In 40 years as a camera operator and technical innovator, Deena Sheldon has truly done it all. Not only has the nine-time Sports Emmy Award winner worked nearly every major sports event many times over, but her trailblazing work behind the camera has helped revolutionize the way live sports broadcasts are presented.
“A simple listing of the events Deena has covered over her long career in sports TV is impressive enough and speaks to her mastery of her craft,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and on-air talent Bob Costas, a longtime friend and mentor. “What that list would not reflect is Deena’s endearing personality. It could be 5 degrees below zero in Green Bay, and, even under those brutal circumstances, her ever-present smile, love of her work, and appreciation for her colleagues shine through. Deena is not only great at what she does; she is simply one of the nicest people I have ever worked with.”
A Résumé That Speaks for Itself
On the lengthy list of events for which Sheldon has run camera are 12 Super Bowls, 17 Daytona 500s, 17 Indy 500s, 24 Triple Crown races (including two Triple Crown winners), six US Open Tennis Championships, and three Olympic Games. She spent 12 years shooting ABC’s Monday Night Football and another 12 shooting NBC’s Sunday Night Football in 36 years covering the NFL for various networks. Sheldon has also been part of the coverage of such iconic events as the World Series, America’s Cup, NBA Finals, NCAA Final Four, The Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open Golf Championship, and the Ryder Cup.
“Deena is one of the most prepared and knowledgeable camera operators I’ve ever worked with,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Fred Gaudelli, who has worked alongside Sheldon regularly during his 33 seasons producing NFL games for primetime. “Her ability to identify players, coaches, general managers, owners, and wives is unparalleled. Her ability to get those shots prior to being asked is part of what separates her as a member of the crew. Her devotion to making the show great is on display for all to see just by observing her work.”
Sheldon’s accomplishments aren’t limited to sports, however. She has also been an integral part of the coverage of nine presidential inaugurations and three presidential funerals, as well as countless presidential debates and political conventions.
“In the trenches, she was always a step ahead, creating the right shots at the right moment and capturing the big action down to the smallest, impactful, emotional details,” says legendary ABC News director Roger Goodman. “She always had the shot.”
In addition, she is a technological innovator who helped create multiple custom-camera systems and a pioneering 3D producer, having worked on eight 3D feature films and served as co-VP of the Sports and Entertainment Division of Cameron | Pace Group for Oscar-winning director James Cameron and Emmy Award winner Vince Pace ASC during the heyday of live 3D sports broadcasts and 3D concert films in the 2010s.
Despite working in a trade traditionally dominated by men (she is the first female camera operator to be inducted), Sheldon has proved herself not only one of the most gifted camera operators in sports-broadcasting history but also one of the most beloved and endearing figures to set foot in a production compound.
“Deena Sheldon is built for this job, mentally, physically, and professionally,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and on-air talent Lesley Visser. “Have you ever seen her high-beam smile right before she goes into the middle of a postgame scrum to get the perfect shot? She’s enormously talented, people love her, and she gets the job done. Those of us on this side of the camera get to thank her every time we work with her. She does everything at the highest level.”
Growing Up With an Eye for Sports and Live TV
Sports and journalism were at the forefront of the Groveland, MA, native’s upbringing. Her father, Fred Sheldon, qualified for the 1956 Melbourne Summer Olympics in track and field but opted to join the Air Force instead. He would go on to become a track coach and a professor in athletic training, as well as a fire fighter and auctioneer. Sheldon’s mother, Penny Sheldon, was a reporter and photographer for the Newburyport Daily News and a contributor to the Boston Globe and several other newspapers.
“It was a great atmosphere to nurture whatever I wanted to explore,” Sheldon says. “My parents were remarkably supportive of whatever I wanted to pursue. I credit them for instilling in me the work ethic that has shaped how I approach everything: always be prepared, study, practice, and get there early. Most important, they instilled the philosophy of ‘doing the best you can.’”
In 1975, Sheldon was watching the inaugural season of NBC’s Saturday Night Live when she saw camera operator Bailey Stortz flying around the studio on the crane camera. And, at age 13, she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
Growing up, she took part in a variety of sports, from track to horseback riding, as well as dance classes beginning at the age of 3. She earned a spot on the National Ballroom Championship Formation Team, Pro-Am Division in 1977.
