How photographer Steve Musco settled on the Yale sidelines — and managed a year with no games to shoot
Musco, who was born in New Haven, has been a volunteer photographer for Yale Athletics since 2015 after developing his sports photography skills at Florida State.
A camera is a box with a mirror, a curved piece of glass and a black curtain that opens and closes to expose a sensor to light. It is unapologetically and unemotionally a tool. But when it is in the hands of someone who knows how to be in the right place at the right time, it can be magic.
For Yale Athletics, Steve Musco is the magician. Musco has been a volunteer photographer for the department since 2015. Whether it was in the 2018 NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse national championship or the dwindling light of the 2019 Yale-Harvard football game, Musco has trained his lens on hundreds of Eli athletes.
But this magic — the ability to click the shutter and capture achievement for the eyes of history — was not an easy discovery for Musco.
“The main thing I love about photography is how it touches people’s lives,” Musco said. “How we capture a moment that might be only once, but we were there to capture it … a first goal, a first hit, a first basket. We might take it as an insignificant hobby … but we don’t know how much it touches someone’s life.”
Musco’s beginnings: The New Haven Nighthawks and Florida State Seminoles
Musco grew up about a mile away from the Yale Bowl, where he and his brother John would go watch the games and eventually work as rope guards for the Bulldogs in exchange for tickets. Those trips to the Bowl, along with his participation in youth leagues, sparked an early passion for sports.
He put his passion to work when he enrolled in college at Quinnipiac in 1969, where he earned a spot on the baseball team with no prior experience. After a successful season on the freshman team, he found himself at third string on the varsity team. Pairing his time on the bench with his natural skill for mathematics, Musco took in-depth statistics on each game from the dugout and eventually for other Quinnipiac sports through the University’s sports information department.
He parlayed that into a professional hobby while he was still in school, getting a job as a statistician in 1972 for the New Haven Nighthawks, a now-defunct American Hockey League team, after hanging around at the facility doing odd tasks for a year before the team arrived.
“I beat out all kinds of experienced people, which didn’t make any sense,” Musco said. “I got five dollars a game and two tickets.”
Musco worked the job alongside his full-time position in the computer industry for two years until an athletic trainer position with the Nighthawks came open in 1974. Musco, who had no medical experience, said he got the job after spending every day in the emergency room shadowing surgeons for six weeks.
Paul Marslano, a New Haven Register sports reporter who attributed Musco’s hiring to budget cuts, lambasted the hiring decision in an article, writing that “we can only offer advice to be careful where the financial cuts are made. A wrong slice could be fatal to the precious meat.”
Musco excelled in the role and found a passion for physical therapy, chasing it all the way down to Florida for a second academic pursuit. Musco graduated from physical therapy school with an athletic training certificate from Florida International University in 1983 and worked in physical therapy and athletic training in the Sunshine State through the 1980s, with the crowning achievement of being an athletics trainer at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, California.
Then disaster struck.
“I ended up getting sick,” Musco said. “I had melanoma. I came back to Miami with a poor prognosis. They told me I had a less than 40 percent chance of living five years, that I probably wouldn’t make it two years.”
Musco was 36 years old when he received the diagnosis.
He opted to take experimental medicine and underwent multiple surgeries.
“And I am still here today,” he said from his New Haven home in a phone interview with the News. “Very blessed.”
Following his recovery, Musco married. The family followed his step-daughter, who had graduated college at Florida State, by moving to Tallahassee. He worked his way up at Tallahassee Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy, a private practice that was associated with the Florida State team’s physicians, but he said he “hated being a director” and did not have the disposition for a managerial position.
In the early 2000s, he left the private practice and took a job at an area hospital. He also had an inkling: Back in his days with the Nighthawks, he owned a camera, and his younger brother John was a hired photographer for the New Haven team.
One night, one of his hospital coworkers asked him to tag along to a basketball game as fans. Steve brought along his new digital camera to practice, as he was new to the digital world. On that night, he created magic for the first time.
“I caught a picture of one of the FSU players at the far end dunking the ball on somebody,” Musco said. “I brought it into work and blew it up and showed it to my coworker. He said, ‘You gotta give this to the guy!’”
Musco said his coworker knew the athletics trainer for the team, and Musco did not let his opportunity pass. The trainer posted it in the locker room, and Musco said, “The players went crazy.”
Over the next decade, Musco photographed hundreds of games for the Seminoles, including the football team’s national championship victory in 2013.
Back home in Connecticut: Shooting Yale games
In 2013, Musco moved back to Connecticut with his wife. His parents had recently passed at the time, he said, and the majority of his family still lived in Connecticut. Photography furthered his connection to being back home. Now, he had a skill that he could apply at the university he grew up around: Yale.
He connected with Steve Conn, then an associate athletics director and director of sports publicity at Yale Athletics. Conn worked out a deal with Musco, allowing him the freedom to sell his images to parents and athletes and an official credential. In return, Musco shared his shots with the Athletic Department. Conn said there was no budget set aside for an in-house photographer, but added that Musco was compensated for several special media projects.
Since that meeting in 2015, Musco has photographed five years of Yale sporting events, often photographing up to 3 games in a single day. His family tries to get him to limit himself, specifically John, who tells him, “Steve, Steve, Steve, slow down buddy!”
But he does not. Other than the occasional sale of a print through his website, which he says tallies to only a couple hundred dollars a year, Musco photographs the games for free.
“Photography has never been a business,” said Musco, who is now retired. “It has always been a hobby.”
John, whom Steve still refers to as the “photographer of the family,” sees it a bit differently.
“It’s called passion,” he said.
Musco’s final game before the pandemic was Yale men’s hockey’s ECAC playoff game against Union on March 8, 2020, a game he photographed with John. John remembers sharing frustration with how small the crowd was.
“There’s like 300 people there,” John said. “And we are looking at each other like … ‘Don’t people want to support their team?’ And of course this was when people were starting not to go anywhere.”
The crowd was a sign of what was to come. The men’s hockey team’s next game against Quinnipiac was canceled, and the rest of the athletic calendar followed. John recalls how tough losing Yale sports was for Steve.
“It has been crushing,” John said. “When you go from being busy and shooting a thousand pictures a week to taking pictures of the flowers outside, it’s not the same.”
But Steve had other trials to worry about. A couple of months into the pandemic, he fell ill and spent two weeks in the hospital, eventually requiring surgery. His priorities shifted. “When was it going to end?” Steve remembers wondering. “Being a high medical risk, that was my first concern.”
Musco is now recovered, and he spent his spare time during the process sifting through his archives, digitizing old photos and printing his favorites.
His illness put life into perspective, he said, and he has not necessarily felt convicted to pick up his camera again.
“The hardest part for me coming back will be finding the photography motivation again,” Musco said.
John is betting on a passionate return, however.
“I’ll bet when we get through this and fall sports start, he will go back once he picks up that camera,” John said. “It’s a passion. He will say, ‘Hey! You want to go shoot a soccer game?’ And we will go.”
For now, Steve continues to lie low at his doctor’s request. He just received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but it has not allowed him to ease up on his strict guidelines — not even for his little brother. Last weekend, after Steve got his first vaccine shot, John gave it a try, inviting his brother to the diner, but Steve said no.
The diner will presumably still be there in several months. And Steve hopes sports will be back, too. But until then, he lies in wait, ready to pounce when the time is right to make and document more magic.
Musco was born in New Haven in 1952.
Lukas Flippo | email@example.com
Correction, March 10: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Musco worked in the sports medicine department at Florida State University — he worked at a private practice associated with Florida State. Also, Musco underwent a single surgery, not multiple. The story has been updated.