Five decades of sports, as seen through a camera lens

Fifty years ago, my high school track coach handed me his camera so I could take photos of the high jump. That led to my first published sports photograph in the school newspaper, and it launched me into a career in photojournalism. Over the past four decades, I have covered the D.C. area’s professional, college and high school sports for The Washington Post. Here are some of my favorite sports photographs since the 1970s.

I’m often asked what sport I like to photograph the most. My answer is always the same: “Any team that is winning!” Winners produce the best action shots, not the team’s fame or the profile of the event. In fact, my favorite football photo came during a downpour at a high school game.

People also ask how I know where to look for good pictures. The more time I spend observing an athlete’s body language, the more familiar I am with how they play. This helps me anticipate where the action may be, whether it’s an at-bat, a pass attempt or a drive to the basket.

I’ve been fortunate to cover some great teams: the 1980s and early 1990s Redskins, who won three Super Bowls, and the Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown men, who made three Final Four appearances. In the past two years, the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, the Nationals won the World Series, and Virginia won the NCAA men’s basketball championship.

The Redskins' Joe Theismann passes during a 51-7 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in an NFC divisional-round playoff game Jan. 1, 1984, at RFK Stadium. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

At the top of their game

I consider this one of the high-water marks of the Redskins franchise: when they went to back-to-back Super Bowls. Here, Joe Theismann gets off a pass in front of Jack Youngblood during a 51-7 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in an NFC divisional-round playoff game Jan. 1, 1984, at RFK Stadium. As the defending Super Bowl champions, the Redskins went 14-2 in the regular season and made it back to the season’s final game, only to lose to the Los Angeles Raiders.

I shot this with a Nikon F2 that had a 600-millimeter f4 lens. The film was Kodak Ektachrome 200.

Chicago Bulls rookie Michael Jordan poses for a portrait Oct. 4, 1984. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Fresh Air

I was in Chicago covering the Cubs’ first playoff game in almost 40 years when I got a call on my day off to take photos of Bulls rookie Michael Jordan at training camp. The camp was held at a high school in the north part of Chicago, and the gym was so dark, it was hard to make any good action photos. After he was finished, I asked whether he would pose for a portrait in a hallway where I found a big window that had studio-quality light coming in. No one knew then what kind of impact Jordan would have on modern sports and culture.

I shot this with a Nikon F2 camera that had a 135mm f2 lens. The film was Kodak Tri-X pushed a stop to ASA 800.

A remote-control camera set up under a jump captures horses with their riders during the Rokeby Challenge Bowl race in Upperville, Va., on March 23, 1975. (John McDonnell)

Starting at the top

I shot this while I was still in high school, and it remains my favorite sports photo I have ever made. Seeking to capture steeplechase horses with their riders in Upperville, Va., I set up a Nikon F with a recently purchased motor drive under a jump and triggered it with an extension cord that I connected to a doorbell button.

The camera had a 24mm f/2.8 lens. The film was Kodak Tri-X.

Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles takes a victory lap, shaking fans' hands, in the fifth inning of his 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gehrig's record, on Sept. 6, 1995. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Rooting interest

From the 1970s to the 2000s, the Orioles were the local baseball team for the D.C. area, and many of the those years focused on Cal Ripken Jr. and his pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s record of 2,130 consecutive games played. Here, Ripken takes a lap around Oriole Park at Camden Yards greeting fans in the fifth inning, when his 2,131st straight game became official, on Sept. 6, 1995. I breathed a sigh of relief.

I shot this with a Nikon F3 with a 500mm f4 lens. The film was Fujicolor 800 pushed one stop to 1600.

Nationals center fielder Victor Robles dives but misses a third-inning flyball by Yuli Gurriel during Washington's defeat of the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the World Series in Houston on Oct. 22, 2019. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)


Nationals center fielder Victor Robles is one of my favorite players to photograph. Whether he’s at the plate, running the bases or playing in the outfield, I always come away with great photos of him in action. Here he dives and misses a flyball hit by Yuli Gurriel in the third inning of the Nationals’ 5-4 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the World Series at Minute Maid Park.

I shot this with a Nikon D5 digital camera with a 180-400 f4 zoom lens set at 400mm. The ISO was 3200.

Virginia guards De'Andre Hunter, center, and Braxton Key celebrate their come-from-behind win over Auburn in the Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on April 6, 2019. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Leaps and bounds

I have been covering Virginia basketball on and off for more than four decades. In the past 10 years under Coach Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers have become a national power. I was courtside in 2018 when they became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA men’s tournament. It was hard to believe that, a year later, they would win it all. My best photo of their championship run came during the Final Four, when they rallied to defeat Auburn: Guards De’Andre Hunter, center, and Braxton Key celebrated at the buzzer after the 63-62 win.

