None of them knew the color of the ground. For years they'd worn it on their jerseys, tasted it, torn it up, glided over it at pupil-popping, whiplash speed. Lost in the moment, a football player's surroundings become a kaleidoscopic blur. From the sidelines Walter Iooss Jr. has made sure those moments lasted. Bringing that blur into perfect focus, Iooss has taken some of sports' most indelible photographs for more than five decades—his most iconic being The Catch by the 49ers' Dwight Clark in the 1982 NFC title game. Long before that, as a 15-year-old in East Orange, N.J., Iooss was glued to the radio as the Baltimore Colts triumphed over the New York Giants in an overtime thriller to win the 1958 NFL championship—dubbed (by SI) at the time the Best Football Game Ever Played.
Less than a year later Iooss was at Yankee Stadium shooting his first roll of film from the stands as the Giants beat the Chicago Cardinals in a regular-season game. Despite his proximity to New York, however, Iooss's heart never belonged to the hometown team. "I have this special affair with the Colts," he says. "Johnny Unitas to Raymond Berry, I've always loved that connection." Iooss began shooting for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in 1961, the same year he graduated from high school, and he has shot more than 200 covers, over 50 of them on NFL subjects (and another 11 of them women in swimsuits). From his viewfinder the game was pure when it was dirty. "I loved football the most when you could see the players' faces, when there was mud on them. Now they wear plastic masks and play on artificial turf," says Iooss, 67. "But that's the way it works when you get older—you lament what's taking place and miss the past." For this issue Iooss turned his lens on nine of football's living legends, capturing lines and wrinkles, and also pride—a lifetime's worth of moments. Their surroundings no longer a blur, they remain compelling focal points. "They were all stars once, and they still have an appeal," Iooss says. "For me it's been a journey back to my childhood."
QB New York Jets
"Even today you can still see why Joe was the prince of New York," Iooss says. "He's got such charm, and those flashing eyes. He just kept talking and talking. It's tough to shoot when he keeps talking. His daughter, who just had a baby, had to stand behind me and say, 'Daddy, Daddy! Stop talking! Pay attention!' He was so classic."
A two-time AFL player of the year, the 68-year-old Namath made the most famous guarantee in Super Bowl history—and delivered.
RB Green Bay Packers
"Jim Taylor and his old helmet, he's like Barney Fife and his bullet. He's so proud of being with the Pack," Iooss says. "He's so proud of his condition too. He has, like, no lasting injuries, which is amazing. He told me how he once hurt his knee, and through a pad and the adhesive tape holding it together, they stuck him with a needle and sent him back into the game numbed out."
Ramrod straight at 75, the NFL's leading rusher and MVP in 1962 has settled into the golf life in Baton Rouge.