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Clay Patrick McBride, 54, is taking photos Sports Illustrated covers and stories for nearly 20 years. He has worked with publications including ESPN, Rolling Stone and New York Magazine, as well as other big name companies like Disney, Nike and Sony Music. But it wasn’t until McBride was in his 40s that he got “swept up” in teaching, he says, which gave him a sense of purpose outside of the world of commercial photography. It all came to fruition in December 2022, when he, now a senior lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, brought three of his students with him to photograph a story for SI. McBride, along with two photojournalism students, Ariana Shchuka and Vincent Alban, and an advertising photography major, Abby Curtis, were hired to help capture the Bills Mafia tailgate.
“Really a golden teaching moment, a place to get published in a magazine—that is, for me, when that started happening to me, I felt a sense that the doors were opening,” says McBride. “There is hope. And to give the students that experience, and that validation, and that credibility.”
Curtis, 21, is originally from Buffalo. During her freshman year at RIT, she did a project on the Bills Mafia’s impact on the town itself, so she spent time photographing tailgates and scenes at Highmark Stadium. But, she says, the photos had more meaning this time.
In May, a shooter killed 10 people at a Buffalo grocery store. A deadly blizzard killed nearly 50 people in the area just days before Christmas. Less than two weeks later, a cardiac arrest threatened the life of Bills safety Damar Hamlin before the eyes of the entire fandom. With all that in mind, Curtis says she was grateful that her “first big job” was something that highlighted the welfare in her hometown.
“It’s been a scary time for Buffalo lately, and just being a part of something that will help give Buffalo a little more love – which meant everything to me,” Curtis says of the photos and story, which published Jan. 12.
And Buffalo love was evident throughout the gate, the four photographers agreed. It’s an amazing experience, full of table slamming, dizzying bats and shots flowing from the thumb of a bowling ball. But even more than that, Bills Mafia is known for its deep sense of community and charity, according to Steve Rushin’s story.
The moments reminded McBride of a photograph he took in 2004, one of his early projects at SI. He was photographing a chess tournament in a prison in New Jersey, and after a big celebration among the inmates, the writer turned to him and said, “That’s the sport.” McBride never forgot that sentence, and he found it again in Buffalo, he says.
“I’m always just taking pictures of the MVP or the All-Star, but there’s so much more to sports than that, you know?” says McBride. “So that picture in the bar, for me, that writer in my head still saying to me like, ‘Did you get that?’ … That’s the sport.”
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