By Tyler Devine
IOWA CITY, Iowa – On Oct. 5, 1985, Iowa quarterback Chuck Long scored a touchdown on a naked bootleg in the waning moments of the Hawkeyes’ 35-31 victory over Michigan State.
In the video clip, Iowa sports information director Phil Haddy is the first person to embrace Long after he scampers into the end zone to seal the win for the top-ranked Hawkeyes.
Somewhere in the scrum is photographer Don Roberts capturing one of the most memorable moments in Iowa football history.
Roberts, now 82 years old and walking with the assistance of a cane, recounts the moment during his daily, two-hour visit to George’s in Iowa City where he has been a regular for years.
He sips his drink of choice, Appleton Estate rum mixed with Diet Pepsi, and every once in a while, he pokes his index finger into his ear to turn up his hearing aid.
“I knew it had to come to the end zone,” Roberts said. “The side I picked was just luck. I actually wanted to have an angle toward the Iowa bench behind the action, so I was over there because of that.”
Roberts started working for the photography service at the University of Iowa in 1965. He was a summer replacement with no guarantee of steady employment. He had taken photography class in school but knew little beyond the basics. The athletic department had odd assignments every now and again and Roberts would do them.
“That’s kind of been my life,” Roberts said. “I just fall into things.”
Eventually, sports information director George Wine asked Roberts if he would like to shoot sporting events. Of course, Roberts agreed even though the compensation left something to be desired.
“It was freebies,” Roberts said. “I didn’t get paid. They didn’t even pay for the film. We just called it speculation to go shoot and if we could sell you some photos afterward then it works. It worked out fine. Excellent, as a matter of fact.”
Though he was shooting athletic events, Roberts was still a university photographer. The sports work was an added bonus, though at the height of football and basketball season Roberts worked 60 or 70 hours a week at times. He shot everything from opera dress rehearsals to physics experiments to group photos for university clubs, fraternities and sororities.
“Group shots,” Roberts said. “Always group shots. Fucking awful.”
From 1965 to 1996, Roberts captured on film some of the most memorable moments in Iowa sports history. Long’s bootleg. Rob Houghtlin’s field goal to beat No. 2 Michigan in 1985. Wrestling national championships at the height of Iowa’s dominance in the sport.
Roberts also witnessed some of the least memorable moments in Hawkeye sports history, namely the brutal stretch during the 1960s and 1970s when the football team did not have a winning record until 1981 and Kinnick Stadium sat mostly empty much of the time.
“In a way it was much better because there was no competition on the sidelines,” Roberts said. “There weren’t any networks there, just a few local papers and that’s about it. You could go anywhere, wander around. Finally, George Wine said we couldn’t use photos with empty seats in the background, so don’t shoot pictures with empty seats in the background. About the only thing I could do was go around on the other side of the field and shoot toward the Iowa side, and even that was not full.”
Though he was constantly spinning several plates, Roberts’ attitude never changed, according to Haddy.
“Whatever happened it was ‘Oh, well,’” Haddy said. “That’s the way it is. He took great pictures. This was at a time where there was no such thing as the athletic department having their own photographer. He was a university photographer, but at the same time he did basically everything that needed to be done. He did everything.
“I’ve never seen him be lazy. But at the same time, I don’t think I ever saw running fast or running or even walking fast. But he got everything done. What I’m saying is he was so easy going.”
Yes, Roberts is easy going, especially these days after a couple Appleton’s with Diet Pepsi, but his dedication to keeping track of the photographical history of Iowa athletics was anything but carefree.
“He was basically the historian of the archives of anything photographic for the athletic department,” Haddy said. “If I needed a picture from the 1920s, I would go to him and say ‘Don, what have you got from the 1920s football or basketball team?’ If there was anything to be had, he had it. He had it pretty well organized.”
Roberts’ department moved offices, so all of the old photo negatives were moved to special collections at the University of Iowa library to collect dust. Roberts spoke with the head archivist about what was being done with the negatives. The archivist said he was going through each game and keeping one negative regardless of whether or not it was a decent photo.
