The story begins in 1964 when I was 14 years old and in the 9th grade at Giannini Jr. High in San Francisco.
That fall on ABC-TV, Friday nights at 10, there was a show called 12 O’clock High, a drama about an fictitious American Army Air Force heavy bomber group (stationed in England during 1943) flying daylight bombing missions over Germany. I started watching the show and intrinsically felt there were events and people that seemed familiar. But at 14, I didn’t have the depth to think too much about it. It just felt strange.
We now fast forward sixteen years to 1980. One afternoon I was in a bookstore in Tiburon, California, and I noticed a book entitled Flying Fortress by Edward Jablonski. It triggered my memory of the long ago TV show, and I began thumbing through it. At the back of the book was a reproduction of the Army Air Force B-17 crew-training manual. It immediately looked familiar and brought back memories of having seen and studied it before ... but how?
Because of this curiosity, I purchased the book and began learning about the history of the B-17 and the battles it fought during the World War II air war over Europe. My knowledge of the crew manual still puzzled me. I eventually showed the book to my father, thinking he might have had a B-17 crew manual he’d brought home with him from the war. He had served in the Pacific in the Navy and said he’d never seen a B-17 crew manual before. Nor did he know anyone who’d served on a B-17.
There was a chapter about the B-17’s involvement in the October 14, 1943 Mission No. 115 against the city of Schweinfurt, the center of the German ball bearing industry. That morning, two hundred and ninety-one B-17 Flying Fortresses took off from bases in England headed east toward the German border. Sixty were shot down, taking with them more than 600 men (just over 20 percent of the total).
When I was through with the chapter, it felt like my heart dropped down into my stomach. It seemed so very personal. I wondered: was it possible I could have been there that day?But how?
During the early 1980’s, I researched the B-17's history and its operations in Europe with the 8th Air Force. I ran across another couple of books on the mission, Black Thursday and Decision over Schweinfurt. The more I read, the stronger my sensation was of having been there. I would quickly dismiss that, however, thinking I was creating a sense of déjà vu in my mind because of how much I had learned from all my reading.
In the mid-80’s I grew tired of the subject and stopped researching. It had become depressing. No other branch of the U.S. military suffered more casualties (50,000 men) in World War II than the 8th Air Force.
I turned to other things including my budding career as a sports photographer. That there was a "budding career" as a sports photographer is an amazing story of serendipity and synchronicity.
I was born in 1950 and raised in San Francisco. My mother was a Mormon from a large family. She moved to San Francisco from Utah to follow a boyfriend who was attending Stanford University. When the relationship ended, she became a dental tech in the city.
My father was an only child, born and raised in New York, who had been shipped off to a boarding school at age 9. He graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts and was a Naval officer on leave in San Francisco when he met my mother in her dental office in 1944. They soon married before he shipped off to the Pacific.
As a child, I was enthralled with sports mainly because of my father's interest. I grew up with football and the San Francisco 49ers. My Dad took me to my first game in 1956 when I was in the first grade. The following year he got season tickets. We lived on 23rd Avenue. For the next 13 years, until the 49ers moved to Candlestick Park in 1971, my Dad and I shared a special bond, talking and dreaming about our team, as we walked to and from Kezar Stadium along Lincoln Way on 49er Sundays.
I simply loved the game and eventually got a chance to play for Lincoln High School in 1965. My most dominant memory of the Lincoln games was a playoff against Balboa before 5,000 people on Thursday afternoon, November 16, 1967, at Kezar Stadium. It was one of those incredibly beautiful, pristine, clear, blue November days with the afternoon sun bringing out all the full rich colors in the stadium.
We were tied 7-7 with Balboa at halftime. The winner would go on to the Turkey Day City Championship game the next week. I vividly remember coming out of the Kezar tunnel for the second half and running onto the deep rich grass. There was a chill in the air. The setting sun was casting long shadows on the field. As I stood on our sideline looking at the scene just before the kickoff, I felt an incredible energy, focus and purpose.
This was my "Nirvana!"
I thought this was as good as life could ever get. If I could be granted one wish, I wanted it to be spending the rest of my life in this environment. Unbelievably, that’s exactly what would happen.
We lost the game, but I continued playing football at San Francisco State with dreams of becoming an NFL quarterback. However, it would never be; I just didn’t have enough talent.
After SF State I joined the San Francisco Police Department in 1972, figuring that would be my career for the next 30 years. It was a solid job, but I missed football. My NFL dreams were long gone; football was something only to be watched from the stands and on TV. Then destiny or fate or divine intervention, well, intervened.
In 1973, Rosemary (my then-girlfriend who’d become my wife) gave me a 35mm SLR camera with a 50mm lens for my 23rd birthday. I started taking it with me to work on the midnight watch at Park Station. I would take snapshots of the guys, and then in the early morning hours I’d drive up to Twin Peaks and shoot pictures of the sunrises over the city.
Those were rough, dangerous times in San Francisco with the Zebra Killer and Patty Hearst and the SLA. Nightly we’d deal with the dark side of life, which if you let it could adversely influence your perspective about the world. What photography did was give me balance by forcing me - quite unintentionally at first - to see the beauty in the world through my camera. It became an emotional outlet.
