After lightning strikes and tip-overs, telescopes replace lifts in NFL practice filming scene

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The Eagles’ video command center sits between the practice fields during Eagles training camp.

Mike Dougherty was the Eagles’ video director for 37 years before retiring in 2013.

Over the course of those 37 years, he spent tens of thousands of hours 45 feet up in the air standing on a hydraulic scissor lift with a camera filming practices.

“When they first came out, they were a blessing,’’ Dougherty said of the lifts. “They were considered state of the art. You could get up high and move them and stuff like that. Before that, we used scaffolding that you had to climb.’’

He didn’t think it was a blessing that day in 1979 when a lightning bolt struck his camera and came perilously close to killing him.

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“We were practicing at JFK Stadium,’’ he said. “It was late October, early November. There’s usually no lightning around that late in the year.

“The players on that team still laugh about it because my hair was standing straight up. The lightning hit the camera, which was all metal, and bounced into my head. It was crazy.

“The camera lens got fried. The players dove to the ground. That was the last thing I remember seeing. [Assistant coach] Fred Bruney came over and got me down. I was just shaking. I wasn’t hurt bad or anything. I just got that jolt. I was lucky.’’

Declan Sullivan wasn’t. In 2010, Sullivan, a 20-year-old student who worked in the video department at Notre Dame, was killed when gusting winds knocked over the lift tower from which he was filming football practice.

“That’s what started everybody looking into [alternatives],” Dougherty said. “There had been people hit by lightning. There had been lifts that had come down. But he was the first person to get killed in one.

“You’d deal with wind and rain, and you’d stay up in that stuff. You used to sit up there and say, ‘Well, what happens if this thing blows over? What do I do? Do I ride it down? Do I jump out?’

“Everybody in the league would talk about the same thing. I was never that scared. But you definitely thought about it.”

Thanks to technological advancements, many NFL teams, including the Eagles, and a number of college programs finally are phasing out lifts and replacing them with new state-of-the-art telescoping video equipment that allows teams to film practices and games without ever leaving the ground.

Two years ago, the Eagles purchased something called a MastRcam from 8K Solutions, a sports video technology company in Titusville, Fla., for $75,000.

The MastRcam resembles the front of a boat. It has bench seats, a protective canopy, an operating console and a pole with a camera that extends 50 feet in the air and has a 330-degree turning radius.

The system can be operated from the MastRcam or remotely from another location. It can be configured with multiple control stations and a master control viewer.

The Eagles station the MastRcam between two of their three training camp practice fields and can film the action on either field.

“We position it in such a way where we know where the 30 degrees that we can’t get to is and it doesn’t affect anything,” said Pat Dolan, who has been the Eagles’ director of football technology since 2013.

Said Dougherty: “I was at practice with (Dick) Vermeil (who hired Dougherty in 1976) last year and showed him the MastRcam. I said, ‘Coach, that thing costs $75,000. That was our whole budget when you were the coach, including my salary.

“We always talked about having those things, but they weren’t good enough at the time. We would have companies demo stuff for us, but the quality wasn’t good enough. Now, the technology is phenomenal.”

Dolan agreed.

“All of the camera heads are broadcast-quality cameras that can provide a professional level of quality video for our coaching staff,” he said. “Because NFL coaches are accustomed to receiving a certain quality of video.”

Earlier this year, the Eagles added to their video arsenal, purchasing smaller and more portable telescoping equipment from another sports video company, Endzone Video Systems in Sealy, Texas, including a pair of $7,200 winchcams that extend nearly as high in the air as the MastRcam, but can be folded up and moved around. The Eagles usually station them behind the end zones during practice.

“They look like a howitzer when they’re folded up,” Dolan said. “You just winch it up. It has a camera on top. We can control the mechanics at the waist level. The operator can pan, tilt, zoom, all from the controls down at the waist level.

“We get a nice end zone picture without having to put a guy 45 feet in the air on a lift.”

The polecams, which cost $2,200 apiece, are smaller and much lighter than the winchams. They extend only 15 feet in the air, but don’t need to be folded up and can easily be moved around. At practice, you’ll often see one stationed on the field behind the offensive players.

“That’s the nice thing about these cameras,” Dolan said. “The flexibility. You can move them around anywhere because they’re lightweight compared to a scissor lift or boom lift.

“A scissor lift weighs about 13,000 pounds. The MastRcam weights about 1,300. The winchcam weighs about 500 pounds. And the polecams are much less than that.

“When you’re managing that, you can put it in places where it’s not going to hurt the turf and not be in the players’ way. It’s just an easier tool to manage.”

The Eagles typically use nine cameras to shoot a training-camp practice, including three stationed on the roof of the NovaCare Complex. All of the cameras, including the MastRcam, the winchcams and polecams, are equipped with SD (Secure Digital) cards that transfer the practice video to the NovaCare’s computer system and allow the coaching staff to review the entire practice as soon as they leave the field and go to their offices.

“The goal is that by the time they get off the field and maybe change their shirt, everything is waiting for them,” Dolan said. “Occasionally, the last period of a practice might not be quite ready. But they generally start at the beginning and work their way through all of the team drills.

“Certainly, by the time they get ready, it’s all in there. It has all the data they need from the practice scripts, and they’re off and running.”

The Eagles still occasionally use the scissor lift when they’re practicing on multiple fields. But Dolan said they hope to eliminate them entirely soon.

“Maybe at the end of the season we’ll reevaluate and maybe we’ll be able to add another winchcam or two and eliminate them altogether,’’ he said.

Dolan estimates that between half to three-quarters of the league’s 32 teams are using at least one MastRcam and/or other video telescoping equipment.

“Nobody’s going to make a transition like this if the quality isn’t there,” he said. “But the quality is fantastic in all of the options.

“You have a built-in flexibility when guys are on the ground as opposed to being up in the air. If you’re 42 feet in the air, you’re on that little platform for the entirety of practice.

“If you watched our practice today, I had one gentleman who shot two different cameras. One winchcam and one polecam. I couldn’t do that if he was 42 feet in the air.

“The quality is there. The flexibility is there. There’s also the safety factor. If a storm were to roll through, he’s on the ground.”