WITH A DEEP APPRECIATION OF THE GAME AND AN INCISIVE EYE,PAUL ZIMMERMANWAS ABLE TO TELL SOME OF FOOTBALL'S GREATEST STORIES. HERE ARE A FEW
FOR 48 YEARS Paul Zimmerman covered the NFL, first as a reporter and columnist at three New York City daily newspapers, then, from 1979 to 2008, as a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior writer. He had nearly completed work on his personal memoirs when a series of strokes in '08 left him largely unable to speak, read or write. Peter King, editor-in-chief of The MMQB, has collected and edited Zimmerman's work for a book to be released in September.
The first pro football locker room I ever saw was in 1960—Franklin Field in Philadelphia, for the Eagles-Packers NFL championship game. I had been with the New York World-Telegram and Sun for six months 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. The editors wanted to see how I would handle myself in the big arena, so they assigned me to get 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 lost to the Eagles, but afterward I couldn't get over the way the Green Bay middle three of Jim Ringo and Fuzzy Thurston and Jerry Kramer had crushed the center of Philly's defense, including the great Chuck Bednarik. The first guy I saw in the locker room was Thurston.
"Hey, great job against Eddie Khayat," I blurted. 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, their changeups. 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 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. The Packers ran for 223 yards 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. Uh-oh. I excused myself. I looked for Bart Starr. He was gone. Paul Hornung was being helped into his sport coat; 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 almost out the door.
"Uh, Coach?" I said.
"I said everything I had to say to all the writers," he said. "We needed more time, O.K.?" And he was gone. Everybody was gone except for some equipment men loading stuff into bags. I made my way up to the press box.
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 close by his left hand, gray 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.
"O.K., whadaya 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."
"O.K., 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.
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!"
It took me two years before I saw the inside of a professional football locker room again.
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 for Tuesday, well in advance. That's how nervous I was.
Lombardi 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 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. I'm sure Bengston 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...." 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 [a combined $1 million, a record in those days].... I've got to know whether they can play."
I was so feverish to call my paper and tell them to hold the back page because I've got a scoop from Lombardi that I could hardly bear it. The 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, number 33; Donny Anderson, halfback, number 44—I prayed to whatever football gods lived high above 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 Packers' beat guys, Bud Lea of the Milwaukee Sentinel. He started laughing. "Welcome to the club," he said. "[Lombardi] knows that [Bears coach George] 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."
I interviewed Lombardi for the last time in May 1970, three months before he died. We were in the latter stages of the counterculture movement, campus unrest, hippies. I was curious to hear Lombardi's take on all this, and I fully expected some diatribe about people who were too lazy or selfish to work. His answer made me ashamed of myself for trying to stereotype one of the most unusual and perceptive thinkers I ever encountered.
"They're showing an awareness of things; they're making themselves heard," Lombardi said. "They have a right to say what they want, and it behooves us to listen. I don't know ... my own lack of awareness.... In my own little sphere, maybe I didn't see the things I should have. My kids tell me things, and sometimes I have trouble understanding them. Well, I've got to learn."
He never had the chance.
DISAPPOINTMENT is always part of the business. If you can't handle being put in your place from time to time, don't be a sportswriter. In the mid-1990s I was in the Colts' camp. I was almost through for the day when Tony Siragusa, their right defensive tackle, asked if he could speak to me. We talked about why the things he did were held in such low regard, why the pass rushers got the big contracts and all the publicity, how coaches always stressed a run defense but then gave all their praise to the sackers. I agreed. I hated it almost as much as he did. He was passionate on the subject, and I liked that about him.
Move ahead a few years to the press-interview day before the 2001 Super Bowl, Ravens vs. Giants. The Baltimore players were being interviewed in the ballroom of Tampa's Hyatt Westshore Hotel. The two tables that commanded the biggest collection of writers belonged to Ray Lewis and Siragusa, a full-blown 350 pounds now, raconteur, storyteller, future color commentator for Fox. He read a newspaper during the Q-and-A session, establishing obvious unconcern. Ah, well, if that's his shtick.
"Is this Ravens defense the best in history?" someone asked.
"Name a better one," he said.
"Steel Curtain Steelers," I said.
"What are you, from Pittsburgh?" he said, looking up from his paper. "No, from Jersey, same as you," I said. A few writers laughed.
When the meeting broke up, the Goose came over to me, plainly annoyed.
"What did you want to do that for, break up my act like that?" he said. I waited a moment, just to see if there was any recognition at all.
"You don't remember me, do you?" I said.
"No," he said. "Should I?"
THERE ARE scenes that stand out in such sharp relief. One was an interview with Joe Namath on the dock behind his home in Tequesta, Fla., in 1993. In '69, my fourth year of covering the Jets with Namath as the quarterback, he stopped talking to me. Bang! Just like that. I thought it had something to do with the league office forcing him to get out of his nightclub, Bachelors III. I was writing from training camp, a city-side reporter on the Post was covering the gossip stuff, and the paper had combined our bylines.
