The one-time sparring partner of Ernest Hemingway, Paul Zimmerman is one of the modern era's groundbreaking football minds, a man who methodically charted every play while generating copious notes, a human precursor to the data analytics websites of today. In 2008, Zimmerman had nearly completed work on his personal memoirs when a series of strokes left him largely unable to speak, read, or write. Compiled and edited by longtime SI colleague Peter King, these are the stories he still wants to see told.
Dr. Z’s memoir is a rich package of personalities, stories never shared about such characters as Vince Lombardi, Walter Payton, Lawrence Taylor, and Johnny Unitas. Even Joe Namath, with whom Zimmerman had a legendary and well-documented 23-year feud, saw fit to eventually unburden himself to the remarkable scribe.
Also included are Zimmerman's encounters with luminaries and larger-than-life figures outside of sports, notably Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, and Hunter S. Thompson. But not to be missed are Zimmerman's quieter observations on his own life and writing, witticisms and anecdotes which sway between the poignant and hilarious. No matter the topic, Dr. Z: the Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer proves essential, compelling reading for sports fans old and new.
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About the Author
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Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory
I have covered sports for 48 years and have been primarily a football writer for many of them, I have an entire room full of charts and old programs and a lifetime full of memories. I close my eyes, and a panorama comes sweeping across my brain. I am what is known as a footballhead.
A few years ago, I had a dream. So vivid was that dream that I couldn't shake it for days, and at odd times, I would catch myself committing parts of it to paper, and they took the form of football plays. Yes, that's right. I dreamed about the X's and O's except that they didn't line up into patterns that would be recognizable by today's players. They were lined up in the single-wing formation.
The what? You know, the single-wing; the run and pass tailback lined up deep, behind the center in an abbreviated shotgun; the fullback set a step or two in front of him on either side; the wingback on the flank and the blocking back up near the line, cruising like an H-Back or second tight end of today, searching for the murderous blocking angles. What was different, though, was that I had lined up the current Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons in that formation that hadn't been regularly used in the league since 1951, and only by one team in those days, the Steelers.
Vick was my pass and run tailback star in that dream, 254-pound T.J. Duckett was my fullback, also known as the spinning fullback in the old days, because he'd often do a half turn and hand the ball off or fake a handoff; little Warrick Dunn would be my wingback. I could just see him slicing through the weak side on a short reverse, behind the blocking of 250-pound Brian Kozlowski, my blocking back. And wouldn't Koz have fun, leveling all those pigeons from the blind side?
I couldn't get the idea out of my head. The single-wing still was used by some successful college teams when I was in school. It was a thing of beauty when mighty Michigan ran it with Charlie Ortmann and Wally Teninga and Killer Kempthorn, formful and flashy when used by UCLA and at times USC — with a dazzling tailback named Frank Gifford — and downright nasty when you had to line up against it. Nope, no fun at all if you were a tackle, which I was, and you were playing in front of the imbalanced strong side. It felt like half a dozen different people were either double-teaming or trapping you. Playing against the short side meant lining up over the weakside end ... what a racket! It was like stealing. But that was another thing about facing the single-wing. The unfairness of it made you want to cry.
After a few days, that strange dream became a reality in my poor, tormented brain. I've seen quite a few guys who would have been brilliant as run-pass stars, working out of a deep tailback set — Randall Cunningham, the two Youngs, Vince and Steve, and, of course, Vick. I remember once asking Vince Lombardi what would happen if a team all of a sudden surprised everyone by coming out in a single-wing.
"It would embarrass the hell out of us," he said.
I put the same question to Bill Walsh.
"Oh my goodness," he said, "I've never thought of that. You could double-team right down the line, you could trap at almost every hole. My God, it would just chew up those three and four-man lines."
Then I took my looniness one step further. I called Dan Reeves, the Falcons coach, and laid out my entire single-wing scenario for him: Vick as the run and pass tailback, Duckett as the spinning fullback, etc. There was a pause.
"What's a spinning fullback?" he said.