In addition to providing a leg up during her brief career as a stuntwoman, Sheldon adds, her extensive participation in athletics and dance during her youth helped prepare her for what would become her life’s work: covering sports from behind the camera.
“Learning things ‘in reverse,’ in a mirror in the dance studios, would prove to become quite useful later in my career,” she says, “when I was asked to operate the ‘reverse cart.’”
Getting Started in the Industry
After graduating from Boston University with a degree in broadcast and film and a minor in computer programming, Sheldon responded to an ad announcing a sports job at Continental Cablevision in Woburn, MA.
“Abby Casper, the station manager, asked if I knew anything about sports,” she recalls. “I said yes, and she said, ‘Then you’re hired.’ We had a group outing at a Red Sox Game one day, and I said to myself, The next time I attend a game at Fenway, I want to be operating one of those cameras. Not long after, my dream came true.”
In 1985, she started at CBS O&O WSBK-TV Boston, covering the Red Sox and Bruins. She soon found herself operating the first-base–dugout camera for all Red Sox productions and, by 1986, was regularly running camera on NFL and MLB broadcasts for various networks. Moving to New York, she began covering the Mets for WWOR-TV with Rick Miner, Jeff Mitchell, Dan Reagan, Matt Ryan, and Bill Webb and the Yankees and NY Islanders for SportsChannel and also worked for a variety of news outlets and studio shows in the city.
Legacy of Iconic Images on the Gridiron
In 1994, ABC’s Monday Night Football director Craig Janoff and producer Kenny Wolfe offered Sheldon her first opportunity to operate a handheld camera, during a Steelers-Vikings game. She would go on to capture some of the most iconic moments in NFL history during 12 years working handheld, sideline cart cam, and multiple other positions on MNF before transitioning to NBC’s Sunday Night Football in 2006. She also worked NFL postseason and other marquee games for CBS Sports, Fox Sports, and other broadcasters.
“Deena is today and was for us at ABC Sports a remarkable and very talented woman, who — during Monday Night Football, the Kentucky Derby, or any other presentation — completely understood the needs of the production and her purpose with fitting in,” says Janoff. “She always fulfilled the need of the producer and director and, beyond that, brought to the table a great attitude and consistency, always with a smile. Dee took pride in learning the nuance of each sport, which allowed her to be smart visually and react in an instant. This energy towards understanding the most detailed parts of the game always put her in position to be where she needed to be to help us tell the story.”
That energy is especially apparent whenever she works the NFL sidelines, where she has arguably made her most indelible mark on the art of sports storytelling. Always arriving several hours early for the call-time, Sheldon uses this time to “get centered and make sure everything is working like it should be. I start practicing my moves and finding my landmarks that enable me to find people as fast as possible.”
She also works closely with the producer, director, and often the announcers to establish key storylines during the “game before the game,” emphasizing players who are questionable with injuries and other pregame subplots. Once the ball is kicked off, few if any in the business have her knack for capturing the perfect shot at the perfect moment, telling the story to the viewer at home in a single frame.
“Deena has always prepared like a coach, talent, or producer,” says longtime NBC Sunday Night Football director and fellow 2022 Hall of Fame inductee Drew Esocoff. “She knew every nuance of the subject matter, whether it was for a football game or a horse race. She is the consummate pro.”
Beyond Sports: News, Entertainment, Inaugurations
Of course, Sheldon’s mastery of her craft extends way past the gridiron. From working handheld on the straightaway just inches from an Indy 500 or Daytona 500 track to covering the unrivaled pageantry of Churchill Downs to capturing aerial shots from blimps and helicopters, Sheldon is a camera operator of seemingly limitless talents.
On the news side, she has covered historical events, including nine consecutive presidential inaugurations at the U.S. Capitol and a trio of presidential funerals at the Washington National Cathedral.
