Celebrating 25 years in pictures with John F. Russell
The year was 1990, summer was in the air and I was looking for a job after recently graduating from the University of Colorado in Boulder.
A few — well, two to be exact — interviews later, I found myself on the phone with former Steamboat Pilot Editor Dee Richards. I had driven to Steamboat Springs a day earlier and interviewed for a job at the paper.
Now that she was on the phone, I needed to make a choice, and I needed to make it fast. She wanted me to start as soon as possible, and while I was new to the world of newspapers, I had already decided Dee was one of those people you didn’t want to put off.
So I agreed to take the job, but I’m not sure I realized at the time that I had accepted a job would stretch 25 years, take me to three Olympic Games and introduce me to a community that would support me in the good times and comfort me in the tough times.
Since agreeing to produce a retrospective of my work over the past 25 years, I’ve been struggling with how to tell the story that spans a quarter of a century. So much has happened during that time that it would be difficult to pick one key moment that has defined my career, one event I would call my “ah-ha” moment and one project I can say was the reason I became a journalist.
In college, I was guided by professor Paul Moloney, who had worked at the Greeley Tribune from 1956 to 1981. After a long career in community journalism, Moloney used his talents to guide a new generation, or, should I say, generations of photographers.
Some of my college buddies who studied photography under Moloney went on to achieve great things — one is the director of photography at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, and another is working for the Associated Press.
Those are impressive jobs, but truthfully, I’m very happy I’ve spent the past 25 years working in Steamboat Springs. It’s the longest period of time I’ve ever been in one place, and that tenure has allowed me to tell a story that really doesn’t have a beginning or an end. It’s the story of our community.
In that time, I’ve seen the good that Steamboat Springs has to offer, and I’ve been witness to the bad. I would love to forget the hundreds of auto accidents I’ve covered, the murders, the airplane crashes and all the bad news that has rocked Steamboat Springs over the years. But through those tough times, I’ve come to know a community that is generous, helpful and healing. Sure, other communities have to deal with the bad stuff, but I’ve discovered Steamboat’s character shines brightest on some of its darkest days.
I’ve witnessed the highs of 2010 Winter Olympic Games, when hometown favorites Todd Lodwick, Johnny Spillane and Billy Demong, who adopted this community for most of his formative years, climbed the steps of the Olympic podium to the top of the world.
But because I was there six years earlier, I realized that moment was special because of what had unfolded at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Park City, Utah, when the U.S. Nordic Combined Ski Team had fallen just short of its Olympic medal, placing fourth in the final standings.
I’m happy that my time in Steamboat Springs has reached beyond the Olympic stage, beyond the athletic playing fields and beyond the world of sports.
Many of my experiences in Steamboat have been recorded through the lens of my camera, and in this edition of the Steamboat Pilot, I’m going to share the images that drive my passion for journalism and inspire me to keep picking up that camera for another 25 years.
View a photo gallery of the 25 years in photos here:
Looking back: My favorite column
I wrote this column in August 2003 after meeting bullfighter Rob Smets for an unrelated story. During the interview, I asked Smets what the name on his jersey signified, and he told me this story and showed me the letter. That conversation resulted in the following column, which has always been one of my favorites because it shows that some professional athletes really do care about their fans.
Cowboys make good heroes (August 2003)
I never met 9-year-old Ryan Battistoni, but I would guess his heroes have always been cowboys.
Ryan loved to watch bull riding, and his hero was Rob Smets, a bullfighter who is one of the biggest stars of the Professional Bull Riders circuit. Smets’ flair in the rodeo arena sparked a light in Ryan’s eyes and inspired him to dream about rodeo the same way other kids dream about football or baseball.
Ryan aspired to be just like Smets and wanted nothing more than to attend a PBR event featuring his hero. But Ryan had a brain tumor and was often too sick to go to events such as the PBR.
Telecasts of the Built Ford Tough Cup, however, brought Smets into the young boy’s house each week and allowed the PBR bullfighter to make an impression that lasted a lifetime.
Ryan was captivated by the way Smets took a knee on a dusty arena floor and smacked a 1,500-pound bull across the nose to pull its attention from a fallen cowboy.
In the boy’s eyes, Smets was larger than life. Ryan sat down and wrote a letter to his hero, including a poem he had written himself and a promise that, when he got to heaven, he was going to be the bullfighter’s guardian angel.
Until Smets received that letter, fighting bulls and protecting cowboys was how the cowboy made his living. He never gave much thought to the lives he touched on the other side of the small screen.
But all that changed after reading Ryan’s words. The boy’s admiration was humbling — especially when Smets learned Ryan was dying.
Smets’ efforts to get the boy tickets to a PBR event and arrange a meeting were in vain. By the time he made contact, just days later, he learned Ryan was dead.
But before Ryan left this world, he managed to do something very few sports fans will ever accomplish — he opened his hero’s eyes to the real world.
Smets was floored to learn he was Ryan’s hero. Ryan’s mom told him her son had undergone 21 different surgeries, but his love for rodeo never faded.
When cancer treatments caused his hair to fall out, Ryan stuffed paper in his cowboy hat to make it fit better. When the cards were on the table, Ryan’s thoughts were not on his own well-being, but on that of the man he called his hero.
“His strength and bravery were things to be admired,” Smets said. “I’m not sure that I deserve a guardian angel, but I am glad to have Ryan as mine.”
Smets has since embroidered Ryan’s name on all of his jerseys and has dedicated himself to making sure he always sets a good example for children who look up to him. That’s something more sports figures should try to do.
Ryan Battistoni never got the chance to step into a rodeo arena, but there is no doubt he would have made a great bullfighter. It makes me wonder why all of my heroes are not cowboys.
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