The Draft Photobomber

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Who's the guy with a camera behind Roger Goodell and possibly football's next big star player? It's Ben Liebenberg, NFL photographer, Jeep off-roader and bow-tie boss

Jeans & Ties Guys is a recurring series introducing men who embody what J&T is all about. Today: Ben Liebenberg of Culver City, Calif.

Every football fan knows the drill at the NFL draft. Commissioner Roger Goodell walks out on stage at Radio City Music Hall, announces the pick, then shakes hands—or bro-hugs—football’s latest multi-millionaire. The two then hold up a jersey of the player’s new team and —click, click, click—the moment is captured for posterity by the photographers in front of the stage.

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But wait. Look a little closer. Who’s the guy with the lens behind Goodell and the player, essentially photo-bombing the proceedings?

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Meet Ben Liebenberg, senior photo editor for the NFL and the guy who gets just as much face time on TV at the NFL draft as his boss.

“Every year I shoot it, I can feel my phone going off like crazy in my pocket,” Liebenberg said. “It’s pretty much everybody I know going, ‘Dude, I just saw you on TV behind Roger Goodell!’”

Liebenberg has shot the event from that prime backstage position since 2008, and he’ll be there again Thursday night for the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft. He’ll be easy to spot with a turquoise and orange bow tie he bought specifically for the occasion.

In the zone: Jeans and sneakers allow Liebenberg to move quickly on the field. (Photo by Johnny Vy)

In the zone: Jeans and sneakers allow Liebenberg to move quickly on the field. (Photo by Johnny Vy)

“I got it at Ross Dress For Less,” Liebenberg said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll be the only one onstage with an item from there.”

The draft is a long way from Lake Tahoe, where the self-described “snowboard bum” shot outdoor sports and local musicians for small newspapers and magazines from 1996-2000. He switched to more traditional sports in college at San Jose State and later worked as a freelance assistant to Sports Illustrated photographers in the Bay Area. He eventually earned full-time work with a wire service in Los Angeles in 2005. When it folded, he landed an interview with the NFL, where he’s been since July 2007.

As senior editor, Liebenberg is responsible for the NFL Digital Media Group’s photo department, and coordinates coverage for all games and league events. He shoots a few games a year, including the Super Bowl, and enjoys shooting the draft, where he has green room access while players wait with their families. 

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One of Liebenberg’s favorite parts of his job is capturing the emotions of draft night. (Photos by Ben Liebenberg)

“It’s really moving to see the reactions by the players when they get the call,” Liebenberg said. “We get to see the moment their lives completely change and their families are there to celebrate with them. It’s an awesome moment.”


JEANS & TIES GUY: BEN LIEBENBERG

ben-liebenberg-tieHow do you approach getting dressed for your job? Is there any specific strategy you have when it comes to style?

There are two aspects to my job. The first, where I spend the majority of my time, is in the office at the NFL Digital Media headquarters in Culver City. It’s a very loose business casual atmosphere, and I try not to compromise my personal style too much. You can usually find me in Volcom jeans—I’ve got six pairs because I love the fit so much. I also like the color variations on Cole Haan shoes; I’ve got some with Nike soles, so they’re pretty comfortable and stylish.

The other aspect is shooting on location—games, the draft, charity events, etc. At games, I’ll usually wear shorts or jeans, a polo or button-down and sneakers. You need to be able to move, quickly, up and down the field to get in position to shoot. For nicer events, like the draft or NFL Honors, I’ll wear a suit.

Jeans and ties is…

A bold statement. It’s a very hard look to pick up on the fly. I love the look, but the environment has to be right.

What style item have you been eyeballing lately?

Pretty much anything on The Tie Bar. I love that site and how inexpensive everything is. I’ve recently been on a bow tie kick and their selection is amazing.

You live and work in Culver City. Any favorite places to eat/drink/shop there or in the surrounding areas?

I really hate to give up this info, but the best sushi restaurant I have ever been to is located near Culver City in Marina Del Rey. It’s called Irori Sushi and is tucked away in the back corner of a shopping center. Do yourself a favor and sit at the bar and let the chefs work their culinary magic. But please, people, let’s keep this a secret. I can still walk in on a Saturday night and get a table.

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Linemen—like Ndamukong Suh (left) and Taylor Lewan—often make gracious portrait subjects because they’re not used to the spotlight. (Photos by Ben Liebenberg)

When players visit the NFL Network studios, you get the chance to take portraits of them off the field. Who stands out as being an ideal photo subject?

I shot Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh during his rookie year when he came by the studio. You think of him as this really tough, mean-looking guy, but he was so nice and very talkative. I’ve found that the non-skill position players are the ones who are the most fun because they’re not used to getting their pictures taken, like quarterbacks and wide receivers. For example, I recently shot offensive lineman Taylor Lewan at the combine. He was awesome. I gave him a ball to use as a prop, and he feigned confusion and was like, ‘What is this? I never get to touch it.’ So we ran with that concept and got a pretty cool picture as a result (above).

Working at the NFL means answering questions about it at every social gathering. I know that gets old. What do you do when you need a break from football? 

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Liebenberg’s Jeep in action on Calico Mountain trails.

Don’t get me wrong: I love talking about the NFL. But you are right—as soon as people find out what I do, it turns into a conversation about football. When I have free time on the weekends in the offseason, I love taking out my 1975 Jeep CJ5, which I bought last year. I keep it garaged at my parents’ house in Beaumont, Calif., near Palm Springs. I love taking it out, getting it dirty and climbing over rocks, logs, boulders. You name it and my Jeep could probably run over it.

More sports-related stories on J&T: NFL Network’s Jeff Darlington || Sports Illustrated’s Adam Duerson || Dan Patrick Show’s Andrew Perloff

Photo credit for top panel images: Tomasso Derosso/AP, Brian Garfinkel/AP, Mary Altaffer/AP

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