Killing the pain: 49ers photographer’s book shows inside look at NFL

Maybe it’s the astonishing story of rock ‘n roll excess from touring and hanging out with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin or Lynyrd Skynyrd. Or it might be an anecdote born of friendships with Joe Montana, Peter Frampton or Eric Clapton.

It’s certainly possible it’s his incredibly harrowing account of being with Bobby Kennedy that horrible night at the Ambassador Hotel.

Anyone who enters Michael Zagaris’ orbit for even a short time emerges with their favorite tale of wonderment from the Bay Area’s preeminent story-telling, rock star of a photojournalist.

Even the superstars he has covered can’t help but be mesmerized by Zagaris’ adventures.

“When you are in the same room with Michael, you know it,” Montana said of the man he’s known since his rookie year with the 49ers in 1979. “The best place to be is within listening distance to hear his endless stream of wild tales from his firsthand experiences in sports and rock ’n’ roll.”

What the wily 77-year-old Zagaris (Zuh-GARE-us) has encountered during his life’s journey is so outlandish it almost seems like a literary creation. As a matter of fact, his Forrest Gump-like existence began around the time he rented a Haight-Asbury apartment from acclaimed author and beat poet Michael McClure in the late 1960s. (Because of course he did).

And now Zagaris – “Z” or “Z-Man” to most – has himself entered the literary world, where he’s creating a commotion after the Oct. 4 unveiling of his book, “Field of Play” (Cameron + Company, $80), an 11½ x 14-inch tabletop centerpiece that will widen eyes and drop jaws over the course of its 296 pages. The image-conscious NFL won’t be thrilled with some of the more revealing photos from Zagaris’ six decades of shooting games, notably ones showing old 49ers such as Steve Young, Bill Romanowski and Montana receiving pain-killing injections in the locker room.

My dear friend, Michael Zagaris, has an amazing new book chronicling his photography career in the NFL. He not only captured so many iconic shows back in the day (including some of mine!), he has managed to capture so many incredible photos in football history. pic.twitter.com/AMyYTZ5V6M

— Peter Frampton (@peterframpton) September 26, 2022

Although the league’s dirty secret about pain management has long been out, there’s scarce photo documentation of Toradol and any other pain-masking drugs being administered to players. That’s because NFL photographers rarely get the kind of unfettered access Zagaris has had since successfully lobbying Bill Walsh for it when the legendary, legacy-minded coach arrived in San Francisco in 1979.

Could Zagaris catch heat from the NFL for his book’s graphic photos, including one of Young lying face down on a trainer’s table, two 49ers doctors at his side holding his arms while a third physician plunges a needle into his back? Maybe so, he admits. Think he’s worried about backlash coming from the suits at NFL headquarters on Park Ave? Hardly. This is a guy who dropped into the Haight-Asbury counterculture more than 50 years ago and never dropped out. And in the Haight, there are two basic tenets, depending upon your mood: Spread love and fight The Man.

“I wanted this book to be real. I didn’t want them to control it. I wanted to capture real life in the NFL, unvarnished. And I wanted this book to be kind of football through the prism of those who played it,” Zagaris said. “The needles … this stuff happens, and I don’t mean it as an indictment and I didn’t put anything in there to be sensational or exploitative. These are the sacrifices the players have taken.”

The unfiltered look at pro football in “Field of Play” includes scores of behind-the-scenes, never-before-seen images from his 49 years as the 49ers team photographer and his time shooting Oakland Raiders games during their heyday in the ‘70s. Zagaris’ book also has undeniable star power – essays from Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott, Fred Biletnikoff and Montana. Gonzo journalist Steve Cassady, the book’s main storyteller and another longtime Z sidekick, nailed the four secrets to Zagaris’ success: 1) A rapid wit, 2) Artistic acuity; 3) A penchant for infiltrating inner circles; 4) A peerless instinct for seizing the moment.

Chutzpah, it seems, still goes a long way in both show business and sports.

“I’ve never been a rules guy, I’ve kind of always made up my own rules and I kind of go with my gut,” said Zagaris, who first gained 49ers access at Kezar Stadium as a teen by creating fake press passes.

Although Zagaris has long lived life by the seat of his faded Levi’s while a trusty Canon sat strapped around his neck, it wasn’t always this way. It took a confluence of events to lead the Chicago-born, Redding-raised Zagaris to this whimsical existence.