"Hey, Jimmy, what's the story?" I asked Jimmy Walsh, Namath's agent. It's a scary thing to be a beat writer and not have access to the biggest name on your beat.
"He's just in a tough situation now," Walsh said. "He'll get over it."
It lasted for 24 years. It got ugly. A few others were in the same boat—Larry Fox, the beat writer for the New York Daily News, and Dick Young, the News's lead columnist. Namath wouldn't even address a mass press conference if he spotted us in the crowd. He would tell other players to avoid us. You pretend to shrug it off. It stayed with me like a lingering disease.
Twenty-five years after the Super Bowl season, SI did a quarter-century retrospective, and the editors told me I'd be going down to Florida to interview Namath. I said good try, but he doesn't talk to me. They said his secretary told them it was O.K. I said his secretary didn't know who the writer was. They said, Go anyway, so I did, knowing exactly what would happen. I'd drive to his house and hear, "I'm not talking to you." I was ready for it.
What I wasn't ready for was one of the best and warmest sessions with an athlete that I'd ever experienced. He talked about his life, his disappointment in trying and failing in an acting career, how the game had affected his life. We swapped old stories about people we knew. I told him that with a few minutes to go in the Super Bowl game, I made my way down to the field so I could get position on the dressing room. I was standing next to John Sample on the sideline, behind the Jets' bench, and I said, "Great game, John." And we shook hands. And Gerry Philbin, the notoriously violent defensive end, saw us and screamed at me, "The game's not over! Get the hell out of here!"
"My arm, feel my arm," Namath said. "Goose bumps. That's what I get when I hear stories about Philbin and those guys, goose bumps." And that was the way it went for an afternoon. And finally, when I was getting back in my car, I asked him what I wanted to know for 24 years. "What did I write that bothered you so much?"
"I don't know," he said. "I don't remember."
"You don't remember? You don't remember?" I said, unable to hide the anguish. "You just about ruined my life and you don't remember?"
"Well, I was different then," he said. "I was more aggressive."
I'VE BEEN asked what was the greatest play I've ever seen. Steve Young's 49-yard gallop that left Vikings tacklers all over the field in 1988 comes to mind, but emotionally, I can't get away from a play I saw Lawrence Taylor make in '83 against the Redskins. In the context of the game, it was almost meaningless; the Giants were down by 10, and on the chart it was a 15-yard run by Joe Theismann. Taylor, rushing from the right wing, gripped 300-pound left tackle Joe Jacoby by the shoulder pads and threw him, pushing Theismann out of the pocket, and the quarterback was off and running, with LT in pursuit. George Starke, the right tackle, peeled back to pick up Taylor, who knocked Starke to the ground without breaking stride. Fifteen yards downfield, Taylor brought Theismann down. He had disposed of 560 pounds' worth of offensive linemen and run down a 4.6 quarterback. Nowhere was the play ever mentioned.
I close my eyes and see Taylor, bent over in pain, by his locker after he had recorded three sacks against the Saints, single-handedly turning the game for the Giants, playing under the pain of a torn pectoral muscle. Bill Parcells knelt in front of Taylor and leaned over, and they touched foreheads.
"I didn't think you'd make it," the coach said.
"I didn't either," Taylor said.
MAYBE IT'S because the sporting arena is such a vibrant place, but it's very hard to accept the death of its dynamic performers. I just can't picture Walter Payton dead. I keep remembering the time I sat with him in the lobby of the Bears' dorm at their training camp in Lake Forest, Ill. He brought his motorcycle in and placed it next to a wall, and as I talked to him, he just couldn't sit still, his words coming as fast as his movements, a dizzying capsule of energy itself. It was getting dark outside, and in the dim light of the lobby Payton actually seemed to glow; it was as if an aura was emanating from him. Fascinating, a little scary, unforgettable. How could he have died at 45?
I wrote a book with defensive end Lyle Alzado, who died in 1992. After I got to know him, he didn't hold back. He was the only player who ever told me that he was using anabolic steroids while he was an active player. Six seasons after I did the book, Alzado played in the '84 Super Bowl for the Raiders against the Redskins. The Raiders won big. He'd been a consistent force, exerting pressure on Theismann. The locker facilities in Tampa Stadium were cramped. Maneuvering was tough, as it normally is after a Super Bowl, and I was struggling to get my quotes, inching through the mass of bodies. All of a sudden, someone was gripping my arm. It was Alzado. His eyes looked wild.
"I've got to talk to you," he said.
"Jesus, Lyle," I said. "Now? Right now?"
"Yeah, now. Let's go in back."
I didn't know what had happened, a major felony, someone busted for drugs, what? We went into a back area, behind the trainers' rooms and the washing machines and the piles of dirty uniforms, into almost pitch darkness.
"What? What is it?" I asked him.
He stared at me for a moment. "How'd I play?"
Phew, what a relief. "Great, you played great, Lyle."
"Really? You're not s------- me?"
"Thanks," he said.
This excerpt from Dr. Z: The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer by Paul Zimmerman is printed with the permission of Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, go to www.triumphbooks.com/DrZ