Good Sport: Q&A with Panthers photog Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez


Interview conducted by Anthony Harrison

After the Carolina Panthers’ win over the New York Giants on Sunday, I spoke over the phone with Panthers team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez as she healed from a broken leg in Charlotte.

Triad City Beat: That was a hell of a game.

Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez: I feel like I totally understand the term “Cardiac Cats” now.

TCB: How’d you break your leg?

MMR: I broke my leg after the [Dec. 6] game in New Orleans. I was in the locker room, shooting the celebrations in there. And, you know, I’m five-seven, and these guys are way taller and bigger than I am. So I was having to find a way to get a different perspective that was higher-up than them.

There was a chair in front of each guy’s locker, so without thinking, I just got onto the chair with the camera to shoot down over the guys. I didn’t realize it was a folding chair.

When I stepped up on it, it almost immediately folded in, and I fell and all my weight came down on my right leg. It broke my right tibia, tore my MCL, my ACL and my knee. My right thumb got banged up as well, but nothing that required surgery.

On Dec. 8, I had surgery on my tibia, and they placed a metal wire in there to help the bone heal. Once my leg heals, I’ll have surgery to repair the ACL in my right knee. [laughs] All trying to get the shot!

One of the videographers told me later, “Did you see me? I was across the locker room doing the exact same thing you were. So if you were up on a chair, it wasn’t a stupid thought.” And the video guys, you see them holding their video cameras way up above their heads to try and get over these players, and I’m at even more of a height disadvantage, so I have no other choice but to do that — search for a higher ground.

TCB: When did your career in photography start?

MMR: In 2010, I decided to go back to school for photography. It had really grabbed my interest around that time, and it just got to the point that it was less than a hobby and more of a career pursuit.

I enrolled at the photographic technology program at Randolph Community College in Asheboro. I’d taken some classes at the Sawtooth [School for Visual Arts] in Winston-Salem, and the teacher I had there, Will Parham, was a graduate of that program. He said it was one of the best photography programs you’ve never heard of, and having been through it, I completely believe that.

It was two of the hardest years of my life, but also two of the most rewarding, and it definitely helped me get to where I am today.

TCB: How did you get the gig as team photographer?

MMR: I’d been interning at newspapers in North Carolina. The concentration I went through in the program was photojournalism, and I had the feeling that’s what I wanted to do. That’s why I was going from newspaper to newspaper, in hopes of getting enough experience and exposure to find a job with a newspaper.

In 2013, during my fourth internship — which happened to be with the Winston-Salem Journal — I got a message from a Charlotte-based Associated Press photographer. They said they were at training camp, and someone with the digital media team had mentioned to them that they were looking to have a photo intern. They said they’d given [the team] some names, and mine was one of them. They asked if that was okay, was I interested in anything like that?

In all honesty, when I got the message, I thought about it for a little bit. I didn’t instantly jump at it. I thought, “Well, that’s not a newspaper job. It’s pro football.” And before then, I hadn’t really watched professional football games and I didn’t really watch pro sports at all.

So I talked it over with a few friends who were photographers, and they were just like, “Oh, that’s really cool, you should do that! At least try it out and see what it’s like.” So I wrote them back and said, “Yeah, sure! Give him my name!”

There were a couple of phone calls with a couple of people there, and they wanted to bring me in to do a trial run/audition where I would shoot Fan Fest right before the 2013 season. So I came in and shot Fan Fest and edited a few photos they would put online. They really liked what I shot, and they offered me an internship.

At the end of that season, they kept me on as a freelancer. They had some extra work in the off-season, because that’s when they did a lot of renovations to the stadium. And then I transitioned into all the stuff that builds up to the season: The draft, training camp, mini-camps, OTAs.

But even then, I wasn’t traveling with the team. I was just doing home games, community events and practices.

In May of this year, they brought me on full time. It’s kind of the same, except I’m there all the time. [laughs] I’m traveling with the team now, and still doing everything else, plus whatever they need help with on the website.

TCB: What’s been the most enjoyable aspect of being the Panthers’ photographer?

MMR: Getting to be part of this organization.

I had my preconceived notions about working with a professional football team, being a female entering two male-dominated fields of sports photography and pro sports. I felt that maybe there was going to be a lot of macho attitude and sexism, and that I would constantly be reminded of being a female.

In a lot of ways, the Panthers are such an amazing organization, and the culture within that stadium that’s been developed and taught by [Panthers owner] Mr. [Jerry] Richardson is that every single person — not just the players and the coaches, but in every single department — they all have wonderful attitudes and everyone works together like a family.

When I was there for the first season, it seemed so weird. I had that sense everyone was working together in a really cohesive way that seemed like a family, and I thought, Could this be an act? And it hasn’t been. I’ve been there; I’ve been behind the scenes, and it’s not an act. It’s the culture within that stadium. It’s amazing to be a part of that and to see how it affects the people in all departments and the decisions of which players to pick and how they all work together.

Of course, as a photographer, it’s pretty amazing for me to be part of a team and get to document an entire season and some of these moments in between. To be there every single day, to travel with them, to get some of the access that I have — that’s what photographers want. You want to get close. You want to build those relationships with people so they trust you and they know that, when you take a picture, it’s not going to be something that’s going to put them in a bad light. I’m there to make them look good. I’m there to capture their great moments, their great plays, their deeds around the community. And I’m happy to be there to do that. I feel lucky.

TCB: Do you have any favorite stories aside from, of course, when you broke your leg?

MMR: Yeah, that’s my favorite. [laughs]

There’s one from the Dallas game [on Thanksgiving] where, at the end of the game, all of the photographers post-game were swarming around Cam. I saw this look on his face that was kind of, “God, you guys are right on top of me.” He kept on trying to walk to the side with our director of PR, and they were both just trying to walk across the field, but the photographers were just forming this dam around him. At one point, he just turned around and said, “I should be taking pictures of you,” something along those lines.

I was nearby; I didn’t really have my camera up to my face, because I was just watching, observing this interaction between all of these photographers and him. For me, it was much more amusing to watch his reaction to these photographers. And he was like, “I’m gonna take Miss Melissa’s camera.”

So, you know, Cam Newton wants your camera, you take it off of your neck.

I handed my camera over to him, and he was like, “How’s this thing work?” I quickly showed him a couple of buttons: “Focus with this; shoot with this.” And he started taking photos of the photographers, and they were taking photos back.

Before I knew it, he was running across the field with my camera, back to all the Panthers fans who’d traveled to Dallas and was taking pictures of them. Then he turned the camera on himself to try and take some selfies, and he finally got the camera back to me.

The only pictures that weren’t in focus, unfortunately, were the selfies.

When I was boarding the plane, I had to walk by where he sits, and he asked, “How did my pictures turn out?”

I told him, “Everything came out but your selfies.”

And he said something along the lines of, “We need to work with the zoom lens.”

Also, I’m not sure if [linebacker] Luke [Kuechly] would want this story out there, but when I broke my leg and they were applying the splint — that was pretty painful, and he came in to check on what was happening. He came up while I was on the table while they were doing that, and he held my hand.

TCB: What a charmer. The perks of the job.

MMR: Yep. That was really, really, really nice.