I knew that at that point, it was time to get a grip on things. I had gone over the line. I'd shed my writer's garb and injected myself into the role of strategist, playmaker, God knows what. It had happened before but never to this extent. Usually it just consisted of material that appeared in print, observations that I'd made from the perspective of a former player, things that just were natural to me. My experience certainly had not been all-encompassing — the usual high school run, 3,000-mile trip to Stanford, thrust into the meat-grinder as a 16-year-old child and grimly hanging on for three seasons, never fully understanding the thrashing world of major college football that raged around me, a non-entity but still the possessor of knowledge that only can be gained by hours on the practice field. Then a transfer and the long trip back to Columbia, where I should have been in the first place.
"Possible use as a reserve lineman." The press book said about me, but we never had a full season to find out. The Ivy League Presidents Committee stepped in first and ruled me ineligible for the rest of my senior year for reasons I was too stupid to foresee, but Lou Little, the famous old coach, believed in getting fair value for the dollar, and I was occupying a place at the training table and eating shockingly more than my allotted three squares, so to cover it, I was appointed co-coach, actually line coach, of the 150-pound team. John Wagner and I coached the lightweights to a 2-3 record, finest record in CU lightweight history, you could look it up. And what valuable experience this provided me as a future writer, the ability to see things from the standpoint of an actual coach ... a coach who would spend Friday night drinking with the same classmates he'd have to coach the following day, a fringe lunatic who would occasionally get down and personally show his troops the beauties of the cross body and crab block, executing flawless technique against guys he outweighed by 75 pounds, a coach who would occasionally suit up old buddies who'd been thrown out of Columbia up to two years previously, some of whom weighed up to 190 pounds. Oh yeah, meet the coach, shouting incoherent gibberish at the referees from the sidelines, threatening the hotshots on the opposing team. Oh yeah, he's gonna win a Pulitzer some day.
The magic of the gridiron all came together in a blinding flash for one season, 1956, when I played for a league championship army team in Germany and was selected Honorable Mention All-Europe, and then there were four seasons in the $25-a-game semipro leagues around New York and finally a one-game comeback at age 36 in a league one level down, and that was it. Jim Thorpe was asked to step off the field and take his cleats with him.
What this did was to inject a kind of "I was there" style into my writing that some people find enlightening, but others feel is merely a show of arrogance. There are things you do learn, though. Trash talking, which gets such play in the daily chronicles, is meaningless, actually less than meaningless.
And at the NFL level, so are inspirational talks by coaches, unless they happen to be, "That's gonna cost you." Or "Don't forget to drop off your playbook before you leave." If you need to be inspired by a coach, you're in the wrong business. "Leadership ability," always is regarded as a big part of a quarterback's dossier, but quarterbacks seldom lead anybody; the teammates, who sweat alongside you, do. In fact, a lot of quarterbacks are disliked by the people who have to block for them or catch their passes. These are the things you just know from experience.
The first pro football locker room I ever saw was in 1960, the Eagles-Packers NFL Championship in Franklin Field, Philadelphia. I had been with the New York World-Telegram & Sun for about six months. I had been covering high school sports and I'd worked on the night desk in the summer, before the schools started, with the Little League World Series as my only bylined piece during that period. But they wanted to see how I would handle myself in the big arena, so they sent me down to do loser's dressing room quotes for our regular pro football writer, Joe King. It was a disaster.
The problem was that I was spending my Saturday nights playing guard for the Paterson (N.J.) Pioneers of the Eastern Football Conference, which billed itself as either Minor League Football or the NFL's farm system. Take your pick, but in reality it was one of the many outposts of semipro football. The Packers had lost to the Eagles, but I couldn't get over the way the Green Bay middle three of Jim Ringo, Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer had crushed the center of the Eagles' defense, including the great Chuck Bednarik. The first guy I saw in the Packer locker was Thurston.
"Hey, great job against Eddie Khayat," I blurted out. His eyes narrowed. He had just lost the biggest game of his life. Was this some kind of con job?
