By Mike Coil Explorebigsky.com Contributor

MSU quarterback DeNarius McGhee filled my viewfinder. I was totally in the moment. I could hear my camera firing at 9 frames per second. I could hear the sound of other cameras near me on the sidelines, but mostly I was focused on McGhee.

I worked the zoom ring on my lens to keep the viewfinder filled with the action. I could see his strain and exertion as he came around the left side and tried to turn up field. I also could see five thundering North Dakota Buffalo players right behind him, also straining and exerting to make the play. They were headed straight for me. I flinched, lowered my camera and scrambled out of the way as the mass of football players fell, slid, crashed and tumbled into the space I had occupied a split second before.

The sight of all those huge, male humans, the noise, the grunting and groaning, the clash of helmets on helmets, the smell of sweat and the roar of the players and the crowd was extraordinary. At that moment I realized again how incredibly lucky we, as photographers, are to photograph football.

For the last several seasons I’ve had the good fortune to shoot the Lone Peak Big Horns, the Bozeman Hawks and the MSU Bobcats for the Big Sky Weekly and explorebigsky.com. People often ask me what it’s like to be so close to the action and how I get some of the photos that show up here and on explorebigsky.com. I tell them it’s not like anything else you do as a photographer.

The contrast between Class C, six-man football and the MSU games is extraordinary. On one Saturday there were games in both venues. By shooting until half time at the LPHS game and then dashing for town, I walked into Bobcat stadium in the middle of the second quarter and got great photos from both games.

Bobcat stadium (pictured at left) magnifies the noise of the crowd, the constant rumble turning into a deafening roar during the introduction of the players, or a touchdown. The action is faster in college ball, and the players are bigger and more uniform in size. The field at Bobcat Stadium is also longer than the 80-yard six-man field. Cheerleaders and all kinds of other people make the MSU games crowded and congested.

Six-man football has its own charm. As a photographer, I’m very close to the action, and I often get to chat with players, fans and parents. Kids playing six-man football give it their all, just like athletes at MSU.

During the game I move up and down the sidelines, always trying to be in position for the perfect shot. That’s when I see things seldom shown on TV, that you don’t notice from the grandstands.

Without their helmets, the players become individuals with their own personalities, voices and sweatbands. They’re also young. At the high school level, some of them are much smaller than others. They sometimes seem vulnerable and scared, but also proud and happy to be in a football uniform on a fall afternoon playing this game with friends and classmates.

In the college arena, there is a bench toward the back of the team area that slowly fills with injured players, ice packs bound to knees or shoulders, helmets on the ground, heads down. Players aren’t happy here. They want to be back in the action.

The football field at LPHS (pictured at right) is grass, as compared to the Bobcat’s astro turf. As the grass is worn down, the players end up with mud and grass stains on their uniforms, and it seems more like real football. When my camera fires at high speed at Bobcat Stadium, I can catch a plastic dust around a player’s feet as he runs or slides. I had no idea astro turf made its own fake dust.

Football has moments of sublime beauty. With a high-speed camera, you occasionally capture a split second of action otherwise invisible. You find these shots later when editing in front of your computer monitor. Although the burly players wouldn’t admit it, some of the movements almost look like choreographed ballet.

We have no covered stadiums in Montana. The kids play regardless of the weather. At the beginning of the season, everyone on the sidelines is in shorts and sandals. By the end, especially during playoffs, it can be snowy and cold. In the Hawks game for the state championship in 2010, huge waves of snow swept the stadium, blowing horizontally. I’m always amazed my Nikons continue faithfully firing away, in spite of the harsh conditions.

It’s rare in today’s sports world to get a first of anything. Because the Big Horn football program is only in its second season, they have had a lot of firsts that will forever stand in the history of the program. The team went scoreless for several quarters during the start of their first season in 2011.

Finally, Tucker Shea broke free on a running play against Fromberg on Sept. 3, 2011 and streaked for the endzone. What happened next couldn’t have turned out any better even if Shea and I had scripted the sequence in advance. As he crossed into the end zone he came around to face the camera, and thrust the ball skyward in celebration, just as he ran past the goal post displaying the Big Horn name. It was a perfect moment. Tucker Shea had the first touchdown in school history, LPHS was officially on the scoreboard. My photo was the next Weekly cover shot, on Sept. 9, 2011.

The Hawks run for the 2010 state championship was memorable, too. As the clock wound down on that cold November night, it was apparent Bozeman was about to win its first championship in 93 years. The excitement was palpable, with the players, coaches, parents, students and fans on their feet and cheering. At 10 seconds they began chanting the countdown. At seven, the team broke for the center of the field in a powerful surge that carried the photographers and news crews with them. I ran with them, shooting with both cameras. Then I looked back as the crowd was pouring out of the grandstands and across the security fencing onto the field. The next 30 minutes was unmitigated joy and pandemonium.

But there would be no teams, fans, stadiums, games or football photography without the young men who love to play the game, who sacrifice their time and energy, and endure pain and injury to play. We love football. At our high schools. At MSU. At the pro level. It truly is our national game. For me, it’s a privilege to shoot football at all levels.

Go Big Horns! Go Hawks! Go Cats!