I miss reading Paul Zimmerman the way I miss reading Will McDonough. For a football fan, the void remains palpable, perhaps permanent.
Zimmerman — “Dr. Z” to the legions of loyal readers who followed him during his 55 years of writing about football, most notably at Sports Illustrated — was cantankerous and charismatic, authoritative and authentic. Like McDonough, he was an actual insider with the NFL powers-that-be rather than the common current definition of an insider: a reporter designated as such by his employer for promotional purposes.
Like that of McDonough, who died in January 2003, his inimitable voice is missed. Yet Zimmerman’s life is not in past tense. He is still alive and of sharp mind at 81 years old, as a beautiful little essay of a film — titled “NFL Films Presents: Yours Truly, Dr. Z” and running slightly less than nine minutes — on NFL.com reminds us.
But he is trapped in a cruelly ironic prison: Since suffering the first of a series of strokes in November 2008, the prolific writer and voracious reader has not been able to read or speak.
Ken Rodgers, the supervising producer for NFL Films, was working on a documentary for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series — a look back on the 1983 NFL draft, titled “Elway to Marino” — when the idea began to germinate about finding a way to help Dr. Z tell his story. To give him his voice back, in whatever way he could.
“The one guy I wish I could have interviewed for [“Elway to Marino”] was Paul Zimmerman,’’ said Rodgers. “Paul was one of the three ESPN talents on set at the draft room in 1983, and he was by far the most vocal in his opinion, as you can imagine.
“He was funny, he was eloquent, he was right, he was wrong [he’s famous for panning Miami’s pick of Dan Marino], he was flabbergasted, it was really everything you’d want in front of a television camera.
“That we couldn’t follow up with him and couldn’t look back with him on that draft 30 years later because of his current situation struck me as sad. We missed his voice, and it made me start thinking of a way to give him that opportunity in some sense to get it back.”
Rodgers reached out to Zimmerman and his wife Linda (known as the “The Flaming Redhead” to Dr. Z’s readers through the years) and explained that he would like to give an update on how he’s doing now from his point of view. After several days of discussing topics and approaches, they agreed to the film.
The result, which deserves far more than the 4,000-plus views it currently has, is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The setting is in Zimmerman’s enormous, overstocked library, where he’s surrounded by artifacts of his football life: photos from his own athletic feats — he once boxed Ernest Hemingway and played against a football team led by a guy named Lombardi — as well as his own magazine articles and books, including the seminal “A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football.”
The limitations of Zimmerman’s ability to verbally communicate are made apparent quickly. He says “yeah” and “no,’’ but when speaking at length, it comes out as a string of the word “when.”
Yet the film is told in the first person, with actor Tom Wopat speaking on Zimmerman’s behalf, even appearing on camera with him in a couple of humorous scenes. Wopat, an accomplished singer and stage actor who unfortunately is best known for his early ’80s role on “The Dukes of Hazard,” isn’t so much a narrator as he a conduit for Zimmerman’s words.
Which leaves the most obvious question unanswered: How did Rodgers, and eventually Wopat, know what Zimmerman wanted to say?
“It was trial and error, a time-intensive process,’’ said Rodgers. “I would say, ‘So is it true you boxed Hemingway?’ And he would answer with his, ‘Oh, when-when-when-when,’ and shake his head. In this case, he pointed to his crotch. ‘Oh, when-when when-when-when.’ And I’d say, ‘Hemingway hit you below the belt once in a while?’ and he’d say, ‘when-when-when-when’ and shake no and point to his crotch. And I’d say, ‘He hit you below the belt more?’ And he lit up: ‘Yeah, yeah.’
“And so the sentence was, ‘He hit me below the belt more than he hit me above it.’ And the whole essay was done that way.”
Rodgers wasn’t putting words in Zimmerman’s mouth. He was letting the writer choose his words.
“It got to the point where I would have a particular sentence that I would read him, and he would say, ‘No.’ And we’d have to figure out which part of that sentence he didn’t like. So I would say, ‘Is it this word?’ ‘No.’ Is it this word? ‘Yes.’ And I’d say, ‘OK, you have a problem with this word. Do you want to use this word instead?’ ‘No.’ How about this word? ‘No.’ This word? ‘Yes.’ And we’d rewrite that way.
“As I said, it was very time-intensive, but he’s capable of doing it and he’s all there and he says so much with his expressions that you get it real quickly.”
It’s wonderful to hear from him, but it also becomes apparent that there’s so much more he wants to say. There is a scene in the film’s final few minutes in which Zimmerman, whose eyes remain remarkably expressive, wipes away tears.
“He was fearful of people feeling sorry for him,’’ said Rodgers. “He’s not in that space where he wants to feel pitied at all. This is an extremely tough situation, but here’s exactly how he’s dealing with it. It’s this mix of wistfulness, of tears, which he certainly has, of humor and laughter, which he certainly has.
“It’s really not as simple as, ‘Look at this poor guy who can’t talk anymore.’ That would be the easy way out. I think he was glad that I wasn’t interested in doing a woe-is-me, here’s-Paul Zimmerman-five-years-into-it piece.
“He was happy that I wanted it to be a realistic, nuanced portrayal of his situation. That’s what he would have done as a writer.”
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