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Stunning Photography Traces the Changing Game

Michael Zagaris’s career is chronicled in a new book, “Field of Play.”

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Walter Payton

Walter Payton runs against the Oakland Raiders in Oakland in 1976.

This piece was originally published in the October 2022 issue of SI.

Like many photographers who covered the golden era of sports, Michael Zagaris took advantage of lax security to garner some incredible access. As a Bay Area teenager full of, as he says, “a little ambition and a load of bulls---,” he’d forge press credentials and talk his way onto the field at Kezar Stadium, then the home of the 49ers, charming suspicious cops by asking whether he could photograph them for a completely made-up book project called Sunday Gladiators.

Kezar Stadium

The San Francisco 49ers played at Kezar Stadium for 24 years, beginning in 1946.

Unlike many photographers who covered the golden era of sports, Zagaris is still going at it. He’s been San Francisco’s team photographer for nearly 50 years, and his career is chronicled in the breathtaking new book Field of Play, which will be published Oct. 4, 2022.

Reading the book is to study the evolution of the game, from when it was played in outdated places like Kezar to the every-Sunday-a-spectacle it has become. Zagaris has been there each step of the way, using his status as a team employee to get that same incredible access, attained without lying to the law.

He’s in the locker room as players are given pregame injections. He’s under the stands as Joe Namath cavorts with Reggie Jackson (he’s shot more than just the Niners). He’s on the field as Fred Biletnikoff applies stickum to his socks while actor James Garner looks on.

Field of Play

Zagaris has become such a mainstay that he’s developed friendships with the men he covers. One of the best anecdotes in the book—and the writing in it is almost as impressive as the photography—involves quarterback Joe Montana, who was at the time being dogged by rumors of cocaine use. At the airport in Denver, in 1985, the quarterback saw Zagaris and playfully chucked a snowball at him. Zagaris ducked and fired back, “Exhibit A!” After capturing the picture, of course.

Joe Montana

Joe Montana playfully throws a snowball at the camera.

Full Frame is Sports Illustrated’s exclusive newsletter for subscribers, highlighting the stories and personalities behind some of SI’s photography every other week.

To get the best of SI in your inbox every weekday, sign up here. To see even more from SI’s photographers, follow @sifullframe on Instagram. If you missed our story on LeBron James’s October 2022 cover of SI, you can find it here.

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