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Sports have always been a major part of my life. As a child, I watched “Sportscenter” or “College Gameday” on Saturday mornings rather than cartoons. I also played practically every sport under the sun, all year round. The drama and human emotion exemplified in sports fascinates me.

Since those early, ESPN-filled days, I have always hoped to meld my love for athletics with my professional aspirations. But I never expected that I would get to cover an event as grand as the Final Four though, especially while still in school.

As a photographer for the The Daily Emerald, I had already gotten to cover plenty of Oregon athletics before the 2017 NCAA Basketball Tournament. From football and lacrosse to acrobatics and tumbling, I had photographed a wide range of sporting events, big and small.

With the 2016-17 Oregon basketball team, I had my first opportunity to cover a single team through an entire season. And what a season it was. With buzzer-beating shots to defeat top-ranked teams, blowout victories against perennial powerhouses and one of the most talented rosters the program had ever seen, I had plenty of incredible additions to include in my portfolio. With each win, I grew more optimistic about the possibility of covering a National Championship. Even after covering the first two rounds of the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Championship tournament in Sacramento, Calif., I wanted more.

Following Oregon’s victory in the Elite 8, I received the call I had been dreaming about all season: I was going to get the chance to cover the Final Four in Phoenix, Ariz. Along with three Daily Emerald writers, I loaded my Toyota Camry and took off on the 20-hour drive to the desert.

Covering major sporting events is unlike any other working environment I have ever experienced. There is a fast pace and excitement, balanced with a bit of stress and exhaustion that comes from nonstop coverage and the search for creative angles. The Final Four magnified that scale in every way, particularly since it took place inside a football stadium capable of seating nearly 65,000 people.

The massive, bustling work room was filled with media members I recognized from local markets as well as national outlets I had idolized for years. As I made images of the athletes during interviews in their locker rooms and open practices, I realized I was standing next to photographers working for the likes of Sports Illustrated, Getty Images and ESPN.

At first, I was intimidated. I questioned whether I had the skills worthy of covering such a high-profile event. But I quickly overcame this intimidation. Speaking with media members from the Eugene area that I had followed throughout my collegiate tenure, I realized I was far from the only person covering an occasion of this scale for the first time.

“You’ve covered this team all year,” I told myself. “Do your best, and the images will come.” When game day rolled around, after three days of media availability and practice coverage, I was ready to get back on the floor. As I waited for the conclusion of the first of the day’s two matchups with my photo editor and fellow SOJC student Adam Eberhardt, we were lucky enough to meet the two photographers shooting for the school paper of Oregon’s opponent, North Carolina. After sharing stories of events that we had covered in the past and comparing courses in our respective journalism programs, we found that we had quite a bit in common. Outside of the sheer excitement and professional experience these events offer, the networking that occurs during the long wait times is by far one of the greatest benefits of working in such high-profile situations.

Despite Oregon’s loss in the national semifinal game, our group decided to take advantage of the access we had available to us, and stayed to cover the National Championship match-up between North Carolina and Gonzaga. Rather than take in a game as a spectator for the first time all season, I kept up on social media, live tweeting throughout the game because I knew that there are few better ways to increase your following and demonstrate social media skills than providing in-depth access at a trending event.

Following the game, as the blue and white confetti fell, I took to the floor to make images of the Tar Heel players, fans and coaches celebrating their national championship victory. I felt so honored to photograph legendary coach Roy Williams and his players, many of whom were brought to tears of joy, and create images alongside those producing photos that would likely make the covers of many of the nation’s most esteemed publications the next day.

Working the Final Four felt like a dream. It was more fulfilling and exciting than I had imagined and, of course, it didn’t last as long as I had hoped. As I near graduation and begin thinking about the next steps in my professional journey, I will hold my memories from that weekend as both a reminder and a goal — a peak moment I can’t wait to reach once more. As a lifelong Oregon fan and an aspiring journalist, I could not have asked for a better way to cap my collegiate journey.

Aaron Nelson is a senior studying journalism at the SOJC with a focus in photo and multimedia journalism. He currently works as a photographer for the Daily Emerald and has freelanced for KVAL. He has also held previous internships with Scout Recruiting and the music-review website Daily-Beat.