The first of two seminal moments shaping both his psyche and his career path came at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, where Zagaris was a volunteer for Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Zagaris was shuffling through the kitchen’s passageway after Kennedy’s post-midnight speech in the jam-packed ballroom, less than 20 feet behind the senator, when he heard some loud noises.

“It sounded like somebody had let out a string of firecrackers,” said Zagaris, then a first-year law student at Santa Clara University. “(Photographer) Bill Eppridge, a friend of mine who was shooting for Life and Time, ran past me and knocked me into the door jamb, yelling, ‘9 millimeter!’ I didn’t even equate it with a gun.

“I got about 10 more feet and I slipped. I thought it must be cooking oil. It was blood.”

Disillusioned by Kennedy’s assassination, Zagaris quit law school and immersed himself into the music scene in San Francisco. That’s where Zagaris’ second life-altering event occurred. It was the night he was partying at Eric Clapton’s Sausalito hotel and showing him stories and photos from a music project. Thoroughly impressed by Zagaris’ photos, Clapton encouraged him to become a photographer.

By 1972, Zagaris wanted to incorporate the 49ers and the NFL back into his life. Showing once again his audacity had no bounds, he talked the 49ers into creating a role for him. The pushy camera guy would soon become the team photographer.

Shooting the NFL, particularly the 49ers, has obviously been a big part of Zagaris’ life. But that’s not part of his life that he displays very prominently at the home he shares with longtime partner Kristin Sundbom. One room contains drawers, desks and cabinets overflowing with photos and negative sheets – all evidence of his covering 60 years of work that includes 42 Super Bowls and 12 World Series, and more than 40 years as the Oakland A’s team photographer. Aside from a photo of their now 45-year-old son Ari playing baseball, the walls of his home are mostly adorned with his pictures of musicians such as Lou Reed, Rick James, Patti Smith and Jimmy Page.

There’s only one framed photo shot during his time with the 49ers that’s earned a large presence in his place – the cover shot of his book: Montana and Walsh huddled on the Candlestick Park grass, seemingly designing a play during the 1985 NFC Championship Game win over Chicago.

It’s simply the most iconic sports photo Zagaris has ever taken. It’s also a favorite of both Montana and Walsh, the latter of whom went so far as to hang three large, framed prints in his home and offices.

Just talent recognizing talent.

Zagaris’ access and likeability at times allowed him to match up superstar entertainers from the music and sports worlds. “What’s funny is a lot of the musicians wished they were athletes and a lot of athletes wished they were musicians,” he said.

Zagaris was the person responsible for triggering Madonna’s brief romance with Jose Canseco, when he introduced her to the A’s steroid-fueled slugger.

Zagaris also played a role in the cross-profession admiration between Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant and former Raiders great Kenny “The Snake” Stabler.

Once while on the road with Skynyrd, Zagaris was nearly knocked down by Van Zant, who was criss-crossing his way down a hotel hallway at full speed, yelling, “I’m ‘The Snake!’ “

When an out-of-breath Van Zant finally stopped, Zagaris asked him about his infatuation with the quarterback. “I’ve just always loved him,” Van Zant said, reaching into his wallet to produce a worn out football card of the Alabama-born Stabler to show Zagaris.

A few years later Zagaris ran into Stabler during a 49ers road trip. It was the first time the two had seen each other since Van Zant was killed in a 1977 plane crash along with other members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Snake was talking about how much he loved Ronnie and I told him, ‘Well, he told me he really loved you, too. You guys must really have been close.’ “

Stabler shot Zagaris a quizzical look and said, “Z, I never met him in my life. . . . Man, why didn’t you ever introduce us?”

An apologetic Zagaris told Stabler he just assumed the two Alabama icons were good friends because they’d mention one another to him every so often.

Zagaris thought a lot about his two friends when Stabler died in 2015, especially after Snake’s family announced he had been listening to Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” on a loop when he passed away.

Despite some painful regrets along the way, there aren’t many things Zagaris would change about his captivating life.

“How many people get to do what they love? I’ve never made any money. I’m still renting,’ Zagaris said. “But life is about living. It’s about the experience.

“You know what, all the stuff I’ve done, if I were a millionaire I would have said, ‘Here’s the money. Take it. I’ll take this.’ ”

This content was originally published here.

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