Gary Zimmerman: Lineman remained mysterious, even to close friends

Steve Doerschuk

Big? Gary Zimmerman was Bigfoot. He was nonverbal. He was frightening. He was big enough. Never mind that the mind of a blocking genius churned inside the helmet, and that a complex heart playing off calculated fear beat beneath jersey No. 65.

He was quiet. This made him mysterious, even to some of his close associates who knew one thing as well as anyone, that he was a fabulous left tackle. The quiet giant went out with a bang — his last game was his first Super Bowl. A decade later, he’s remembered with ... what?

Who is Gary Wayne Zimmerman, and why was he invited to Canton?

Jan. 25, 1998, San Diego, Super Bowl XXXII. Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24.

After the confetti settled, what everyone remembered was John Elway outdueling Brett Favre, with a monster assist from running back Terrell Davis. Only die-hards cared that Denver couldn’t have hung in the shootout without Zimmerman on a bad hip swiveling beneath a worse shoulder.

Zimmerman and Anthony Muñoz defined why protecting a quarterback’s blind side is worth it. Look at it this way: In this year’s draft, Bill Parcells committed the No. 1 overall pick and a $58 million contract to left tackle Jake Long.

Zimmerman finished before the best left tackles got crazy rich. He entered the 1997 season with a new four-year, $12.1 million contract that paid a $2.8 million signing bonus. He never made it to the second year of the deal. His body was shot, not that telling anyone was his style.

He retired with neither fanfare nor quotes, wrapping up a Hall of Fame career in a tissue-thin awareness of who he was.

The quiet man opened up one recent day, from his home in Bend, Ore., where he and his wife have raised two daughters on 40 acres of forested land framed by the Cascade Mountains and Deschutes River.

The “quiet” routine was calculated, he says now, to his advantage. If he wasn’t sure somebody needed to know, he erred on the side of zipping it.

His whole deal, he said, went something like this:

“I didn’t want to let my buddies down.”

Stardom? Glory? Still not his style.

Zimmerman, now 46, will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame during a ceremony Saturday at Fawcett Stadium. He talked about coming to Canton with no trace of entitlement, even though he has been Hall of Fame-eligible for six years, which strikes his former Broncos position coach Alex Gibbs as an irrational snub.

“If Gary doesn’t go in the Hall,” Gibbs said, “who in the world should ever get in?”

The quiet type

Even in Zimmerman’s final week as a 13-year pro, fans read little of him beyond the fact he was always in the Pro Bowl.

He was portrayed as a hermit the week before Super Bowl XXXII, when the only reason he agreed to interviews was to avoid a league-imposed fine.

That week, New York Daily News columnist Rich Cimini wrote: “He’s a man of few words who lives in a log cabin in the backwoods of Oregon.”

Zimmerman wasn’t raised by wolves. He grew up just outside Los Angeles. Over time, he clammed up because he thought certain writers had burned certain players. He erred on the side of talking with none of them. Throughout the 1996 and ’97 seasons in Denver, he helped enforce a ban on Broncos offensive linemen talking to the media.

He still keeps up his guard, to an extent.

“I kind of use it to my advantage,” he says. “People make their own assumptions.”

Like Lambert at linebacker

Never was it assumed Zimmerman couldn’t play, going all the way back to grade school, when his dad, an electrical engineer, told him playing football could get him seriously hurt.

Zimmerman talked his way into playing and became a standout middle linebacker at Walnut High School, 25 miles outside Los Angeles.

He also played on the offensive line, but his favorite player was Pittsburgh’s Jack Lambert, a middle linebacker. When he met Lambert at a football camp, his mind was made up. He wanted to be like Jack. College scouts told him he’d be better as a blocker.

“The reason I wound up going to Oregon was they told me I could play defense,” Zimmerman said. “When I got there, I saw my number was 75, and I thought, ‘That’s funny.’ ”

It was an offensive lineman’s number. He would spend his days as a Duck at center and guard.

“I guess I could have quit,” he said. “I just made the best of it.”

Better suited for tackle

Zimmerman was tall, strong, athletic, studious, smart and driven — perfect traits for a left tackle. Yet he didn’t play the position until the start of his pro career, not in the NFL, but with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League. It was a spring-summer league intended to steal some of the NFL’s thunder.

Zimmerman’s head coach was John Hadl, a former star quarterback for the San Diego Chargers.

“Gary was a quiet kid who did it by example, but one time he spoke up pretty good,” Hadl said. “We were playing Denver, and ... ”

The Express made the playoffs in Zimmerman’s rookie year, 1984, but got off to an 0-9 start in 1985. Hadl’s favorite Zimmerman moment came during a game late in that ordeal.

“We had a crazy owner who would get half drunk,” Hadl said. “It’s halftime, and we’re behind, and he comes in really drunk. He’s ranting and raving and saying he’s gonna fire me right there.

“Gary speaks up and looks at the owner. ‘Let me tell you something. You fire Coach Hadl, and there will not be another play in this game.’ ”

The show went on through the end of a 3-15 season.

“He was obviously gonna be a great player,” Hadl said. “He was a great guy who came from good stock. He was steady and smart. He and a guard named Walt Sweeney were the best two linemen I was ever around.

“Looking back, Gary was definitely as good as anyone who ever played his position.”

Giants pass on Zimmerman

When the USFL folded after the 1985 season, Zimmerman needed a league.

“Two big moving vans came in,” he said. “They took away the film. They took away everything.”

