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Meet the Magician of NFL Broadcasts

You may not know Don Cornelli’s name, but you know his handiwork. He’s Fox’s wizard of the gridiron. And he’s always in the right place at the right time.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last month, at Lambeau Field, the Packers were playing the Panthers in falling snow. Don Cornelli, a Fox cameraman, was standing on the sideline a few hundred feet below the announcers’ booth, a Sony 4300 slung over his shoulder. Cornelli operates Camera 6, also known as the “near-side hand held.” Cornelli has a singular, almost magical gift: He appears at the exact spot on a football field where a big play is about to happen.

“Whatever the play is, he’s going to get the best shot,” said Michael Dranes, who operates Camera 1 on the Fox crew.

“I’ve seen Don move 5 feet,” said Andy Mitchell, who operates Camera 9. “The guy literally caught the ball right where he was standing. He had it perfectly framed. I’m going, He practically threw it to him.”

Cornelli is modest about how his intuition constantly brings him to the right place. “You pick a spot,” he said. “Sometimes you get lucky.” Like a skeptic at a séance, I spent the Packers-Panthers game following Cornelli on the sideline. I’m convinced his powers are real but largely inexplicable—that Cornelli is one of the true magicians of sports TV.

Take a play from the first quarter. Though the Panthers had the ball at their own 47, Cornelli wasn’t interested in the action near the line of scrimmage. He took his camera and positioned himself 38 yards downfield at the Green Bay 15. There was no reason to pick the 15. Cornelli doesn’t study analytics; he doesn’t think much about football beyond learning the three-deep. The spot just felt right.

On the next play, Panthers quarterback Kyle Allen faked the ball to the running back and threw to receiver D.J. Moore. Moore caught the ball, cut right, and … was pushed out of bounds right where Cornelli was waiting with his camera. “Take 6!” director Rich Russo called in the Fox truck. Cornelli’s close-up of Moore beamed out to 23 million homes.

You may not know Cornelli’s name, but you almost certainly know his work. Take just the last month’s worth of Fox games. During the Bears-Lions game on Thanksgiving, Cornelli had positioned himself 40 yards downfield when Anthony Miller caught a pass right in front of him to set up the go-ahead touchdown. A week earlier and about the same distance past the line of scrimmage, Cornelli got a great shot of the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins catching a touchdown in his outstretched fingers. Two weeks ago, Cowboys kicker Brett Maher doinked a field goal in Foxborough. Where was Cornelli? Standing beneath the crossbar, his camera tilted upward into the rain.

Cornelli has shot 32 NFC championship games and 22 Super Bowls. “Think of all the great moments he’s been feet away from,” said Richie Zyontz, Fox’s “A” game producer. If you study a photo of Plaxico Burress catching the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII, you’ll see Cornelli standing near the back pylon, perfectly positioned for the money shot.

Cornelli is 56 and has the bearing of a flex tight end. If he were a player, you’d call him sneaky fast. While shadowing Cornelli, I sometimes glanced down to write a note. When I looked up, Cornelli had been called away by his sixth sense. I’d take off down the sideline after him, like a gunner on the punt team who was holding a flapping notebook.

Cornelli’s manner is gentle and snark-free—more like a conscientious woodworker than a hard-bitten sports TV type. A few times, while Cornelli and I were standing inside Fox’s production truck, I asked him a question about his art. “Let’s go outside,” Cornelli would say. Later, I figured out he didn’t want to talk about himself in front of the Fox crew, because they would bust his chops.

On NFL crews, cameramen are divided between those that operate the “up” cameras and the field cameras. The difference is cultural as well as professional. The up cameras work in coordination. If Fox’s Camera 1 is showing the play, Camera 3 might be following the slot receiver and Camera 4 might be following the outside receiver. It’s the TV version of assignment football.

“They have to think,” said Cornelli. “I can’t think. I just react.” Since inheriting the near-side hand held (the more prominent position) more than 25 years ago, he has raced up and down the sideline at the bottom of your TV screen, largely working alone. “My work area is goalpost to goalpost,” he said. “All 100 yards.”

Some of Cornelli’s moves make sense. If a team is in the red zone, Cornelli moves to the back corner of the end zone so he can shoot the receiver’s feet on the fade route.

Other times, Cornelli is guided only by what Joe Buck calls “an awareness and sixth sense without talking to dead people.” In the first quarter of Packers-Panthers, there was a pass interference penalty on the Panthers that moved the ball to the Green Bay 45. After the call, Cornelli ran from the Green Bay 20 to the Carolina 8—a distance of 72 yards.

On the next possession, when the Panthers had the ball on their own 37, there were penalties on both teams. The line of scrimmage didn’t move. But Cornelli did, running from the Carolina 18 to the Green Bay 22—a distance of 60 yards. After the game, Cornelli’s phone told him he had walked 15,203 steps, or 7.8 miles.

Occasionally, Cornelli’s instincts are so keen that they put him directly in harm’s way. Reggie White once trampled him on the sideline. A trucking at an NBA game landed him in intensive care for six days.

Last October, in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Cornelli was standing near the 25-yard line. It was the perfect spot: Wide receiver Brandin Cooks caught a pass and headed right toward him. The problem is, when Cornelli is looking into his viewfinder, he sometimes can’t tell how close the players are. After Cooks slammed into him, the feed from Camera 6 showed Cornelli lying on the ground, his blue sneakers stretched out in front of him.

When sideline reporter Erin Andrews reached him, Cornelli was putting his headset back on and trying to insist he could still work. “He was throwing up blood,” Andrews told me. She added: “I screamed to Rich Russo, ‘You have to get him off this field!’” Cornelli went to the emergency room, where he was diagnosed with a concussion.

