“Damn right, I miss the Learjet,” says Walter Iooss Jr., the legendary Sports Illustrated photographer who will be shooting his 50th straight Super Bowl on February 7. Back at Super Bowl I, which was played on January 15, 1967 in Los Angeles, the magazine chartered two airplanes to shuttle film back to New York in time for the magazine’s close. One carried film back from the first half. After the game, Iooss and two colleagues, pictures in hand, rushed to catch the second cross-country flight, which stopped in frigid Grand Island, Nebraska to refuel. “The getaway was the most important part of the game,” says Iooss. “No film, no job.”
With technology, the getaway is long gone: Iooss and his fellow sports photographers can send images to their editors from anywhere in the world, in seconds. So are the Learjets: media companies like Time Inc., which own both Sports Illustrated and TIME and now face more intense competition for revenues, no longer frequently splurge on such luxuries. Iooss has witnessed, firsthand, a half-century evolution in the way sports are played, covered, and consumed. Iooss’ famous shot of Joe Namath hanging by a pool during Super Bowl week, chatting with reporters and guaranteeing titles, is impossible today, with Super Bowl QBs so cocooned. One thing, however, hasn’t changed one bit: the allure, and power, of a strong sports photo.
Iooss, who’s photographed everyone from Michael Jordan to Joe Montana, to Christie Brinkley and Heidi Klum for SI’s Swimsuit issue, has captured countless iconic moments. His Super Bowl favorites include Namath running off the field, holding one finger in the air after fulfilling his promise of a New York Jets upset, John Stallworth’s over-the-shoulder touchdown catch in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl XIV win over the Los Angeles Rams, and Mel Renfro of Dallas, head down, sitting alone on the bench in the fading sunlight, after a last-second field goal gave the Baltimore Colts a 16-13 win over the Cowboys in Super Bowl V. “You could never get that light anymore, as the games are played so late,” says Iooss, 72. “And forget about anyone being alone afterwards. Everyone rushes the field now, with confetti all over the place.”
After his cross-country flight following Super Bowl I, Iooss got the SI cover: a shot of Max McGee, the Green Bay Packers wide receiver who caught two touchdowns in the game, looking a bit strained while running with the football. Like McGee, Iooss partied hard the night before the game. “I don’t know who was more hungover,” Iooss says. “Me or McGee.”
Football is Iooss’ favorite sport to shoot. “It’s the greatest action sport,” he says. “In baseball, 70% of the good pictures happen when people are standing around, spitting, scratching their cup, smoking a cigarette. Football’s always been about the raw emotion.” Like many, Iooss worries about the health and safety of today’s stronger, faster NFL players participating in a brutal game. “We talk about guys who played 20, 30 years ago, how they’re in bad shape today,” says Iooss. “Well, what about the current guys? In 10 years, what is their future going to look like? Who’s going to let their kid play football? After so many of these hits, I can’t believe people get back up. I guess that’s part of the allure of the game. People love the gladiators, the warriors.”
Iooss is one of three photographers – John Biever and Mickey Palmer are the others – to shoot all 49 Super Bowls played to date. How does he feel about reaching 50? “It’s only an achievement because I’ve lived long enough to do it,” says Iooss. “There will probably be some emotion – 50 doesn’t come around along too often. I’m going to try to enjoy it as best as I can. It’s a special time, and a special year.” Once the game begins, however, Iooss won’t feel too wistful. “Listen,” he says, “I want to get the cover of that magazine.”
Sean Gregory is TIME’s sports writer.
Chelsea Matiash, who edited this photo essay, is deputy multimedia editor at TIME