Meanwhile, two Park Station cops were in charge of the SFPD field security detail for 49er games at Candlestick Park. They’d seen me with my camera at the station and knew I loved football and the 49ers. On September 30, 1973, they invited me down onto the field for the 49er/Los Angeles Rams game to take pictures of them. Afterward they let me stand along the sideline - trying to take action pictures - for the rest of the game.
I’d never been on the field for an NFL game. The roar of the crowd and the intensity and speed of the game were almost overwhelming. I’d never taken sports action pictures and hadn’t a clue of what I was doing! I paid attention to where the "real" photographers were positioning themselves, and soon I got a feel for trying to follow the action through the camera viewfinder and releasing the shutter at just the right second.
It was an epiphany! That afternoon, I knew I’d found the vehicle I needed to fill the football void in my life. I soon realized that successful game photography required the ability to concentrate fully on the action - despite crowd noise and excitement - while possessing an acute sense of anticipation, timing and reaction. Those (plus dedication, determination and tenacity) were the same skills required to play football, and - a big plus - you didn’t have to get hit!
I was "stoked!" The next week I emptied out my bank account, bought a bigger lens and set out to try and improve my skills.
Ironically, Lincoln High was playing at Washington High. I took my camera over to the Washington field, said "hi" to my cop buddies, walked down onto the sideline and started shooting. That fantasy of spending the rest of my life in my "Nirvana" of high school and professional football had just come full circle!
During the next couple of years, I worked lots of SFPD overtime to feed my photography habit. I purchased better equipment and improved my skills. The quality of my images improved, making them salable to players, parents and newspapers. I inquired about working for the 49ers but was rejected numerous times. They were happy with the guys they had. I still had my SFPD connection at the 49er games, so I was able to sneak in and get my pictures.
Then destiny or fate or divine intervention showed up again in 1975.
That August, both the SFPD and SFFD went out on a four-day strike over money. After the strike there was a great deal of bitterness and resentment on both sides. For the first time, I stopped enjoying the job.
Paradoxically, at the same time, I started finding more success with sports photography. I was selling many pictures to athletes in all sports. I had credentials to do big-time events at Cal and Stanford and was the team photographer for the old California Seals (National Hockey League).
In October the San Francisco Board of Supervisors placed on the November ballot several initiatives to punish the cops and firemen for the August strike. Both the police and fire unions assessed the members a day's wages to fight the initiatives. I was on my days off when the assessment came down and didn’t know about it when I showed up for work.
Before starting street patrol all the cops on the watch would stand in a "lineup" conducted by the watch commander. He would tell us all the recent crimes in our district and other department information. That night the watch commander suddenly stopped in mid-read and singled me out in front of 20 other cops, saying, "By the way, Fox, where’s your money to fight the ballot initiatives?" This took me totally by surprise. Most upsetting was the tone of his voice, implying that I was holding out and wasn’t going to pay like everyone else.
From out of nowhere I replied, "Well, I’m not going to pay that because I’m quitting this job!"
The immediate reaction was shock - both from me and the others in the room. I couldn’t believe what I had just said! You don’t quit a career civil service job. And then I was infuriated when all the other cops in the lineup hooted unbelievingly, "Oh yeah, sure you are. What are you going to do?"
After four years of service and at 25 years of age, I walked out of the SFPD. That night I had a very disturbing dream. I was on an airplane that was on fire and in a death spiral toward the ground. People were screaming. Suddenly the fuselage of the plane broke open, and I just simply walked away from the burning wreckage and the sound of people trapped inside. I woke up and immediately thought the dream represented all that I was leaving behind - quitting the SFPD - and that the people trapped inside were my friends and co-workers.
Shortly thereafter I married Rosemary and together we set out to start chasing dreams. Mine wasn’t about making a big pile of money or the insecurity of trying to be famous. It was taking sports photos and trying to live while being true to my essence. You have to believe in something.
I married probably the only woman in the world who was self-contained and self-confident enough to buy into such a dream. We bought a house and started an incredible odyssey of her building her own career in health care management - which brought home a "real" paycheck - and me shooting games everywhere, anyplace, anytime while caring for a new baby boy and later an adopted daughter (which is another incredible story of synchronicity).
I loved the games, and I loved the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical challenge of trying to capture the peak of action moments. And somehow it all held together.
When I left the SFPD I lost my 49er access and was still being turned down for work by the team. I’d paid my dues in eight years of doing hundreds of high school and youth league games all over the Bay Area. Literally, I was willing to low crawl five miles over broken glass if that’s what it took to do 49er games. Finally in 1984, the late Ed Salmina, editor of the Novato Advance, a weekly newspaper in town, requested credentials from the 49ers in my name to photograph games for the paper. I had a foot in the door. Over the next three seasons - 1984, 1985, 1986 - I built a solid portfolio of images of Montana, Walsh, Rice and Lott. I befriended Michael Zagaris, the 49er team photographer. Late in the 1987 season, a job shooting all the black and white images for the 49er game programs opened up, and Michael called offering me the job.
