Paul Zimmerman, the legendary Sports Illustrated football columnist, author, former Jets beatwriter and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee, died Thursday at the age of 86.
If you're not familiar with Paul, maybe you've heard of "Dr. Z." That was his alternate name and persona as he sometimes infuriated but always enlightened all those in and around the game who couldn't wait for his weekly columns and eclectic mailbag, on the pages of Sports Illustrated beginning in 1979 and, from the mid-1990s until his retirement, on the SI.com website.
Peter King of NBC Sports, Zimmerman's longtime SI teammate and his staunch supporter and even editor in his later years after several strokes in 2008 left him unable to speak or write, put it succinctly in his first tweet on Zim's passing:
The "raconteur" part was appropriate. When one first met Zimmerman, it could've been on the sidelines of a Jets training camp practice at Hofstra University, where he might be holding an impromptu seminar on how to lateral a rugby ball. Or it could've been a chance exchange in the old Giants Stadium pressbox before an NFL game right after he had finished timing and charting the latest National Anthem performer. Or maybe it was in a gathering of reporters at a restaurant on a Saturday night on the road, where he would discourse about the best wines to pair with the meal ahead.
But those were all appetizers for Dr. Z's main course. He played football, first at Horace Mann School in the Bronx, NY, then at Stanford and Columbia (where he also studied journalism), then as a member of a U.S. Army team while stationed in Germany, and last with the semi-pro Westchester Crusaders of the Atlantic Coast Football League in 1963.
He brought his knowledge of the game with him as he climbed the New York newspaper ladder, from the Journal-American to the World-Telegram and Sun to the New York Post, for which he covered the Jets for 11 seasons. (Also at the Post, Zim wrote a regular wine column.)
At Sports Illustrated, he took the phrase "nuts and bolts" to a new level, with his nickname coming from the analytical approach he took to breaking down NFL games. As he once said, "I had charts, and more charts within the charts." SI wrote recently: "Though his greatest reputation was as a man who understood the intricacies of the game and could convey them to the fan better than anyone else in the business, his colleagues and devoted readers admired him equally, or more so, for his artful longform stories."
Zimmerman wrote the SI cover piece for 14 Super Bowls, cross-generational breakdowns like "Dr. Z's All-Time Team" (parts I and II), and endless insightful features and character studies of the men who played, coached and ran the game. Among his books: the iconic "The Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football" and "The Last Season of Weeb Ewbank."
Another reason for Jets fans to mourn Zimmerman's passing is his contribution to Green & White history as the presenter of the team's candidates to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He laid out the cases for Joe Namath and Don Maynard and Ewbank, whose accomplishments spoke for themselves but who got an extra boost into Canton from Dr. Z's annotations, analyses and anecdotes.
Zimmerman, as not only a Selection Committee member but also a contributor to the Hall's Seniors Committee, was also a champion for Jets defensive lineman Joe Klecko. "I've been in Joe's corner ever since he became eligible for enshrinement," he said. "I believe it's a major oversight that this great player is not in the Hall of Fame."
That was said back in the early 2000s. Klecko remains an annual contender to receive the Seniors nomination for entry into the Hall. When Joe makes it, he'll make it on his own merits. Yet during his presentation to the committee next August, we may hear the knowledgeable voice of Dr. Z one more time.