Since his days in the youth leagues, if Ryan Switzer is on the football field, his dad Michael is somewhere around holding a camera. That has never stopped — not when Ryan went from youth leagues to George Washington High, from GW to a record-setting career at the University of North Carolina or from UNC to the NFL.
Michael Switzer, a professional photographer and owner of Michael Switzer DesignWorks, has chronicled his son’s football career throughout. He’s the only pro photographer with a son in the NFL, a fact that caught the eye of NFL Films, which featured father and son in a short film broadcast on the NFL Network on Dec. 26 and can still be seen on the NFL Films YouTube page.
Michael Switzer said NFL Films approached him in June. The executive producer had searched on Google, saw a previous story about the two and thought it would be a great story for NFL Films. It’s a spotlight on what has been a labor of love for Michael Switzer, who wanted to make sure those memories would stay sharp for his son.
“Like a lot of things, I think you appreciate it more as time passes,” Michael Switzer said. “You couldn’t say I knew he was going to play in the NFL when he was 8. I just knew how much fun it was being a part of that whole progression. And then you get enthralled with everything that’s going and how cool the stories are. It’s such a cool opportunity.
“At the end of it, it’d be really sad to say, ‘Man, we really should have gotten photos of this,’ ” he added. “I never wanted to be in that position.”
He hasn’t been. Switzer watched and photographed Ryan win two Kennedy Awards in high school. He did the same as Ryan became the Tar Heels’ career leader in receptions and receiving yards and one of the most prolific punt returners in NCAA history. He was there with the camera for the avalanche of emotions that came with being a fourth-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys and followed him through his time with the Cowboys, Oakland Raiders and now the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If there has been anything Michael Switzer has needed to deal with during this journey, it has been balancing being a photographer with being a dad. Ryan has provided reels and reels of highlights for his dad to shoot. And, being Ryan’s dad, Michael Switzer’s first instinct is to celebrate his son’s triumphs. Yet he needs to switch gears in milliseconds. The last thing he wants is to miss immortalizing that triumph in a photograph.
More than any on-field highlight, Michael Switzer loves that he has been able to record Ryan’s emotions. Michael calls them “sportraits,” views of an athlete that go beyond any physical feat. One he mentioned in the NFL Films vignette came when Ryan was 10 and playing a youth-league game. Both his hands were on his hips, his helmet hanging from the fingers of his right hand and an intense look on his face.
Another came when he surprised Ryan in Washington D.C. He didn’t tell the then-Cowboy he had a photographer’s pass for the game, but he popped up in front of his son as the team took the field and captured a wide smile.
There are plenty of smiles in the photos Michael takes of Ryan — cutting up with teammates, talking with coaches or just throwing his head back and laughing. That’s what Michael has wanted to record most, the joy his son feels as he has traveled the path from the Kanawha Valley youth fields to the NFL.
“He really enjoys it,” Michael Switzer said. “He loves the camaraderie with the guys. He’s focused and he enjoys it, but he knows it’s a game and it’s something he’s wanted to do. I know he appreciates that.”