The first game I ever worked for a 49er paycheck was a Sunday night on November 29, 1987, at Candlestick Park against the Browns. On the fourth play of the game the 49ers had the ball on their own 40-yard line and I was kneeling along the sideline at the Cleveland 20. The 49ers broke the huddle, and intuition told me to move 2-1/2 yards to my left. When the play started I was focused on Montana with a 600mm lens. As he dropped back, set up and released the ball I could see it was headed to Jerry Rice, and Jerry was sprinting down the sideline toward me.
I quickly came off the 600mm and grabbed the 28mm hanging around my neck. It was prefocused on the area right in front of me. (These were the days before auto-focusing cameras.) Just as I got the 28mm to my eye - while holding with my left hand the 600mm mounted on a monopod - Rice dove and laid out for the slightly overthrown pass, fully extending himself directly in front of me with the ball on the end of his fingertips. I shot three frames of images before Rice disappeared behind the side judge referee who was standing just to my right.
If I had not moved the 2-1/2 yards just before the snap of the ball, Rice’s incredible diving catch would have been screened from my view by the referee.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame selected that picture as the 1987 NFL picture of the year. It still hangs in permanent display in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It was later chosen as one of the top 100 pictures in the history of the NFL and ran in a "double truck" layout on pages 32 and 33 of the 1999 book Best Shots: The Greatest NFL Photography of the Century.
It cemented me with the 49ers and has allowed me to photograph, in nearly every stadium in the country, some of the greatest players, games and plays in the history of the NFL (including three 49er Super Bowl victories).
Synchronicity, destiny and fate?
In the mid-1990’s a friend recommended a book she was reading, The Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield. To be honest, at first I thought the book was a little hokey and that a lot of the coincidences were too corny sounding - like some 50’s TV serial thriller.
A couple of months later in a bookstore, I happened upon the study companion to that book, The Celestine Prophecy: An Experiential Guide, which I found significantly more interesting and informative than the book. It went into great detail explaining "meaningful coincidences" and the phenomenon of synchronicity, a subject I could easily identify with because of examples from my own experience.
After studying it for several months, for the first time in my life I felt like I had a true understanding of myself. I found a sense of inner peace by trusting "the process" of life and by letting myself be guided, not by a forced set of goals, but rather by knowing I was fulfilling my life’s destiny. I developed a feeling that if I did things from my heart - acted truly from my intrinsic essence and core values - then somehow, someway, sometime when I most needed it, life would take care of me and give me the answers.
And it did.
This of course sounds easier than it was. But as I gathered more and more experience of trusting "the process," my confidence in "the process" (and in myself) grew.
The Tenth Insight: Holding the Vision, a sequel to the Celestine Prophecy, appeared. Again I thought it was just OK, but again when the experiential guide was published, it resonated with me. As I studied the ideas of reincarnation, birth vision, life journey and compensation in the guide, I began to tie together and make sense of my life.
Then one summer afternoon sitting by my pool reading page 159, it all came to me ... The sense of familiarity about Mission #115 on October 14, 1943 over Schweinfurt, Germany ... The dream I’d had the night I left the SFPD of being in a burning and crashing plane ... It finally fit together.
I was reading about reincarnation and remembering one’s Birth Vision. A lady was quoted as saying, "I had to tie together and round off all the loose ends from the life just before ... I wanted to come back because I just had died young."
Immediately, I knew I had died in a B-17 during the raid on Schweinfurt. I was 19 years old, had grown up in the Depression and saw the B-17 and flying as being very romantic and glamorous compared to the poor life I’d led.
I quickly flipped back to page 132: "There is always compensation in life ... if you allow it and look for it ..." Now I understood: the strange, mysterious good fortunes of my life and career were compensation for the last life.
Reading on, I learned that to come back and lead another life one must have a definite reason and purpose. This may sound perverse, but my number one reason was to be happy doing something that was my essence and something that would touch other people’s lives and bring them happiness.
I then read about choosing one’s birth parents for a specific reason.
My mother was a very depressive personality; she eventually committed suicide. In a way, I learned from her how NOT to live my life. That sparked the idea of leaving the SFPD to pursue my essence - photography.
From my father I developed a love of sports (especially football) and learned to see the beauty in the world. Yet I also learned the value of intimacy because he had an extremely difficult time expressing his feelings.
At last, I was certain what that dream was all about. It was validation telling me: I wasn’t given another life to come back and be a cop in San Francisco.
But I also learned from the book that when you come back, you bring with you previous habits and bad traits - all of which need to be worked on.
For many years after I left the SFPD, I felt guilt and had a sense that I didn’t deserve all the positive things that happened to me - particularly when it concerned my photography business, which was and still is always on the financial edge. But miraculously to this day, just about the time I think I’ve had it ... something happens to keep it together ... The phone will ring with business, or I’ll meet somebody, or something will be published and money will flow enough to keep things going until the next crisis. And then the cycle repeats.
Finally ... I accepted the idea that I’d been reincarnated and allowed to come back and pursue my Birth Vision ... and here I am.
Bill’s website is http://www.billfoxsportsphotos.com/bio.html
Bill Fox - Novato, CA