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|| News Item: Posted 2000-01-24

By Dave Newhouse, Staff Writer, ANG Newspapers

The Z-man focuses his lens, zeroing in on celebrities from his world: Rock-and -roll and sports. They've posed before his camera, from the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to Jose Canseco to Joe Montana . The twist to all this is that the Z-man is as much a character, and just as interesting, as the famous people he photographs.

``He's eclectic,'' Cleveland Browns owner Carmen Policy said of the Z-man. `` He's probably a dozen different personalities, but he's not schizophrenic. All 12 are driven to experience life.''

``He's a man for the ages,'' San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young said of Z-man. ``If you're going to pick someone to do a story on the international underworld, I'd take him. He'd be better than `60 minutes.' ''

``He's the ultimate free spirit,'' said Bill Walsh, ``and an absolute genius at his work.''

Photo by
``I always tell people he's Forrest Gump,'' freelance photographer Brad Mangin said.

The Z-man is Michael Zagaris, 54, of San Francisco, team photographer for the 49ers and Oakland A's. He is rarely addressed as ``Michael'' or ``Zagaris.'' He is more commonly known as ``Z-man'' or ``Zee.'' Z-man is not your typical team photographer. After a game, he showers with the players. He has five Super Bowl rings from the 49ers and a World Series ring from the A's.

When it comes to rock-and-roll, Z-man has rocked and rolled. He openly discusses having done psychedelic drugs with well-known rock bands. The Z-man hides nothing about himself, including the fact he almost overdosed on cocaine in 19 83. He stopped doing drugs right then.

``I like excitement, thrills, the unknown,'' he said. ``I hope I live until I 'm 90, and life's exciting. And if I die at 90, I hope it's exciting.''

If you're thinking the Z-man has stories, you have no idea. He was a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy, and was in the Los Angeles hotel kitchen when Kennedy was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan.

Z-man was a college football player who tried out for Don Shula and Walsh. Z- man knows Mick Jagger, and would tell you what Jagger told him about the pressures of being a rock star off stage. Only it's not for print.

Z-man will relate a discussion he had with George Harrison, another photo subject.

``I asked George when he knew the Beatles were changing the world,'' he said. ``He answered, `I dunno. One week we're broke, scuffling in Hamburg, sleeping in one room. Then we come home (to Liverpool), and people are chasing our limo s and telling us were gods. And we're still the same blokes.' ''

Z-man has partied with rock stars after filming them. Chris Isaak crashed at Z-man's house. Z-man hooked up Canseco and Madonna.

Photo by Rod A. Lamkey Jr./Oakland Tribune

Photo by Rod A. Lamkey Jr./Oakland Tribune
Z-man has so many stories, that if only half were true, he has been sitting on a best-seller for years. Then, again, who needs the lawsuits.

This aging zoom-lens hipster is asked continually what rock stars and athlete s are like.

``There's life romanticized, and there's life that is,'' Z-man said. ``They're all individuals. Some are jerks. I'm always surprised that people are surprised by this.''

Who are the jerks? Z-man won't kiss and tell, not for publication. Photography pays his bills. And when he's not behind the camera, he enjoys hitting the clubs.

This constant craving for action is his daily nourishment.

He has worked for the 49ers since 1973, the A's since 1981. He has shot rock stars, politicians and ballet dancers since the 1960s after giving up on the ideas of practicing law and teaching school.

``I wanted to write a book on English rock bands,'' he said. ``I went on tour with `Blind Faith.' Eric Clapton took a look at my photos and said, `This should be your gig.' ''

That was the start. Z-man used chutzpah to take it further. He faked the voice of Vogue's editor to get hired as the Rolling Stones photographer in 1972. The 49ers had no team photographer in '73. Z-man faked the voice of the Football Digest publisher to get himself ingratiated with the 49ers.

Walsh came to the 49ers in 1979, then did something unprecedented. He allowed Z-man inside the 49ers locker room on game day, to film the players as they dressed, and then shoot them at halftime and afterwards, win or lose. ``Bill has a sense of history,'' Z-man said.

Sports Illustrated first published Z-man's locker room photos after Super Bow l XXIV at New Orleans, when the 49ers steamrolled Denver 55-10. The magazine hadn't ever used a photographer with such inside access.

``I had a lot of confidence in Michael,'' Walsh explained. ``He's a unique and special man. He's not in any way an attention-seeker. He deserved an opportunity to do this, so I just did it.''

Photo by Michael Zagaris

Photo by Michael Zagaris
Without, Walsh added, his informing the 49ers players beforehand. ``The stuff that separates (Zagaris) from everyone else,'' Mangin said, ``is the photojournalism he gets behind the scenes. I tell people if the rest of us had the same access, it wouldn't be as good because there wouldn't be the same trust built up with the players.''

The players love Z-man. He shoots them, gets them into clubs, hangs out with them.

``He should put out a book on closing the gender gap,'' said Young. ``He can hang out with 15-year-old teeny-boppers or 70-year-olds. There's not a place he can't go to. He could probably get an interview with the Taliban.'' ``I might not want that one,'' Z-man said of the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist group in Afghanistan. ``I might not walk away from that one.'

