Within a couple of hours of picking up his first ring, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was back on a football field, a champagne bottle in his right hand and his bride and his groomsmen crouched down in front of him like hulking offensive linemen. Flacco barked out commands to his tuxedo-clad teammates as he waited for his new wife to toss him the bouquet from underneath her lacy white dress.
The steel bleachers at Audubon High School were empty, save for a few friends and family members. But millions might as well have been watching and waiting for the bouquet — which was Ravens purple, of course — to soar through the air into the quarterback's huge hands.
Finally, there was a snap. Jason Prezant, the wedding photographer, had his shot.
It was one of hundreds that Prezant would take on June 25, the day Flacco married his high school sweetheart, Dana Grady, in New Jersey. Prezant documented their first day as a married couple as a trolley carried them from a Catholic wedding at Holy Savior Church in Westmont to the rowdy reception in downtown Philadelphia. Along the way, the wedding party stopped at an empty movie theater, the high school field where Flacco's ascension to football stardom began, and the middle of a gridlocked intersection on Broad Street — all so Prezant could take some candid, quirky, unforgettable photos that would later become one of most buzzed-about things on the web.
"I think that's awesome, and more people in the public eye should do that and let people see inside of their lives," said Prezant, 26, who is based out of Wilmington, Del. "People like these images because Joe Flacco is in them and because they're Ravens fans. But I think the photos are pretty cool on their own. Even if it wasn't Joe Flacco in them, people would still enjoy the photos, and that's because Joe and Dana gave me time during their wedding day to make those images."
Capturing an Internet sensation was a daylong process, starting with
Prezant arriving at the Grady household in the late morning to photograph Dana and her bridesmaids as they got ready for the big day. That he was there was a pretty unlikely story in itself.
In 2004, as a psychology student at the University of Delaware with a passion for photography, he started to lose interest in college photo courses he thought were too impractical. But a year later, he stumbled upon a classified ad looking for wedding photographer. And several months after graduating in 2007, Prezant started his own business.
This spring, he received a text message from a former client who wanted to know if he was free to shoot her cousin's wedding.
"It wasn't until a little later that I found out she was marrying Joe," Prezant said in August. "My first thought was, 'I'm going to look tiny next to him.' I'm 5'8" — he's like 6'6" and 220 pounds or something like that. … Obviously, it was a little bit exciting, but nothing really changed."
The soon-to-be wife of a budding star in the NFL, Dana was calm and collected as she prepared the morning of one of the biggest days of her life. "She was all smiles," said Katy Timney, Prezant's assistant. Dana did tear up with her maid of honor, though, after putting on her wedding gown.
Meanwhile, Prezant's second photographer, Jeff Mosier, was across town at the Flacco residence as Joe, his four brothers and the rest of his groomsmen got their tuxes on and their hair gelled up for the 2 p.m. ceremony.
"You could just tell how really excited they were for Joe," said Mosier, who is from Silver Spring and is now based in New York. "It was really special to document that so they'll be able to look back 25 years from now and see how much fun they had that day."
When the last lavender bow tie was tightened and the final dab of mascara was applied, the bridal party hopped into the trolley, arriving at Holy Savior Church shortly before the ceremony. Inside the cozy old church where other Flacco family members have wed, Joe watched from behind a curtain as friends and family filled the pews.
"It was really cool because you're seeing just Joe," said Mosier, who has worked with Prezant at weddings on a few occasions. "It wasn't the Joe that everyone knows, the football player. There wasn't anything unique to it that made it different from, say, John and Jane getting married."
Added Rebecca Richman, their Philadelphia-based wedding planner: "They're your average bride and groom. They had all of the same hopes and dreams and wishes for their wedding like everybody else. While they were a high-profile client, it was a pretty typical planning process."
The pictures they took after the wedding, though, stood out from those of other newlyweds.
The first stop the burgundy trolley made after the wedding wasn't Joe and Dana's former high school. The Flaccos booked a theater for an hour at the Cinemark 16 in Somerdale, N.J., a site that had sentimental value to the couple, according to Richman. As the bridal party entered the dark theater, they were handed boxes of popcorn and 3-D glasses. But walking in, Prezant didn't have a plan for what he would ask them to do next. He just went with the flow.