After the game, a bunch of Fox camera guys went to the hospital to visit Cornelli. In what might have been a first in the annals of emergency medicine, they showed the staff footage of the injury from three different angles. Cornelli missed the next two games. “I’m done with being run over,” he said.

In Green Bay, Fox’s morning camera meeting had the feel of a cozy hunting lodge. Most of the camera operators were dressed in either camouflage or Fox Sports giveaways. A snack table was covered with Slim Jims and Welch’s fruit snacks and big samovars filled with coffee. Later, a pregame buffet lunch was laid out. Cornelli ate a giant mound of macaroni and cheese to give himself energy for the game.

Cornelli’s dad urged him to be an accountant, but Cornelli always wanted to work in TV. After graduating from Central Michigan, he shot news for CNN while moonlighting on sports crews. In 1988, he joined Pat Summerall, John Madden, and CBS’s “A” NFL crew full time. Five years later, he moved to Fox when the network got the NFC rights, but because he’s a freelancer still works Super Bowls and the NCAA tournament for CBS. Cornelli once photographed Troy Aikman playing for the Cowboys; now, he finds shots to help illustrate Aikman’s analysis.

“I never know what’s going to happen every Sunday,” said Cornelli, “from before I get to the stadium till the ending of the game. No idea. I like that. I don’t know that I could go to an 8-to-5 job ever, with the same people in the same office. It’s just not me.”

Cornelli’s schedule is demanding. On Monday mornings, he flies home to the Detroit suburbs, where he spends a day with his wife, Karen. It’s typically his only day at home during football season. On Tuesdays, he flies to the site of Thursday Night Football to set up equipment and go over the game plan. On Fridays, he flies to the site of the Sunday game. Cornelli thinks he travels about 200 days a year for work.

On the sideline, Cornelli has to battle the elements. In the fourth quarter in Green Bay, snow began to collect on the shoulders of his jacket. Though Fox pays billions for NFL rights, Cornelli—trailed by two “utilities” who carry his camera wire—must dodge still photographers and randos with iPhones, not to mention players and coaches. While I was shadowing him, I felt a gentle tap on my side. It was Packers punter JK Scott, informing me that I was standing between him and his practice net.

Camera operators are largely anonymous. Their best shots go uncredited except among the crew. Camera operators are at the mercy of players who may run to the other side of the field and directors who may choose another shot for the broadcast.

“You can almost tell with him when maybe something didn’t get on,” said Russo. “You say to him, ‘The play isn’t coming toward you. Don’t take it to heart.’ He does—he takes it to heart.”

“I don’t know that I ever could say I had a great game,” said Cornelli. “I really don’t.”

“He’s the most humble human being you’ll ever meet in my life,” said Mario Zecca, who operates Camera 26. “At the end of the game, he’ll say, ‘I sucked today.’ Meanwhile, you’ll see like 10 shots during the game that are fucking ridiculous.”

On an NFL crew, busting your colleagues’ chops is the second most important job next to game photography. Though he has been on the crew for decades, Cornelli is an elusive target. “I can’t really think of anything specific we do on a consistent basis,” said Dranes. “What would you say, Throw?”

“He doesn’t stop and sit down very often,” said David Thrower, who operates Camera 3.

“It’s like perpetual motion,” said Dranes.

“We like joke about the Purposeful Walk,” said Thrower.

“Very purposeful when he’s moving,” said Dranes.

I asked Cornelli whether his shoulder hurts after a game. He said it didn’t, but his lower back does. His doctor said the condition will clear up as soon as he stops lugging around a 25-pound camera for three hours. “I do want to get off this camera at some point,” said Cornelli. “Just because of the physicalness of it.”

But, he continued, “I still am not completely convinced I won’t miss the hell out of it when I do leave. It’s all I’ve known and it’s been good to me.”

On CBS’s “A” crew, Cornelli replaced a man named Davey Finch, who is considered one of the greatest hand-held cameramen in history. The job is different now. The rise of Twitter and other insta-critics means we no longer tolerate a national broadcast missing a key shot. The need for replays means Cornelli must carefully frame the receiver so that he captures both his feet and the ball. In the Cowboys-Patriots game, it was Cornelli’s shot of Amari Cooper’s attempted fourth-quarter catch that convinced the refs to rule it incomplete.

Cornelli has certain techniques. If there’s bad weather or a backup quarterback, he’ll move closer to the line of scrimmage, figuring a key play is likelier to happen there. The sheer amount of coverage Fox has for Thursday-night games—when the network adds high-speed cameras and a yard-marker camera to its Sunday complement—allows Cornelli to cheat downfield, because he knows the line of scrimmage will be covered.

The rest is wisdom. “Experience creates great instincts, right?” said Zyontz. “He has been doing it for such a long time that he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time.”

“You need a little bit of luck,” said Mitchell of Camera 9. “But it’s not really luck if you show where you’re supposed to be—and then take a chance.”

Cornelli’s intuition isn’t foolproof. In the second quarter of Packers-Panthers, Carolina had the ball at the Green Bay 46. Cornelli raced to the 3-yard line—40 less-than-useful yards away from the spot where Kyle Allen wound up fumbling the ball. Three drives later, Cornelli was in the process of changing sides of the field when Jimmy Graham popped up from the ground after a 48-yard catch.

More often, Cornelli’s second sight wins out. In the second quarter, Aaron Rodgers threw a pass to Davante Adams. If you were watching the game on Fox, the surprise in the booth was evident.

“Davante Adams—what a catch!” said Buck.

“Oh, man!” said Aikman.

Cornelli was standing 42 yards away from the line of scrimmage—as it happened, 5 yards from where Adams fell to the ground. He didn’t quite know why he’d picked the spot. He told me: “I just said, This feels good right here.”

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