The work won’t receive any awards or public recognition, but the way Roberts talks about it, it is one of his proudest professional accomplishments. Eventually, it turned into a small revenue stream as former athletes and their families paid for old photos.
“It took years,” Roberts said. “I worked at it constantly.”
Serving as the de facto sports photo archivist also led to some humorous situations, like when former Hawkeye football star Alex Karras became a color commentator on Monday Night Football.
“ABC called and wanted pictures of him in action,” Roberts said. “Back then the only numbers they had were on their jerseys, front and back. If a lineman was doing his job, you couldn’t tell because he was buried. The only way you knew it was him was if he missed his block or he was running to get there. I gave them some of those and then some general line shots which I thought might be him, but I couldn’t tell.”
Another instance involved former Iowa wrestling coach Gary Kurdelmeier — who won two national championships in four seasons before a man by the name of Dan Gable took over — and who Roberts described as “kind of a weirdo.”
“He called me and the graphic arts manager over to talk about a promotion,” Roberts said. “We sat in his office. He sat there, looked around for a little bit and then said, ‘Concept!’ There was another long pause. ‘Execution!’ We were sitting there going ‘What the fuck is this?’ He finally got around to telling us what he wanted. A poster.”
Roberts also worked behind the scenes to help transform how Iowa football recruited when legendary head coach Hayden Fry came to Iowa in 1979. Roberts worked side-by-side with recruiting coordinator Bernie Wyatt to come up with more modern, and Midwestern, ways of recruiting players. Fry came from Texas where all that ruled was football and religion.
Fry’s recruiting literature at the time was a three-ring binder. Its pages alternated between photos Iowa coeds in bathing suits and photos of churches on and near campus with some campus facilities mixed in.
If Iowa was going to have its first winning season since 1960, it had to start on the recruiting trail.
“Bernie said he told Hayden that up here, we’re not so much recruiting kids, we’re recruiting mothers,” Roberts said. “The bathing beauties weren’t going to go over well, so we needed something better than that.
“He had the ideas. We came up with a printed booklet. About 60 pages, a lot of color in it. Lists of Hawkeyes that made All-American, the NFL and shit like that, as well as academic honors. And churches.”
Roberts’ life’s work hasn’t come without its consequences, though, especially physically. It just so happens that carrying 35-50 pounds a camera equipment for three decades takes a toll on one’s body.
“My whole body is riddled with arthritis which I think has to do with what I had to do, what I had to carry around,” Roberts said. “I’ve got a touch of COPD, which may have come from the dark room.”
Former Iowa athletic director Bump Elliott always made sure that the athletic department had a family atmosphere. For Haddy, Don Roberts is the epitome of what it meant to be a part of the Hawkeye family, even if he wasn’t a full-time member of the athletic department.
“Nobody was sitting there wondering when they were going to get their next promotion, when they’re going to get their next raise,” Haddy said. “Everybody was in it to do their job and everybody did what they had to do to make Iowa successful. Everybody, if it needed be, helped somebody else do their job.
“I can say without question Don was part of that family, too. He may have been in a different and all that, but he was around us enough that he was, as far as I was concerned, important enough that he was part of the athletic family.”
It is difficult to discern which photos Roberts shot without him being able to see them in person, but even he sometimes forgets which photos he captured. During his career, Roberts fought to have the names of university photographers on their work.
“I argued with the powers that be about this a lot and they said no, it was university material,” Roberts said. “Everything that came out of sports info said, ‘Property of the University of Iowa.’”
After years of being underfunded and overlooked, Roberts decided that before he retired, he would set up the photography department with nicer equipment. A colleague reported Roberts’ maverick stunt and he retired two weeks earlier than he originally planned to.
Roberts admits he got carried away. But does he regret it? No.
“I started talking to vendors and saying we had a limit on how much we could have on a purchase order,” Roberts said. “So what if we put this on two purchase orders? They would tell me that’s against a rules and I would say, ‘Yeah, but it’s the only way it’s going to work.’ These were things I learned in the Navy. When something needs to get done you find a way to get it done. I didn’t go out to break rules, I just ignored them a lot.”