The bridal party filed into four rows of black leather seats. Timney stood on top of a seat a couple of rows in front of them, Dana's father spotting her as she held a light in the foreground. After snapping away for about 10 minutes, Prezant had come up with his idea for a grand finale.
"With Jason, it's not going to be that traditional line-everybody-up-and-smile," Mosier said. "It's more interactive and really allowing people to have fun and be engaged in what they're doing."
On the count of three, Prezant told them to pretend that they were watching the climactic scene in a scary horror movie — never mind that a family-friendly 3-D movie was playing on the big screen — and asked them to scream like banshees and toss their popcorn kernels in the air. With one take and many rapid-fire camera clicks, Prezant got his shot. "I felt kind of bad for the cleanup crew that I had to pick all the popcorn up," Prezant said sincerely. "But it was worth it in the end."
All on board and the Flacco wedding party was next off to Audubon High. When they arrived, Joe and Dana ran through a "Just Married" banner that the bridesmaids had made before the wedding. The guys ran around and posed in football stances. They couldn't care less that the sun was beating down on them and the temperatures were up in the high 80s. After a while, Prezant huddled them in front of a set of field goal posts and asked them to line up.
"They wanted to do something with football so my second photographer and I were like 'Joe, do a lineup. You organize it. You're the quarterback,' " Prezant said. "So he set everyone up … and we played off for that for a while. We had the guys crouch down in a lineup. [One groomsman] tried to hide a cup behind his leg, but he was not doing it well. Then they ran past the camera. It was pretty funny because Dana was the only one who didn't move. The photos were awesome."
Twelve days after the wedding, Prezant uploaded the untraditional portraits to his website. They went viral. Within 48 hours of publication, more than a million people had viewed the photos online. They appeared on mainstream media outlets such as Yahoo! and USA Today and all over the sports blogosphere on sites such as Deadspin, Busted Coverage and The Big Lead.
The headline of one post on Deadspin.com, a sports news and humor website, was "Joe Flacco's New Bride Is A Very Understanding Woman." But when reporters asked him about the photos at the start of training camp in late July, Flacco played down his role. "If you guys think I had anything to do with those pictures, you are crazy," Flacco said. "I honestly came up with none of the ideas, none of the poses. They were just all thought about by her and all my crazy brothers."
He wasn't leading the huddle as his wedding party was captured in the now-famous photos, but he was more than willing to go along with the game plan, said Prezant and others who were behind the scenes of the shoot in late June. Flacco was enthusiastic, engaged and cooperative. "Joe went with the flow of it. There was no resistance. It all happened in the moment," Mosier said. "He respected what Jason and I do and trusted what we were going to bring to the table and really went with it. I'd give suggestions and he would be like, 'Yeah, that's cool. Let's do that.' "
And because Flacco was willing to let loose, the pictures gave Web-savvy Ravens fans a glimpse at what the sometimes stiff quarterback was like away from television cameras and tape recorders.
Normally after a wedding shoot, Prezant's website would garner between 100 and 150 page views. In three days, it got nearly 200,000 hits from 43 countries — and it would have been more had his website not crashed the first day. He was shooting another wedding and was helpless.
"It just exploded. It was horrible because I'm hearing that my website is crashing and only 10 percent of the people are getting through," said Prezant, who now has a new website and who has gotten three times as many wedding requests over the past three months. "It was a little frustrating, but the wedding I was shooting was also awesome, so that helped."
Prezant and Mosier hope that the popularity of the Flacco photos persuades other newlyweds to give more time on their wedding days to photographers — and to give them their full trust, too.
"It was phenomenal," said Richman, who served as a liaison between Prezant and the Flaccos in the weeks leading up to the big day. "It really surprised me that they were so willing to be goofy and have fun with their wedding party to get these really fun shots. I was definitely blown away."
