanted to return punts and play wide receiver in addition to playing cornerback. I told him I thought this would be fitting. He said sure but that he would only do it on the practice field.
Why the practice field?
He didn’t want his teammates to see him. Changed in the equipment room then took the picture.
I actually had wanted him to wear a suit over the costume and come out of the locker ripping the shirt off. We fitted him with the costume at a costume shop on the South Side. They gave into us for free if we promised to mention him – and we did.
Greg Lloyd – people said he was mean but he was very kind to me. I wanted him to hold a Darth Vader helmet for a picture, with him wearing his cross and bones tee shirt in the weight room, like he usually did. Well, he asked me if it was a racial thing! I said no – you’re like the dark force – no one wants to go near you. He said he’d have to ask his wife and did. The next day he came in and said yes – so I had Rodgers Freyvogel – the equipment manager – put a gold stripe down the helmet, the Steelers logo on the correct side and the number 95 on the back and took the picture of him in the weight room. It was great stuff.
We also had “Bombs Away” Louis Lipps take a picture in a bomb shelter in Allegheny County. We had him sit on a pile of bombs – they were diffused of course.
I was socially too old to hang out with those guys – they were kids. But they were great guys.
Any other good memories?
After winning his first Super Bowl Ben Roethlisberger and his family were invited to Switzerland. He took me along to take pictures of the trip. It was a great time. He was very friendly – we had a few drinks together in the hotel – we stayed in the same hotel. They put us up in 5-Star hotels all around the country. I followed them around and stayed out of their way – I didn’t want to be in their way. But it was a lot of fun.
Super Bowl 43 when Santonio caught the winning pass. That was right in front of me – it was a good picture. The great thing about that was the first pass Ben missed him on the other side of the field. I said to myself that was good – now it will be on my side. And it was.
Parker’s long run in Super Bowl 40 – with Faneca knocking someone down to make the big hole for Willie to run through… Harrison in Super Bowl 43, catching the ball and running down the sideline…
As a fan as well as an employee, how do you keep your calm during games and not miss shots?
The first thing I learned is that you have to keep your emotions in check. I’ve always been a big fan of the Steelers. I was emotional as a fan but my wife always said she was happy that I never got emotional when I got home from a game when I was employed by the Steelers. You have to keep your emotions in check or you’ll miss something. They hired me to take pictures that look like the fans were there. The big and little plays.
I used to put pictures up after every game – good plays only – win or lose. Some games it was had to find good pictures… I’d put up four 30×36 photos – one of the offense, defense, special teams, and a special play in the game in the hall leading to the locker room. I also put up twenty 8×10’s. I just thought it was a nice thing for the players and they really appreciated it. Its a tradition that’s still carried on. Just photos that made them look good…