Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame 2020-21: Don Cornelli, The Lens Through Which America Watches Sports
In a ceremony postponed by the pandemic, the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame Class of 2020 will be inducted on Dec. 14 at the New York Hilton. SVG is profiling the nine inductees in the weeks prior. For more information, CLICK HERE.
Anyone who has watched an NFL broadcast in the last 30 years has seen a Don Cornelli shot. And they’ve also probably seen him in the shot: he’s the guy sprinting down the sidelines anticipating the next play, inches from the celebrating player who has just scored, or getting run over by a player tumbling out of bounds. Whether it’s on the football field, the hardcourt, the fairway, or anywhere else a sports event is taking place, Cornelli and his handheld camera can somehow be found in the right place at the right time to capture the money shot.
“From the very beginning of Don’s long, successful career in network television,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and camera operator Davey Finch, “he has always possessed the wonderful, natural gift of a ‘great eye’ for shot composition and framing. His camerawork excels because he knows what to shoot, when to shoot, and how to position himself to achieve the best possible shot on any sport he covers.”
As one of the top handheld-camera operators working today, Cornelli endeavors to get viewers as close as possible to the action and is a mainstay on the sidelines of some of the NFL’s biggest games. Though most known for his work on NFL broadcasts on CBS Sports and Fox Sports for more than three decades, he has also covered NBA, MLB, NHL, NCAA, PGA, NASCAR, the Olympics, and the World Cup.
“Nobody sees the world more clearly through a viewfinder than Cornelli,” says Fox Sports CEO/Executive Producer Eric Shanks. “And the world is better for it.
Catching the Fever: How Cornelli Fell in Love With Broadcasting
A native of suburban Detroit, Cornelli grew up loving sports and, after graduating from Troy Athens High School, attended Central Michigan University, where he caught the sports-broadcasting bug.
“I did not go to Central Michigan thinking I was ever going to be in broadcasting,” he says, “but, when I got there and started doing the hands-on stuff in the studio, I got hooked. That’s when I realized that this is what I wanted to do.”
He began working at the student-run cable station MHTV as well as at the public-broadcasting station WCMU Mount Pleasant, MI. In his sophomore year, he landed a gig freelancing for ESPN on USFL games in Detroit. It marked the beginning of what would become a lifelong love affair with pro football.
A Life in Pictures: From CBS to Fox and Beyond
After graduating from Central Michigan, he landed a job shooting instructional and promotional videos for General Motors and eventually got a full-time camera gig in news — first at CNN’s office in Detroit and then at UPN affiliate WKBD Detroit. He continued freelancing on live sports shows on the weekends and, in 1986, worked his first NFL game for CBS Sports in Minneapolis.
Cornelli worked his way up the ranks and, by 1988, was a fixture on the CBS A game with the fabled team of director Sandy Grossman, producer Bob Stenner, and Pat Summerall and John Madden in the booth.
By this point, Cornelli had opted to leave the local news scene in Detroit and was freelancing full-time, working NFL, NBA, NASCAR, college basketball, and other broadcasts for CBS; Pistons, Red Wings, and Tigers shows for PASS Sports in Detroit; and college basketball for ESPN.
By 1993, Cornelli had begun to make a name for himself as one of the best handheld-camera operators in the business. However, when CBS lost the rights to the NFL’s NFC package to fledgling Fox Sports, he found himself unsure of what was next.
“When it happened after the ’93 season, no one knew what was going to happen,” he remembers. “Thankfully, Fox ended up taking Madden and Summerall, and they brought Sandy and Bob with them, and Sandy asked me to go with him as well. Those were really exciting times because we were starting something brand new at Fox.”
Cornelli has been working the NFL on Fox A games ever since. In all, he has worked 33 NFC Championship games for Fox and CBS and 23 Super Bowls for various broadcasters. He has also captured countless iconic NFL moments, including the Giants’ Plaxico Burress’s game-winning TD catch to beat the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
As a freelancer, Cornelli retains the freedom to work events for different broadcasters. And work he does. After the NFL season winds down, he works on CBS Sports’ golf coverage in the offseason, including The Masters and PGA Championship. Over the years, he has also run handheld camera at the NBA Finals, NCAA Final Four, NHL Stanley Cup Final, World Series, Olympics (1992 and 1994 Winter Games for CBS and 1996 Summer Games for NBC), FIFA World Cup (1994 in the U.S.), US Open tennis, and Daytona 500, among others.