Parcells had a shot at a great left tackle — Zimmerman — years before drafting Long. Parcells’ Giants obtained Zimmerman’s rights but quickly traded him to the Vikings.

What was a kid to think? At first, Minnesota had that sent-to-Siberia feeling. New head coach Jerry Burns was digging in.

“My first day, I walked in, and Jerry said, ‘Who the hell are you? You’re too little to play.’ My first day with the Vikings,” Zimmerman said.

Burns was probing. Perhaps it was the right button to push on a kid driven by fear of failure.

Too little? Zimmerman started all 16 games at left tackle in his first NFL season. The Vikings would have made the playoffs if not for a 1-3 record against the AFC Central, including a 23-20 home loss to Cleveland.

The next year, replacements were used for three games amid a 24-day players strike. Zimmerman started all 12 games for which he suited up, helping the Vikings squeak into the playoffs.

Minnesota began to feel like home.

“A lot of my development goes to those early days with the Vikings,” he said. “I had to go against (Chris) Doleman and (Keith) Millard every day.

“Those guys were great defensive linemen, and back then practice was a full-out scrimmage every day.

“It wasn’t the country club-type deals teams have now. I learned to be a tough guy.”

Success in Minnesota

The Vikings won consistently but not spectacularly during Zimmerman’s stay (1986-92), going 9-7, 8-7, 11-5, 10-6, 6-10, 8-8 and 11-5.

The 8-7 strike year, 1987, became the best. The Vikings beat the Saints and the 49ers in the playoffs and lost an NFC title game thriller to the Redskins, who then crushed Denver, 42-10, in Super Bowl XXII.

Elway, the losing quarterback that day, didn’t win a Super Bowl until 10 years later, with Zimmerman protecting him in Super Bowl XXXII. Zimmerman never played with an Elway-caliber QB in Minnesota. For four years, he never knew whether he’d be protecting Wade Wilson or Tommy Kramer. The next two years, Rich Gannon and Wilson shared the job.

Finally, in his seventh Vikings season under new head coach Dennis Green, Gannon and Sean Salisbury took turns.

Gannon, who years later became a league MVP, recalled his days behind Zimmerman:

“Gary was such a technician. He was so good with his hands and his feet. He was hardly ever out of position.

“He was so competitive. If he missed an assignment, the guy literally would be sick to his stomach.

“After a game, if you talked to him when he was out for a bite with his family, maybe we’d won the game, but if he’d given up a sack, you would have thought we’d lost by three touchdowns.

“The great ones can be like that. They can’t let it go.”

Weary of the North

Zimmerman was almost gone after his one season with Green. Zimmerman and guard Randall McDaniel formed an incredible left side, and the Vikings went 11-5, but he had spent years thinking the Vikings underachieved. His final disappointment came in a home playoff game against Washington. The Redskins rolled, 24-7.

He would have retired rather than play another year in Minnesota.

“I had a personal issue with Dennis, but I don’t want to get into it,” Zimmerman says now.

Denver arranged a trade during the 1993 training camp, after Broncos owner Pat Bowlen became convinced Zimmerman could make a difference. But could Zimmerman stay on the field?

“When I first got traded to Denver and went through the team physical, they said, ‘You need a new hip, right?’ ” Zimmerman said. “All those years playing at Minnesota ... that was back when the (artificial) turf they rolled out really tore you up.”

Zimmerman played five years with Denver, missing just four starts in 80 games. He went to Denver a year after head coach Dan Reeves experimented with Tommy Maddox as a better quarterbacking option than Elway. That ended Reeves’ long run. Then Wade Phillips lasted just two years, going 16-16.

Enter Mike Shanahan as head coach and Gibbs as line coach. It was almost too late for Zimmerman.

“I probably played two years too long,” he said. “My shoulder started going. I had to sneak in and lift weights so nobody knew how weak I was.”

A new home in Denver

Zimmerman couldn’t resist being part of that Rocky Mountain High. Denver’s breakthrough year was 1996, when Elway engineered a 13-3 finish.

“There was a feel to it that with John in there, you were never out of the game,” Zimmerman said.

A 30-27 playoff loss to a second-year expansion team, Jacksonville, came shortly after Zimmerman’s 35th birthday. It was a stunning upset, but the Broncos got over it. They won nine of their first 10 the next year. In the playoffs, they destroyed Jacksonville, 42-17. In the AFC title game, they won 24-21 at Pittsburgh.

By the time they beat the Packers 31-24 in Super Bowl XXXII, Zimmerman had fallen into a routine, glorious and grim.

“The last two years, I was getting injections to play,” he said. “There was kind of a dread in advance, but once the shot was done, I had a great time.

“For three hours on Sunday, I had a clear mind. It was being with your buddies. It was, ‘All right. Let’s play ball.’ ”

The topper was that Super Bowl win. They would repeat the next year, but without Zimmerman. Tony Jones became the left tackle.

“I just couldn’t do it any more,” Zimmerman said. “The shoulder was just really bad.”

The memories are good. That is evident as a conversation with Zimmerman unfolds.

“There was nothing else I’d rather do,” he says. “Part of being a tough guy was the pride of being out there doing your job with your buddies. The biggest thing was not wanting to let my buddies down.”

Zimmerman avoids details about how much he’s hurting now, other than to say NFL life left a painful impression he feels every day.

Was it worth it? Would he play those last two years again?

“Oh yeah,” he said. “Without even thinking about it.”

The Repository