Z-man has celebrity photos so shocking, they won't ever see the light of day. He doesn't own the negatives, but he doesn't want to hurt anyone either. It would kill him to break a trust.

``It's chemistry,'' Z-man said of his craft. ``You want people to reveal them selves. By having them feel at ease, as if you're their best friend, they can trust you.''

"He's certainly one of the family,'' said 49ers coach Steve Mariucci. ``Everyone would feel strange if he wasn't around.''

There isn't always total trust. Minnesota Vikings defensive end Carl Eller Slapped Z-man. A's catcher Terry Steinbach, mired in a hitting slump, snapped at Z-man. Steinbach later apologized.

Z-man gets totally involved in his work. When he's shooting The Who, he is The Who. When it's football, he gets dressed for a game with the players, putting on cleats and taping his ankles . Why such involvement? Z-man approaches his work with a passion. ``In Seattle, John Taylor was hit by a cheap shot,'' said Policy, recalling his 49ers days. ``Z-man attacked the Seattle defensive back, pushed him with his camera, then ran into the locker room. When a security guard came in asking about a weird-looking guy with a camera, I said, `We don't have anyone like that.'

``We warned him all the time about being aggressive, but he is so interesting, and there's no pretense. He's just a consummate character.''

How did Z-man ever get to be this way? Slowly.

Born in Chicago, the oldest of six children, his family moved to Modesto when he was a toddler. They continued moving from Hanford to Stockton to Redding. Z-man, a wide receiver in high school, received a football scholarship from George Washington University in the nation's capital.

With his father heavily involved in politics, Z-man worked part-time for U.S. senators Pierre Salinger and Bobby Kennedy.

``I was so naive,'' Z-man recalled, ``I thought Peter was a rabbit. I didn't know John Kennedy had girl friends. I bought into the American system. I wanted to play a few years in the NFL, run for political office, then be president.''

Photo by Michael Zagaris

Photo by Michael Zagaris
His dream began to fade after failing a tryout with the Baltimore Colts, then coached by Shula. Z-man entered law school at Santa Clara and went out for the San Jose Apaches, a semi-pro team coached in 1967 by Walsh, who cut him a month later.

``That year is a part of both our lives we'd rather forget,'' said Z-man. `` The day after Bobby Kennedy was murdered, Z-man had a test in contract law. He filled up eight blue books by elaborating on how America was killing off its leaders. That was the end of law school.

``I had started smoking marijuana by then,'' he said. ``I was Sgt. Pepper on the weekends.''

He sold insurance for exactly a half-day, then took a bus to the Haight Ashbury.

The Age of Aquarius had arrived, and Z-man wasn't too old to mix with the flower children.

He taught fifth grade for three years in East Palo Alto. That job ended when he burned a magazine cover with Spiro Agnew's picture on it in class. ``I was looking for the truth,'' said Z-man. He found it, at last, in photography, the closest thing he could find to total satisfaction. But even though he has filmed some of the world's richest entertainers for 30
years, his career hasn't made him wealthy.

``The quest for money never moved me that much,'' he said. ``Money is about mobility. Money is boring. Experiences are what I want.''

There isn't a price tag on experiences. The wealthy aren't having any more fun than Z-man. He doesn't have to tip a maitre d' $20 to get inside the door. The Z-man only has to flash his Super Bowl ring.

His favorite photo was taken during Super Bowl XIX at Stanford. It's a halftime shot of Montana in the locker room, looking off in the distance. Z-man is happy that this special photo is of Montana.

``Joe's always been Joe,'' he said in admiration.

The most interesting people Z-man has met? He named three: Keith Moon, the late drummer of ``The Who;'' Bobby Kennedy, and former A's and Giants catcher Brent Mayne.

``Totally crazy,'' Z-man said of Moon. ``He drove a Cadillac into the Beverly Hilton, rang the bell, and wanted to check in. He made me feel normal.

``Bobby was one of a kind. He evolved from a real jerk in his younger days to becoming real compassionate, and wanting to effect positive change. ``Mayne is multifaceted - a surfer, a thinker. He knows all the great underground clubs that don't open until 2 a.m. in New York. He goes to museums, he reads really off-beat books that can change your life. He has a zest for living.''

But speaking of zest, who can top Z-Man?

``I'll be at raves,'' he said, ``where people are younger than my son.'' (Ari Zagaris, 22, the son, signed a free-agent contract with the Boston Red Sox this year after pitching at George Washington University.).

``I'm still 17 in many ways,'' Z-man said. ``I've never grown up. My face is older. That sucks. ` `I'm sure people reading this article will think I'm nuts, but I have no problem laughing at myself. And I believe in honesty.''

It shows in his work.

(Sports Shooter thanks Dave Newhouse and Jon Becker of the Alameda Newspaper group for granting permission to reprint this story. To check out some of Z-Man's work, turn to Brad Mangin Photography's Guest Gallery at:

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