"Thanks," he said. I'd been knocked out by the smoothness with which they called their in-line audibles among themselves, their change-ups. I complimented him on it. By now Kramer had joined our little group.
"You're a writer?" he said.
I brushed it off. I told him that we were having trouble calling our audibles on the Paterson Pioneers. I asked them how they called them.
"Hey, Jim!" he called over to Ringo in the next locker. "I want you to meet this guy." So for 10 minutes or so, they laid it out for me, who made the call in each situation, how they handled the dummy calls ... and the Eagle tackles, Khayat and Jess Richardson, which they most definitely had done. The Packers ran for 223 that day. It was a nice friendly little group, and I was thinking, Wow, it sure is great covering an NFL locker room.
Then I noticed that the room was emptying. My page of quotes for Joe King was blank. Oh oh. I excused myself. I looked for Bart Starr. He was gone. They were helping Paul Hornung into his sportcoat; he had suffered a pinched nerve in his shoulder.
"How's the shoulder?" I asked him. "It hurts," he said. And he was gone. I searched for Vince Lombardi. He was on his way out the door, wrapping a muffler around his neck, for the cold.
"Uh, coach," I said.
"I said everything I had to say to all the writers," he said. "We needed more time, OK?" And he was gone. Everybody was gone except for a few stragglers, some equipment men loading stuff into bags. I made my way up to the press box, which was on an odd angle. It looked as if a strong wind might blow it, plop, right onto midfield of the venerable stadium. It matched my own feeling of impending doom.
Put a little pencil mustache on Humphrey Bogart, and I'd hire him to play Joe King in the movie version. Cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth, a bottle of Heineken's close by his left hand, grey fedora pushed back on his head, with his press ticket in the band, Joe was everyone's idea of what an old-time sportswriter should look like. I stood behind him and watched him type.
"OK, waddya got?" he said.
"What do you want?"
"He was on the way out. He said they needed more time."
"And ... AND?"
"And that's what he said."
"OK, gimme Hornung. How about the shoulder?"
"He said it hurt." By now Joe had stopped typing. He was as fascinated by the horror of this as I was.
"What did Starr say?" he said so softly that I could barely hear it.
"Nope, I missed Starr," I mumbled.
Joe took his hat off and laid it on the desk. He turned in his seat and stared at me. "Son, what DID you get?"
"Well, I talked to Kramer and Thurston and Ringo about how they called their audibles, and ..."
He waved me away, as one would dispel a bitter memory. "Out, son. OUT! GET OUT!
"Jack ... Nat ... catch me up on Lombardi ... can you give me a little Starr ... Just a graf or two ... I SAID OUT OF HERE, KID! OUT!"
It took me two years before I saw the inside of a professional locker room again.
People have asked me what Lombardi was really like. My answer always is the same, "Tough to cover, but I'd have given five years of my life." Of the great mass of literature his life has produced, I can usually tell within a few pages whether the author of the latest Lombardi book ever met him, and if he did, if he knew him fairly well. The monuments to Lombardi, many of which are carefully researched and meticulously written, are worthy achievements, but they're missing an element. The people who really knew him mixed in the quirks and oddities, the little snappers, the times when he played the angles.
Once I covered a Green Bay practice when Marvin Fleming, the tight end, was a 21-year-old rookie, youngest player in the league. In the locker room, Lombardi passed his locker and stared at him. Then he did it again. Then he leaned over and said something to him that I couldn't hear. When the coach left, I asked Fleming what he had said. He smiled and shook his head.
"He said, 'Marvin, your eyes look dull. Have you been abusing yourself?'" One of the first games the New York Post sent me out to cover, all by myself, was Green Bay at Chicago in 1966. I set up my audience with Lombardi well in advance for a Tuesday actually. That's how nervous I was. I took a cab from the airport and got there at lunchtime, an hour and a half before my appointment with the coach. It was raining heavily. I told the Packer receptionist who I was and what I was there for. She said, "You must be hungry." Coming from New York, I wasn't familiar with Midwestern hospitality. Yes, I certainly was hungry.
