As the final seconds of the 2017 NCAA National Championship Basketball game ticked by, the video feed on Paul Fowler’s phone began to buffer. From his perch atop 140 West Franklin Plaza, he worried that he would miss the Tar Heels’ victorious moment.
But he also knew that it would only take a few more seconds to know if they won. He put his phone aside and turned to his 14-year-old son Sterling who was with him on the roof. “We’ll know in a minute,” Fowler said to him.
As if on cue, Franklin Street began to fill with revelers and the air began to fill with celebratory cheers.
That’s when Fowler started snapping photos.
Fowler is a lifelong Tar Heel fan. “My father went to UNC. I did too. When the Tar Heels won the National championship in ’93, I was on Franklin Street, covered in blue paint.”
“My father went to UNC. I did too. When the Tar Heels won the National championship in ’93, I was on Franklin Street, covered in blue paint.”
Fowler has worked for UNC Health Care for 18 years, starting as an associate for UNC Physician and Associates’ Human Resources department, and eventually making his way to the UNC Health Care IT department.
It was during his early years with the health care system that Fowler began to wonder what the contrast of Franklin Street might look like between the moments before the Tar Heels win and afterward.
It was a few years before he was able to test his idea. In 2005, he enlisted a college friend named Cody Lee, who had some photography expertise, and they scouted a location. He enlisted another college friend named Paige Parsells to import the photos into Photoshop and lay out the spread.
These days Fowler mostly works solo.
Every year he takes the shot, he tries to get it from a different angle. And, he said, the before shot is usually the more difficult to get.
“When the game is on Franklin Street is basically a ghost town – most folks are glued to the TV watching the game. But I like to capture the street when there are no cars or people. It can be pretty challenging to time that right.”
As the final seconds of the game ticked away, Fowler and his son waited expectantly. When the final buzzer sounded in Phoenix, the effect in Chapel Hill was almost immediate.
“It’s amazing to watch it unfold. It’s like stirring up an anthill,” said Fowler. “Within seconds there are just massive amounts of people in the street.”
The first year Fowler put the pictures together, he wasn’t sure whether it was something people would be interested in, and so in 2005 he sat on the pictures for a few days before he began distributing them to local shops. His first run was only 50 prints. Chapel Hill Sportswear bought 20, but by the time Fowler had gotten home, they had called asking for 50 more. It was only a few days before the prints were available in shops all over Chapel Hill.
In 2009, he made sure to have the prints ready for the morning after the victory.
“I’ll never forget that morning. I was walking into a store on Franklin Street with box of probably 100 posters and I couldn’t get from the front of the store to the back without people just grabbing them out of the box.”
This year, there was the added stress of getting the files to the printer on time so they would be ready for the following morning.
“I have a printer, his name is Keith Johnson. He helped us this year and in 2009. He’s gracious enough to get the file from me electronically, load it into a print queue and start printing all night long, and I pick them up at 8 in the morning. This year, Keith texted me at 10 after midnight and said I need this file by 1:30 a.m. Luckily, I was able to park a little ways off from where the crowd was gathering. When we got home, I sat at my kitchen table, went through all the shots and picked the right pair, and rushed them off to the printer. I got it to him right at 1:30 in the morning.”
There’s a big rush on the posters the night after the big win, but Fowler said he is surprised by how popular they are throughout the year – at graduation, at basketball summer camps, football Saturdays and around Christmas time, too.
“People just go absolutely nuts for championship memorabilia.”
The idea is to give Tar Heel fans a way to remember the moment of the win. “The posters are small and inexpensive enough that they can be tacked up on a dorm room wall, but they are nice enough that you can frame them up for an office or home setting also. And people just go absolutely nuts for championship memorabilia.”
Fowler said that his favorite part about making these posters is how widely they’ve be shared. In 2005, one his posters was shipped off to Italy. But there is one place the posters hang that stands above the others.
Roy Williams has all three posters hanging in his office. Fowler met Williams at a book signing a few years ago and mentioned that he was the one who created the posters. Hearing this, Williams paused mid-pen stroke and said to Fowler “those are my favorite pictures in my entire office.”
Just this year, Fowler was watching UNC play Florida State on ESPN. “Before going to break, they ran a taped interview with Coach Williams in his office and you could see my posters framed in the background behind him. The calls and texts started coming in immediately.”
In addition to the thrill of victory, this year’s trip up to the rooftops came with another pleasant surprise.
“The moment that moved me most this year was when my son, who was with me up there on the rooftop, looks at me and says ‘Dad, I want to go to school here now. I didn’t know Carolina was like this.’ He was beside himself.”