Bob Lilly looked forward to the perks that came along with being named to the Kodak All-America team in 1960 – a trip to New York and appearing on the Ed Sullivan television show.
“(Comedienne) Phyllis Diller made her debut the same time we were on and so she kept us laughing the whole time,” said Lilly. “It was quite an experience because I had watched Ed Sullivan many years. It was a huge honor for one thing and then it was really nice to see how nice Ed Sullivan was and how they did the show. I was very excited about the whole deal.”
Lilly received an added bonus as part of the deal.
“They gave each of us a Motormatic 35mm camera and it had a Schneider lens on it. It was kind of like a rangefinder camera,” Lilly said. “And they gave us 200 rolls of prepaid film and mailers so that we could mail it to them and they would be back in about a week. That was kind of fun
“We had a [Kodak] brownie at home but someone else always took the pictures. So I think (the Motormatic) was the first camera I ever actually took a picture with. I took some pictures of New York City. That year I went up there three or four times (for being named to other college all-star teams) and I took the camera one other time.”
After being chosen by Dallas in the first round of the 1961 draft, the Cowboys’ inaugural selection, Lilly took the camera with him to training camp.
“I got more and more involved in it and started taking lots of pictures of my teammates my rookie year,” said Lilly. “I tried to be discreet, but I did make them pose sometimes. That’s when they would ham it up.
“And then my second year, I bought a new camera called a Leica M-3 and [noted photographer] Ansel Adams books. He had some teaching books out as well as some of his photo books. I also took a course. That was really about the beginning of the process to the end. It was composition, lighting and it went on through how to burn and dodge. Burn just means shading an area while having it in the enlarger and you dodge it if it’s a little bit too dark. It’s kind of a trial and error thing.
“I started up my first darkroom after the season of ’62. I had an apartment which had two bathrooms and in one I put a piece of plywood across the tub and put a (print) washer in there. It had a hose and you just stuck that over the snout and it would circulate water in this thing. I put my enlarger on the commode and put a red bulb over the lavatory. And I put a little piece of plywood on the lavatory where I could put my (photo) paper safe.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think it was a perfect hobby for me because I always like to tinker around with anything. But tinkering around with cameras was a lot of fun.”
While the defensive tackle was having a lot of fun and was incredibly successful on the field, as being named All-Pro seven times and appearing in a club-record 11 Pro Bowls would attest, Lilly continued tinkering around with cameras and took “thousands of negatives” over the course of his 14 years with Dallas.
“I have printed up a lot of the pictures of my teammates,” Lilly said. “I scanned those negatives and produced them for a book Sam Blair and I did together called Bob Lilly: Reflections, which was kind of a photo essay of the early years of the Cowboys with teammates. In the locker room, on the airplane, in the bus, of their children at training camp, just various things. And a few of them have told me if it hadn’t been for me taking pictures of their children they wouldn’t have ever had pictures.”
And while Lilly retired from the Cowboys following the 1974 season, his passionate devotion to photography has remained robust. Evolving from back-and-white prints to color prints to digital, from darkrooms and chemicals to computers and scanners, his camera’s viewfinder simply changed subjects – from teammates to landscapes – which have led to numerous trips throughout the western part of the United States.
“I think a lot of that was because of the books I acquired of Ed Weston and Ansel Adams and then others later. It showed me places to go that I hadn’t been. An evolution is what it was,” said Lilly. “It’s like going hunting. It’s the same thing.
“I know where I want to go and what the light’s going to be because I’ve been there so many times. There are spots all the way from New Mexico, West Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, the California Sierras, the wheat fields of Oregon, the wheat fields of Kansas, the old barns and the old tractors that are left out to decay. And I do a lot of other things like old barbershops and old lighthouses if they’re any good.”
Also stressing the importance of taking and saving family photos, Lilly, as one would imagine after carrying around a camera for over 50 years, has collected a countless number of “good” shots.
“They make glassine negative strip holders and holders for transparencies. You put them in these folders and then you put them in binders, it’s like a notebook that you used to have when you were a kid,” Lilly said. “I try to label the outside so I know about what’s in it.
“I honestly would guess that I have 50 or 60 binders that I know of. They’re probably two to four inches wide and they’re full of these transparencies. I have a light table so sometimes I just go through and look at them and I’ll mark some as possibilities to scan and make pictures out of.”
Those select pictures are put to extraordinarily good use. Lilly uses his talent to raise money for others.
“I donate them to the charities I’m involved in when they have their auctions,” said Lilly. “One of them is kind of interesting because it’s the Ronald McDonald House in Temple, which covers central Texas. Randy White and I’ve been hosting that for 13 or 14 years and we get several Cowboys to play in the golf tournament and come to the auction. And other people donate things, too. The auction raises quite a bit of money and the golf tournament is very successful.”