As the party trolley made its way toward its final destination, the Hyatt Regency Philadelphia at Penn's Landing, it made an abrupt stop on Broad Street so the Flaccos could strike a pose for a few photos with City Hall and its clock tower as a backdrop. The only issue: Time was ticking away and there was no place to park the trolley unless it was in the middle of the street, which apparently seemed like a logical solution for the Philadelphia Trolley Works driver.
Partially obstructing traffic for a few frantic minutes, the Flaccos and the photographers rushed out of their vehicles and onto the median. Timney played look-out to make sure no cars were towed. There was a little horn-honking at first. Then drivers realized it was Flacco.
"You hear people yelling, 'Atta boy, Joe! Congrats!' " Mosier said. "There was instant recognition for sure. Joe's a tall guy, so he's going to stand out as is, but he's a recognizable face. People were really cool about it. And we're in downtown Philadelphia and a Ravens quarterback just got married and they were cheering them on. In that moment I thought, 'Wow, Philly fans can sometimes get a pretty bad rap, but they were super nice.' It was really cool to see that."
Looking at the photos, you would never think they rushed to finish shooting before a tow truck or a meter maid hauled their trolley away. That's where Prezant's calm demeanor came into play.
"Any of the weddings that I've ever seen that Jason's done, he's really talented," Mosier said. "It's awesome to watch him rock through a wedding. There's an anticipation about what's about to happen, and he is able to be at the right spot to capture it when it happens."
After all the dancing, a coincidental fireworks show and the wooden spoons — more about that in a minute — things died down for Prezant and his helpers once the reception, preceded by a cocktail hour, started at 7 p.m. Like the ceremony, the reception was said to be pretty standard. Joe's brother, Mike, delivered a moving, unscripted best man's speech. Neither Joe nor Dana smashed cake into each other's face. The dance floor was packed all night, with the Ravens quarterback towering above most of his guests.
"There was a ton of dancing, man. Joe danced a little bit," Prezant said. "He didn't go crazy, but Joe's family and friends — and everyone in that bridal party — they are dancers. They went wild. And there was just a ton of energy at the wedding. It was one of the best receptions I ever shot."
Around 9 p.m. there was an early Fourth of July fireworks show over the Delaware River, and the Flaccos ventured outside the hotel to wait for it to begin. It was one of the few moments in the night when the happy couple was able to sneak away and enjoy some relative privacy together.
"You don't see a lot of fireworks at weddings. It was fantastic," said Mosier, who added that it was more humbling than the time he took portraits of actor Robert De Niro for a magazine shoot. "For them as a couple, it's the most important day of their lives, and they've allowed me to share that with them."
Before the Flaccos called it a night, they had to take part in an interesting tradition from Dana's side of the family. The DJ played "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" by Meat Loaf, and the guests rushed to the dance floor with their wedding favors: wooden spoons with the bride and groom's names on them. As the song blared over the speakers, Dana and Joe, aunts and uncles, bridesmaids and groomsmen, grandmothers and grandfathers danced, smacking the spoons together or belting out a little Meat Loaf into them. "It's absolutely insane," Prezant said. "The wildest part of the night by far because it's near the end of the night and everyone is on their second wind."
Then Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Vincent Flacco were gone, but the party raged on until after 11 p.m.
Asked at the start of Ravens training camp if it was the best day of his life, Flacco, who didn't want to be interviewed for this article while he focused on the start of the season, told reporters: "I guess so. I better say yes. I don't know, it was a lot fun. It was one of the best days. I don't know if there is a best day, but it was a lot of fun, all the family together. It was a good time."
But the Ravens quarterback, who is now chasing a Super Bowl ring to go with his wedding band, might be more of a romantic than he lets on if his now-famous wedding photos are any indication.
"You could definitely tell that they were so in love," Timney said. "They really were just a normal younger couple on their wedding day. Every once in a while, I got to see the couple share a moment with each other without anybody around. They stole a quick kiss or looked into each other's eyes for a second or whispered in each other's ears. It was a really happy, love-filled day. I love those little moments, and I think Jason really captured them throughout the day."