“As a director,” says Goodman, “I could almost take her camera blind. That’s how much I trusted her eye. And, to get the shot, nothing stood in her way — whether she was surrounded on the playing field by jousting crews or on the convention floor in the thick of rallying politicos. Her dedication to her craft and ability to know what/when/who to capture is a testimony to her astonishing talent.”
Among her most thrilling moments working news, Sheldon found herself running camera at 3:30 a.m. before President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, just as the crowd was running onto the National Mall.
“Roger [Goodman] saw that,” she recalls, “and he asked video to open up the iris as much as possible on my camera and throw in some gain, as I was positioned on the balustrade, to see what was happening. It was overwhelming to witness. The ‘thunderous’ applause was so loud when President-Elect Barack Obama stepped out onto the podium that the reverberation was ‘felt’ all the way up the mall to the balustrade.”
She has also been behind the lens for a wide array of studio shows, including on Late Night With David Letterman, and ran camera for the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donahue, Jay Leno, Joan Rivers, Barbara Walters, Ellen DeGeneres, Jeff Foxworthy and George Lopez. Other key programs for NBC have included NFL Today, Today, Live at Five, Another World, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on NBC.
A Technical Innovator Through and Through
In 2005, Sheldon and her longtime partner in business and in life, Jeff Zachary, were asked by Vince Pace to join him at his company PACE. Sheldon and Zachary contributed significant input in designing and testing the 3D-camera rigs that would be used on the early live-3D sports productions and 3D concert films of the early 2010s.
Pace and Cameron then brought Sheldon and Zachary on as co-VPs, Sports and Entertainment Division, for the newly formed Cameron | Pace Group. The pair played a major role in producing and shooting live 3D sports broadcasts, including the first-ever live transmission of 3D during an NBA game, as well as the Ryder Cup, The Masters, and the NCAA Final Four Championship.
She also helped shoot and produce eight 3D concert feature films for U2, Metallica, Glee, Justin Bieber, Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Cirque du Soleil, and the Official Olympic Film of the Vancouver Olympics (Bud Greenspan’s final Olympics film).
In addition to groundbreaking efforts in 3D production, Sheldon and Zachary have also teamed up to provide viewers with angles never seen before, inventing the RoverCam, BoatCam, FirstDownCam, and the KickingCam, with innovator Patrick Campbell.
“Deena has been well-known for her camera expertise for years,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and Hall of Fame Chairman Ken Aagaard, “but what stands out about her in my mind is her ability to innovate new types of camera systems that have been able to enhance sports broadcasts.”
Throughout her career, Sheldon has also worked closely with major camera and lens manufacturers, including Canon and Cartoni, to field-test products and provide invaluable feedback to improve products for the industry at large.
“Deena Sheldon is a passionate, strong, trailblazer who contributes to prove women’s excellence as a camera operator in a male-dominated industry,” says Cartoni President/CEO Elisabetta Cartoni. “Deena believed in Cartoni innovations and has used our Magnum head for many years in major sports events. She contributed to set the specs of our Sport 200 tripod and is one of our esteemed advisors.”
Canon USA National Accounts Sales Director Rich Eilers adds, “You always knew how to find Deena at the NAB Show: she would be in our booth on the pedestal holding court by one of our longest field lenses, with a crowd of Canon engineers surrounding her. Her incredible operational knowledge would have all of our engineers busily taking notes to understand from Deena how to make our lenses more comfortable and efficient for the camera operator to use. From those discussions, lots of important functional improvements were made that all big lens operators benefit from today.”
Forty Years in and Still Living the Dream
Although her impressive résumé needs no further validation, she arrives in the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame as the first female camera operator — only the fourth camera operator overall — to be inducted. Her career has certainly blazed a trail for an entire generation of women, and she remains as active and in demand as ever — continuing to explore, innovate, and find that next perfect shot.
“I have always lived with Vince Lombardi’s philosophy of ‘Practice harder than you are going to play,’” she says. “As my father once wrote to me in a letter decades ago, ‘To be honored by one’s peers is the greatest honor of all.’ I am deeply grateful and humbled by the most incredible honor I have ever received. To be included in the Class of 2022 is much like seeing a shooting star illuminate the night sky: I am in awe and full of gratitude.”