Deerfield Twp. — Rodger Harbaugh has been to plenty of Super Bowls. And the Deerfield Township resident has plenty of memories while at the games.
However, his biggest one really didn’t involve a specific play itself — it involved a priest during Super Bowl XI.
“Me and my buddy were up in the stands to shoot some reaction shots,” Harbaugh said. “From time to time we would say ‘Excuse me’ because we had to stand and would block somebody. … We were in the aisle, there was a long-distance play and we were blocking the end of the play. And never in my life have I seen or heard a priest say ‘Get the (expletive) out of my way. I paid for these tickets.’”
That can be one of the hardships of spending your career as a sports cameraman for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Harbaugh, who shares a distant family relationship with the Harbaughs coaching in Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII, covered about five Super Bowls as a hand-held cameraman during the ’70s and ’80s as one of NBC’s primary camera crews during the era.
“It was just fun being there,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a thrill being there, knowing millions of people would love to be there. And while you are there, you get more of a 360-degree perspective — the sights and the sounds you don’t get on television. It was a wonderful experience.”
Working for NBC, Harbaugh, 73, also worked at many World Series, many golf tournaments and even the Olympics. He started as an assistant to the cameraman. Later in his career, he was the man looking through the bulky camera lens. What he saw was what the sports fans experienced from their television sets. His work has won four Emmys, including two national Emmys. One was for the 1978 World Series, a championship won by the New York Yankees against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The other was for Super Bowl XIII, a 35-31 victory for the Pittsburgh Steelers against the Dallas Cowboys.
Evolution to becoming a sports cameraman
Harbaugh was born in Pennsylvania, a farm child. He remembers watching NBC News’ Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.
“I thought it was so fascinating. Here I was in Pennsylvania and I’m watching a guy from New York talking to a guy in Washington,” Harbaugh said. “And then the man in Washington said ‘Let’s go back to our man on the street.’ … I thought it was the most fascinating thing in the world — four people in different parts of the country and I was seeing them instantaneously. At that point I had no desire to be a farmer.”
After spending some time in the Army he moved to California. Harbaugh went to television radio school and eventually got some work with NBC in 1969 working with video tape. One day, in the early 1970s Harbaugh was asked if he wanted to work with another cameraman, Bob Keys, carrying his backpack, covering the Dean Martin Tucson Open, a PGA golf event. Running a camera was a two-man job.
“He told me I needed someone I could depend on to carry this backpack for me,” Harbaugh said. “NBC did a lot of golf back in those days. … He asked me ‘Do I want to do it?’ and I said ‘Sure.’ I went to Tucson and it was beautiful. I thought, ‘This is it. I like this sports thing.’”
The event sparked a working relationship between Harbaugh and Keys. As Keys’ assistant, Harbaugh had to carry cumbersome equipment that was connected to the cameraman’s equipment by a 20-foot cable. It was the assistant’s job to keep up with the cameraman and to make sure the action captured was being received by a receiving tower. It took teamwork to get the job done.
A few years later, Harbaugh got his chance to be the cameraman. Harbaugh’s first event was the Tucson Open. “I remember it very well,” Harbaugh said.
He also remembered it being challenging because he spent most of the tournament fighting through the crowds, making it tough to keep up with the golfers. He later learned it was a rookie mistake when he talked to fellow NBC cameraman and friend Cory Leible while eating.
“He told me, ‘Rodger you are the cameraman. You walk on the side like the golfers do.’ I was quite embarrassed.”
A career as a sports cameraman
Harbaugh bounced back from that slight embarrassment to have an outstanding career as a cameraman with NBC. His long-time assistant was Tom Forletta. They frequently worked football games, golf meets and baseball games. And he got to know some of the athletes.
“(Pro Football Hall of Famer) George Blanda would sit toward the end of the bench on his helmet and look around. I’d be there and we’d make idle chit-chat,” Harbaugh said. “I’d have idle chit-chat with Terry (Bradshaw).”
Harbaugh remembered one time when he was asked to take a stand-alone shot of Bradshaw.
“I asked Terry if he was going anywhere, and he said ‘No,’ Harbaugh said. “So I laid down. … I was lying on my back shooting up to his face, he stood there for awhile and then he did one of these things (acting as though he was going to spit). He wanted to see if I would flinch.”
As the years went on, Harbaugh began working for the Golf Channel, doing up to 15 golf tournaments a year at one time. He also has done some of the live shows for the reality television show Survivor. He retired from NBC in 1998 after 30 years with the company. He worked for the Golf Channel until just a few years ago.
Football and golf were Harbaugh’s favorite sports to cover.
“In football you didn’t have to be quiet,” Harbaugh said. “You could run, make noise. There was no etiquette, just get to where you are going, push and shove and get the shot.
“In golf everything has to be silent, but as I got older that’s what I enjoyed about golf. I am tired of people screaming or shouting.”
Harbaugh loved his career. “I’m one of the luckiest people on the face of the Earth,” Harbaugh said. “It’s amazing some of the people I’ve seen and the places I’ve gone. I had a wonderful, wonderful career.”
About Rodger Harbaugh
The Harbaugh name
Yes, Rodger Harbaugh is related to the two Super Bowl head coaches, Baltimore’s John Harbaugh and San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh, but they are distant relatives. Rodger used to talk to the brothers’ dad, Jack, on the phone in the past, but he’s only talked to Jim Harbaugh once while on assignment during a football game.
Media credential buttons
During his career, Harbaugh collected some of the media press passes he received during his career with NBC. Included on his board are credentials to Super Bowl XI, the 1974 World Series, the 50th All-Star Game and many golf tournaments. It’s only a sample of some of the events he covered. “I didn’t save all of them,” Harbaugh said. “I wish I did.”
Harbaugh also did camera work with many of the reunion shows during seasons with the hit reality game show Survivor. Among those that he remembers working were Pearl Island, Australia, Thailand, Africa and Guatemala.