"There's a German restaurant down the street," she said. "They have a luncheon buffet, dumplings, sauerbraten, all you can eat. Do you like that?" I practically fainted. I couldn't talk. I was staggering. I nodded my head.
"It's only a few blocks, but it's raining," she said. "Here, you'd better take my car." And she handed me the keys.
I got back, well stuffed, in time for my audience with Lombardi. He was cordial. He asked me where I grew up and where I had played. I told him, adding that in high school we had scrimmaged against the team he was coaching, St. Cecilia's in Englewood, N.J., and that I had very fond memories of his power sweep. He threw back his head and laughed. Then he called in his line coach, Phil Bengtson, who'd had the same position at Stanford when I was there, just to check me out. Bengtson, God bless him, if it would have been England, he'd have been knighted. I'm sure he didn't remember a thing about me, but just to be a mensch, he gave it the, "Hey, nice to see ya ... how ya been ... I see that you've picked up a little weight," and so forth. Whew. I had passed muster.
So we chatted for a while, and then Lombardi got real serious and said, "You're a young writer, you're from New York, I'm going to give you a good story for your paper." Thump, went my heart, thump thump. "This is the game where I find out about my million dollar rookies, Grabowski and Anderson. All that money we paid them (combined contract a cool million, record numbers in those days) ... I've got to know whether they can play."
And on and on in that vein, until I am so feverish to call my paper and tell them to hold the back page because I've got a scoop from Lombardi, that I can hardly bear it. And I gave them the message, and they held the back page and next day's streamer, in red, blared, LOMBARDI TO UNVEIL MILLION DOLLAR ROOKIES.
P.S: Neither one played a down.
And as I sat there in the press box, watching the backs of those two players, their numbers boring holes in my brain, Jim Grabowski, fullback, No. 33, Donny Anderson, halfback, No. 44, watching their asses flattening on the bench as I prayed, implored whatever football Gods that lived high above Chicago's Wrigley Field to please, please, just send them in for a series or two. Nope, zero and zero. Finally, I mentioned it to one of the Packer beat guys, Bud Lea of the Milwaukee Sentinel. He started laughing.
"Welcome to the club," he said.
"Easy," he said. "He knows that Halas gets everything clipped from the out of town papers. So he might as well plant something, just to give him another thing to worry about."
You're a young writer, you're from New York, step this way, kid, this here's a pea, and it's gonna be under one of these three shells ... Just as a follow, the Pack beat the Bears, 17-0, and held Gale Sayers to 29 yards rushing.
Obviously, it would be a defensive story for me. In the Green Bay locker room, Lombardi was sitting on a little counter in front of the cage where they handed out equipment, in the center of a cluster of writers in overcoats and hats. Steam was rising. They were interviewing the coach, but it looked like they were cooking him. I waited my turn and then asked, "What was your theory in defending Sayers?"
"Force him back into the flow of traffic,'" Lombardi said, "cut off his escape. It's a theory as old as football itself."
Fine. I had my Lombardi quote. It was time to talk to the players. The Packers locker was next to the equipment alcove, through an open door. Dave Robinson, the strongside linebacker who had had a good day, was about 10 feet in. I introduced myself and asked him, "What was your theory in defending Sayers?" "Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" Lombardi shouted from the next room. Both rooms fell silent. I looked through the door, and he had popped up from the center of his steam table and was pointing a finger in my direction. Everyone was staring at me.
"The same thing," he said. "You asked me the same thing, in exactly the same words. What's the matter, didn't you believe me?"
Excerpted from "Dr. Z"
Copyright © 2017 Paul Zimmerman.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Peter King ix
Introduction Linda Bailey Zimmerman xiii
1 Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory 1
2 Centrique to Freaque 21
3 Boxing Ernest Hemingway 35
4 Journalism 43
5 Super Bowl Memories 67
6 Diary of a Madman 75
7 All-Time Teams 93
8 Urgent Dispatch from Comrade Kalugin 149
9 Olympics 157
10 Quarterbacks 193
11 Wine 229
12 Collecting 243
13 Authority 259
14 National Anthem 273