I shot this with a Nikon D5 digital camera with a 70-200 f2.8 zoom lens set at 125mm. The ISO was 2000.

Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin slams into the glass as he celebrates a goal during Game 6 of the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Boston Bruins at Verizon Center on April 22, 2012. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Crowd favorite

I appreciate the opportunity to photograph one of a sport’s greatest players ever, the Washington Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin. He has produced so many great action photos over the years, it was hard to pick just one. This is my favorite: He’s celebrating a goal with fans during Game 6 of the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs against the Boston Bruins.

I shot this with a Nikon D3 digital camera with a 70-200 f2.8 zoom lens set at 200mm. The ISO was 1200.

A lone Duke fan shouts as his team is introduced before Maryland won, 79-72, at Comcast Center in College Park on March 3, 2010. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Alone in a crowd

When Duke and Maryland used to meet every year in College Park, it usually was a tense and competitive game. There are always a lot of great action photos to make at these games, but it was such a joy to spot this lone Duke fan shouting as his team was introduced while he was in a sea of Terrapins fans in 2010.

I shot this with a Nikon D3 digital camera with a 200mm f2.0 lens. The ISO was 1600.

Friendly High's Joe Haden recovers a fumble by Potomac's Antonial Coles during Friendly's 6-0 win in a downpour in Fort Washington on Oct. 7, 2005. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post) (John McDonnell/TWP/TWP)

Sloppy and beautiful

As much as I hate to work in heavy rain, it usually makes for great photos. This October 2005 game at Friendly was the only high school football game played in the D.C. area that night; the rest were canceled. I decided to take just one camera with a 200mm lens, wrapped in a plastic trash bag to protect it from the water. The field had turned to mud, and the players could not hold on to the ball. Here, Friendly’s Joe Haden, a future NFL player, recovers one of the many fumbles. I have covered many pro, college and high school football games, but this game and this photo are my favorites.

I shot this with a Canon EOS-1D Mark II digital camera with a 200mm 1.8 lens. The ISO was 1600.

Georgetown center Patrick Ewing blows past UNLV players for a dunk during an 82-46 win at Capital Centre in Landover on Dec. 7, 1984. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Tower of strength

Center Patrick Ewing was one of the most dominant players in college basketball during his four years at Georgetown. He led the Hoyas to the NCAA men’s championship game three times, winning it in 1984. Here, Ewing moves in for a dunk during a win over UNLV in 1984 at Capital Centre in Landover.

I shot this with a Nikon F3 camera that had a 85mm f2 lens. The film was Kodak Tri-X pushed two stops to ASA 1600.

A fan tumbles out of the stands as he tries to snag a ball during the Home Run Derby at Nationals Park on July 16, 2018. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Crowd sourcing

For the 2018 Home Run Derby at Nationals Park, photographers were set up right on third base; that gave me a better chance to turn around and see the fans. When a batter hit a foul ball right past us, I was able to swing around and get this fan tumbling out of the stands while trying to snag the ball.

I shot this with a Nikon D5 digital camera with a 200-400 f4 zoom lens set at 300mm. The ISO was 3200.

Tiger Woods tees up on the par-3 seventh hole at the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda on July 3, 2009. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The one and only

During my first day covering the 2009 AT&T National at Congressional Country Club, I noticed from another hole that Tiger Woods was surrounded by the crowd at the seventh tee. I visualized this photo and decided to try it the next day. I arrived at No. 7 long before Woods and the crowd. I told the marshals that I was going to lay down behind the tee with a wide-angle lens. As Woods approached, the crowd had to straddle me as I lay there. As Woods got to the tee box, he sent his caddie over to question me. I told them what I was up to, and they agreed to let me do it.

I shot this with a Nikon D3 digital camera with a 35mm f2.0 lens. The ISO was 200.

U.S. skater Tonya Harding complains to the judges that her skates are not tied properly and asks to start over during the Olympic figure skating final in Hamar, Norway, on Feb. 25, 1994. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Lots of drama

Drama hung over the women’s figure skating competition at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. I was able to cover all of the other events as my colleagues stuck to covering American skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, but I was brought in for the last night of skating to photograph the women’s long program. Harding started her performance briefly and then stopped and started to cry. She skated over to the judges to tell them her skate lace had broken, and she propped her skate on the ledge for them to take a look. She was allowed to start over, and she finished eighth. As she propped up her leg, I was sitting in a chair and tried to stand up to get a cleaner shot because heads were blocking me. The photographer behind me took his big telephoto lens and slammed it on my head to make me sit down.

I shot this with a Nikon F3 with a 300mm f2.8 lens. The film was Fujicolor 800 pushed one stop to 1600.

Read more:

Empty stadiums and no fans: Sports shuts down over coronavirus

A Post photographer steps back in time to rekindle his love of sports

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