Don Cornelli’s father had a successful career as a General Motors executive, so he understandably encouraged his son to study accounting before he left for Central Michigan University in the early 1980s.
Chicago Local 1220 member Don Cornelli covering golf’s U.S. Open for Fox Sports. In addition to football, Cornelli has covered golf for both Fox and CBS.
Chicago Local 1220 Member Don Cornelli just before working another NFL game for Fox Sports. Cornelli is being inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, in large part due to his stellar 30-plus year career as a sideline camera operator.
Chicago Local 1220 member Don Cornelli [with camera] follows New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning before takes the field before a game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Cornelli was working the sideline hand-held camera for Fox Sports.
Fox Sports' Erin Andrews conducts a post-game interview with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady while Chicago Local 1220 member Don Cornelli works the camera.
Once the younger Cornelli hoisted a television camera over his shoulder, however, it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. The closer he got to the action, the more alive he felt.
“I’m constantly moving,” he said. “If I’m sitting around, my leg starts shaking. People tell me I have a purposeful walk.”
Now, nearly 40 years later, Cornelli’s work as a camera operator for Fox Sports and others has led the Chicago Local 1220 member to perhaps the highest honor in his field: a spot in the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame. Cornelli, 57, is one of nine inductees in this year’s class. The induction ceremony has been postponed until December 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To me, it’s special because your peers are the ones who vote on it,” said Cornelli of the honor selected by others working in the sports broadcast industry. “When you’re recognized by them, it just honestly means more.”
The Hall, which inducted its first class in 2007, has its share of big names. Basketball legend Charles Barkley and CBS’ James Brown are members of this year’s class.
But it also honors the best among camera operators and technicians, the usually anonymous faces who bring the sound and pictures to viewers. Cornelli has worked as a freelancer for more than 30 years, primarily for CBS and Fox Sports, but he’s particularly well known for his hand-held camera work along the sideline during Fox’s NFL coverage.
He’s been part of the network’s No. 1 broadcast team since it secured NFL rights after the 1993 season. He currently works on the crew fronted by play-by-play man Joe Buck and color commentator Troy Aikman. If you remember a memorable sideline shot during a big game televised by Fox, it’s likely Cornelli provided it. A profile of him last year by The Ringer referred to him as the “Magician of NFL Broadcasts” because of his ability to be in the right place at the right time.
“I’ve seen Don move five feet,” Andy Mitchell, another camera operator on the Fox crew, told the website. “The guy literally caught the ball right where he was standing. He had it perfectly framed. I’m going, ‘He practically threw it to him.’”
While he appreciates the honor, Cornelli admits he’s a little taken back by the notoriety. He agreed to be profiled for this story only if he could honor the crews he works with. He also wanted to salute wife Karen and children Sara and Andrew, who have spent considerable time without him at the family’s home in suburban Detroit.
Cornelli estimates he spends about 200 nights a year traveling for work. With Fox now having a Thursday night game, he’s routinely gone 5-6 nights per week during football season.
“I’m nothing but a spoke on a big wheel,” he said. “It takes a lot more than one person to put on a network television show. There’s a lot of working together between the union and management, different departments, other co-workers. There really is so much that goes on.”
Such comments didn’t surprise Neil Ambrosio, an international representative in the broadcasting department who has known Cornelli for years.
“He’s one of those guys who is ridiculously good at his job because he has tremendous instincts,” Ambrosio said. “He’s also humble about it and you just don’t see that too often. He’s understands the game and he’s always in the right place.”
Cornelli was a fan of all sports growing up and his love of television really took off at Central Michigan. At the time, when ESPN was still in its infancy and the onslaught of other cable sports networks had yet to begin, the Mid-American Conference – of which Central Michigan is a member – had few football and basketball games shown on national television. That left it to local stations and even student-run television to produce and air them.
Cornelli got involved as a camera operator and loved it. He soon found himself doing work for the local PBS affiliate and got into freelancing when ESPN hired him to carry the parabolic microphone – the round microphone used to catch sounds on the field and along the sideline – for games involving the Michigan Panthers in the old United States Football League.
That led to more freelance work for Detroit outlets televising games of baseball’s Tigers, basketball’s Pistons and hockey’s Red Wings, where he found himself as a full-time camera operator. He also did work for CNN.
Someone at CBS took notice. In 1986, Cornelli was hired on a fill-in basis for an NFL game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. By 1988, he was part of the top crew, headlined by the legendary announcers Pat Summerall and John Madden. It was there he became an IBEW member.
He moved to Fox when it lured away the NFC football broadcast rights, although he has continued to work for CBS on other assignments because of his freelance status. He’s involved in the network’s golf and NCAA Tournament coverage. Fans likely will see him underneath a basket during the Final Four. He’s worked 23 Super Bowls, including some for CBS.
Cornelli has also shot three Winter Olympics when CBS had the rights to the games in the 1990s, focusing mostly on hockey, and worked a camera during Fox’s coverage of golf’s U.S. Open.
“One of his best qualities is his demeanor,” said Fox Sports sound mixer and Hollywood, Calif., Local 45 member Fred Aldous, who has worked and been friends with Cornelli for 30 years and was inducted into the hall himself in 2015. “He’s one of the nicest and most loyal people in the business. Along with his camera work, his honesty and integrity are second to none.”
Along the sideline, Cornelli hauls around his camera while avoiding other photographers and anyone else – all while making sure he’s in position for the perfect shot on a big play. He says he still loves it, even though his lower back acts up more than it did earlier in his career. He walks or runs about 15,000 steps during a typical game – equivalent to seven miles.
“I like being close to the action,” he said. “It’s like an adrenaline rush for me to be down there.”
Cornelli’s dedication was on full display in 2018, when he was inadvertently run over along the sideline by Los Angeles Rams receiver Brandin Cooks.
Cornelli got up and insisted he could continue working the game. Only when sideline reporter Erin Andrews told Fox officials that Cornelli was bleeding from his mouth did they insist he go to the hospital. He was diagnosed with a concussion and missed his next two games.
“He doesn’t like people doting over him,” Ambrosio said. “He got absolutely destroyed on that sideline and they had to coerce him to go to the emergency room.”
Local 1220 Business Manager John Rizzo calls Cornelli a “surgeon” because working the sideline camera requires a calm, steady hand, even when things are noisy, crazy and chaotic around him.
Rizzo asked Cornelli to join the IBEW’s negotiating committee during its last round of contract talks with Fox Sports because of his stature within the industry and his history of excellent work. It was Cornelli’s first time taking part in negotiations. He said it served as a reminder of the importance of a good working relationship with management.
“Don is a perfectionist at everything he does,” Rizzo said. “He expects everyone who works with him to be of that caliber. I’m just really happy for him that he’s being inducted into the Hall of Fame. [He’s] just a great representative for the IBEW.”
Cornelli said retirement has slipped into his mind at times. He and Karen now have three grandchildren. Plus, the physical wear and tear is becoming more noticeable.
But he’s reluctant to do so because “honestly, I really think about how much I would miss it.” The excitement level of being close to the action hasn’t changed one bit since his days at Central Michigan.
All that work has led him to the Hall of Fame, where he’ll soon be mentioned in the same breath with legends of the industry. His peers already consider him one.
“He wants to be the best at what he does and he’s there,” Rizzo said. “He’s at the top of his game and he’s at the top of his field.”