For two days last August E:60 producer Ben Houser followed Mike Reeder around two of the lesser-known of the five courses at St. Andrews in Scotland. On the third day Houser arose well before dawn.
Reeder, 63, of Franklin, Tennessee, was about to become the first wheelchair golfer to play the Old Course, the ancestral home of golf, one of the most iconic locations in all of sport.
Reeder had lost both of his legs below in the knee in 1970, in a mortar explosion, while serving as a medic in Vietnam. He took up golf in 1988, shot par at his home course in 2001, and dreamed of playing St. Andrews with his golf buddy, Mike Bilbrey.
But Bilbrey never made it - cancer took him in 2009. Before he died he asked Reeder to spread his ashes on the Old Course. Reeder made the journey in August 2010, funded by the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Which is why Houser found himself, with a local Scotsman, assembling a jib camera near the Swilcan Bridge - the most iconic landmark at St. Andrews - before sunrise.
“The jib gives you a different perspective,” Houser said. “It allows you to see the majestic nature of that course, and also gives you very smooth movement.”
At sunrise, when Reeder rolled across the fairway in his wheelchair, the jib was ready, as were Houser’s two other cameras.
“We waited for the sun to come up on the horizon, so that it framed our shot,” Houser said. “It was between the bridge and Reeder as he wheeled toward the bridge. When he was on the bridge we had this big jib overhead.”
The sunrise shot in “Dead Solid Perfect” speaks for itself, for sheer beauty.
But the emotional climax came later in the day, after Reeder teed off on the 14th hole. He climbed out of his golf cart, accompanied by his wife, and carried Bilbrey’s ashes to the sand trap known as Hell Bunker. Houser’s main shooter positioned at the edge of the bunker, while Houser held a second camera from another angle.
As Reeder spread the ashes over the sand, and bid farewell to his friend, he was seized with grief. When he walked away from the bunker, he sobbed. Houser got it all.
“A guy with a boom mike was standing there right over top of him - but out of the frame so you can’t see him,” Houser said.
From the Old Course to your screen, another E:60 trail of tears.
“What you saw was real,” said Houser. “Witnessing it, obviously not knowing Mike Bilbrey, and only knowing Reeder for a short time, to have him open up his world and allow ESPN to document what happened, to be a fly on the wall as he’s doing that, takes a lot of trust. I was thinking from a producer’s standpoint, what an amazing moment to capture. Most of the time you don’t have people open up the most intimate things in their life.
“Lots of times a story will just cover that moment with a track, ‘oh, and he spread the ashes’. Or we’ll do a recreation or cover it with a photo. But we literally had it. The way it happened is the way you saw it.”
Reeder emoted for E:60, Houser suspected, because he had come to know Houser and his crew in the two days before he played the Old Course.
On the second day, Houser recalled, one of the cameras had moved too close to Reeder as he hit a tee shot.
“Hey, you got a little close that time,” Reeder said.
That moment, Houser later realized, was crucial in establishing rapport and trust.
“By Day 3 he had played 36 holes with us,” Houser said. “He knew we weren’t going to talk or interrupt his golf game. He had a comfort level with us.”
Posted by Steve Marantz, August 1, 2011