“Don’s body of work speaks for itself,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer and longtime director at CBS Sports Bob Fishman. “A consummate pro who makes every broadcast better with his creative eye for the perfect shot, as well as his unparalleled work ethic. He is a credit to every camera crew he has ever worked on.”
It’s a Gift: A Knack for Being in the Right Place at the Right Time
Although Cornelli attributes much of his intuitive “right place, right time” ability to luck, he does acknowledge that movement and positioning are key to his success. For example, if it’s a must-win game for a team with a great passing offense, he will position himself farther down the field from the line of scrimmage than in an average game. By the same token, if a backup quarterback is in or it’s an extremely cold day, he’ll stay closer to the line of scrimmage. But, in the end, he says, it’s all about going with your gut.
“How do I determine where that particular position is on the field? I honestly don’t know,” he says. “But what I do know is that so much of it is about positioning yourself and being ready to adjust. There are times I’m out of position. I’ll be way behind the line of scrimmage, and I’ll think I screwed up. But then, suddenly, there is a pick-6 or the quarterback gets sacked and fumbles, and [the action] returns the other way for a touchdown. Why am I there? Well, sometimes I just get lucky.”
Although Cornelli is modest about his ability to magically appear at the exact spot where a big play is about to happen, the directors he has worked with think it’s much more than just luck.
“Don is incredibly talented,” says Fox Sports lead director Rich Russo, who works with Cornelli on the broadcaster’s NFL A-game crew. “He has a keen eye and is always in the right place at the right time, consistently delivering incredible pictures. He is, without a doubt, one of the top handheld operators in the history of sports television and has proven that time and time again from the sidelines of some of the biggest sporting events in history. It doesn’t matter if it’s a preseason game or a Super Bowl, Don is always going to get the best shots and the best pictures.”
“Donnie is the GOAT of handheld operators,” says Fox Sports director Artie Kempner. “His thought process, attention to detail, and shot-making are what has always made him special. Add that to his tenacity and hustle, and you have a combination that every director and producer marvel at. He puts himself in the right position with great preparation and anticipation. It has been a privilege, and the ultimate directorial pleasure, to have done so many NFL games with him.”
Says Fox Sports/NFL Network director Steve Beim, “Don is one of those people that makes everyone around him look better. It doesn’t matter the field of play; he’ll always have the shot. And it will always be good. But even more than a great cameraman, he’s a great person.”
Beloved by All: A Genuinely Nice Guy
While Cornelli’s sixth sense for getting the shot is the stuff of legend, he is just as highly regarded for being one the most beloved figures in the business.
“One of his best qualities is his demeanor,” says Sports Broadcasting Hall of Famer Fred Aldous, who worked with Cornelli for years as the A1 on Fox’s NFL coverage. “He’s one of the nicest and most loyal people in the business. Along with his camerawork, his honesty and integrity are second to none.”
Russo adds, “As talented as Don is as a camera operator, he’s an even better person. He takes such great pride in every aspect of his job, whether it’s the actual game or all the details leading up to the game.”
Of course, lugging around a 20-plus–lb. camera and traveling NFL sidelines for more than 30 years comes with plenty of collateral damage. He has had numerous injuries — and even hospital visits — after being trampled by players on the sideline.
Fox cameraman Don Cornelli gets drilled by Nick Folk's field goal.
"He has a way of always being in the right spot."- Troy Aikman
"That's what gets you in the Hall of Fame. That's what the great ones do."- Joe Buck pic.twitter.com/99IDqZ5dX8
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) November 19, 2021
However, his passion for his craft keeps him keeps him returning to the sideline week in and week out.
“Don is a true professional,” says Fox Sports SVP, Production, Judy Boyd. “The on-air talent, the production team, and his peers all respect and love working with him. He is always a welcome addition to any show, and that’s a testament to both his talent and his attitude.”
Although Cornelli says he still loves running sideline camera as much today as he did three decades ago, being on the road 200+ days per year isn’t easy. He credits his wife of nearly 40 years, Karen, and their two children, Andrew and Sara, for being understanding and supportive despite his ultra-demanding schedule. “If it wasn’t for them, I certainly wouldn’t be here today.”
Looking back at his storied career, Cornelli says, “I honestly just feel lucky to be here and have been able to do something I love for so long. And to have worked with so many great people over the years has been amazing. All the credit goes to them.”