By Bill Burt
Mary Schwalm grew up really wanting to play football. But being a female, the option was never presented to her so instead she played soccer, basketball, hockey and swam while in high school and college.
But guess who's going to be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, this August?
The 33-year-old Eagle-Tribune photographer won the 43rd Annual Pro Football Hall Fame Photo Contest for her shot during the Patriots-Packers game on Dec. 19, a Monday night contest, at Gillette Stadium.
The NFL's 2010 Photograph of the Year, titled "Thrill and Agony," captured Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez high-stepping into the end zone for a late, go-ahead touchdown while Packers cornerback Sam Shields is on hands and knees, in defeat, in the background.
"I saw the '330' area code on my phone and didn't recognize it, which is rare because of my work with (Associated Press) I've gotten to know area codes very well," said Schwalm, who resides in North Andover.
"Nobody had ever called me before from Canton (Ohio)," said Schwalm. "When they told me, I first wondered, 'Is this real? Are you kidding me?'"
The news got even better. She was told by the Pro Football Hall of Fame that she was the first woman to cop the honor.
"I couldn't believe that, with all of the great female photographers there are around the country shooting pro football," said Schwalm. "I am shocked that I'm the first woman. I remember thinking, 'There are so many other female photographers more accomplished than I am.' That's very humbling ... but I'll take it."
Schwalm got her first job in photography with AP in 2001, where she worked as a sports photo editor until 2006.
She joined The Eagle-Tribune about in May 2010 as a part-timer and then joined the staff as a full-timer in August.
"This is what I love," said Schwalm. "I enjoy every day. It's a dream job. I feel very lucky."
Speaking of feeling lucky, Schwalm said her "Hall of Fame" shot wasn't in the plans. In fact, to the contrary.
"In a lot of ways, I was out of position," recalled Schwalm. "I initially wanted get a spot on the sidelines of the end zone, but there wasn't any room. So I said, 'Aw hell, I'll curl around to the back of the end zone."
What happened next played to her strengths as a football fan. The Patriots trailed 27-24 in the fourth quarter and were on the 10-yard line, first and goal.
"I thought it would be a pass play," said Schwalm. "The only problem was I guessed the right side of the field. I had my short lens (camera) up, hoping the play would come to my side."
It did. And in retrospect, her position, relatively alone in the back of the end zone paid off.
She had a direct line of the pass play, from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to Hernandez.
"After the play, I knew had a unique angle," said Schwalm. "And the photographers on the sideline were too close to get the good shot."
When she turned in her photos immediately after the game, she realized she had a very good shot.
"One, Hernandez scored earlier in the game and he always reacts well after he scores," said Schwalm. "The fact that I got him waltzing into the end zone was great, but was even better because of the Packer on the turf in the background."
Schwalm receives a financial reward as well as an all-expenses paid trip to Canton for the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement festivities on Saturday, Aug. 6. She will be honored at the Enshrinees GameDay Roundtable, which will include Class of 2011 inductees - Richard Dent, Marshall Faulk, Chris Hanburger, Les Richter, Ed Sabol, Deion Sanders, and Shannon Sharpe.
"I grew up watching Deion Sanders. He was one of the incredible athletes when I was growing up. Marshall Faulk was the best running back in the NFL," she said. "I'm going to be in awe."
Schwalm's photo will be on display in a special exhibit which honors two NFL photos per year — one action and one feature. It will be at the Pro Football Hall of Fame as long as the museum to America's most popular sport is around.
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Judging was conducted at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on April 8 by a panel of prominent photo editors and photographers. The judges included Ben Liebenberg, Lead Photographer/ Photo Editor, National Football League; John Reid, III, Cleveland Browns Team Photographer; Brad Smith, Sports Picture Editor, The New York Times; Jim Surber, Senior Photo Editor, ESPN The Magazine; and Tony Tomsic, a nationally acclaimed freelance photographer who has shot every Super Bowl to date.