Gary Zimmerman: Viking, Bronco cherished time in the Rockies

Steve Doerschuk

Will Gary Zimmerman go into the Hall of Fame on Saturday as a Viking or a Bronco? There is no official answer.

Older Cleveland fans who visit Cooperstown are disappointed to find that the sculpted likeness of Gaylord Perry (Baseball Hall of Fame, 1991; Cy Young Award as an Indian) is wearing a San Francisco Giants cap.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame does not ask enshrinees to designate a team. Zimmerman, who spent seven years with the Vikings and five with the Broncos, simply comes to Canton, Ohio, as an NFL giant. The football museum’s bronze busts reflect only the faces, not any team.

For what it’s worth, Zimmerman’s warmer memories come from Denver.

He broke in with the Vikings when they were trying to establish an identity outside the long shadow of Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant. Zimmerman played left tackle from the time Jerry Burns was hired as head coach in 1986 through Burns’ sixth and final season, 1991.

He got along fine with Burns, picturing himself as a career Viking, but he wound up clashing with the next coach.

“I played one year with Dennis (Green) and ended up getting out of Minnesota,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t want to bash him. I had a personal issue I don’t want to get into.”

Zimmerman was 31. Health had become an issue. Minnesota’s notoriously hard playing surface left him aching all over.

“If my choice had been playing for Minnesota or doing nothing, I’d have done nothing,” he said. “Denver wanted me, so ... ”

His first three years with the Broncos, 1993-95, were nothing special. The Broncos went 24-24. Yet the mile-high air represented a welcome second wind.

“Denver was a shock,” Zimmerman said. “I noticed right away how much better they treated players. It was like I was a dog from the pound and got rescued.

“Minnesota at that time was a bottom-dollar type of organization. Everything was dictated by the bottom line.

“I was there seven years and never met an owner. I would see one strut around practice once or twice.

“Pat Bowlen was friendly to everyone in the locker room. That set a tone. I couldn’t believe how well the Broncos treated people.”

Zimmerman’s first head coach in Denver was Wade Phillips, now with the Cowboys.

“Wade was such a great coach,” Zimmerman said. “He was not real strict. He was one to ‘treat you like a man,’ but some people take advantage of that.”

Mike Shanahan took over in 1995, going 8-8. The Broncos went 13-3 the next season and won the Super Bowl. It turned out to be Zimmerman’s final year.

“I played football all those years,” Zimmerman said. “Until Shanahan came, I didn’t really know how to win.

“From him and my position coach, Alex Gibbs, that’s where I learned how to win.”

The Repository