Blazing New Trails

Jim Zorn's tenure as the Washington Redskins' coach included unexpected highs and crushing lows.
By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

SEATTLE As the dying rays of the evening sun drop behind the Olympic Mountains, a light goes on in a studio of a little public radio station down on Dexter Avenue. The night belongs to DJ Riz. And the music he sends into the inky sky flows in curious ways: from funk to soul to jazz to Neil Diamond to Death Cab for Cutie to places he will not know because DJ Riz has no playlist, no boundaries. The howl of the wind and the splatter of the rain will take the beat where it needs to go.

And so they are together again in that late-night darkness: the new coach of the Washington Redskins and his favorite radio voice. Midnight looms, the office back at Redskins Park is still, just Jim Zorn, a computer and the vibe, flowing smooth through desktop speakers. There is something pure about the night beat, something without barriers or prejudice. It is free, just as the coach likes music to be.

"I'd say he is really an excellent, excellent DJ," Zorn says.

Once, the coach was a DJ himself. It was in his playing days when he was the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, leading the franchise to the brink of the playoffs in only its third season and every play seemed to be an improvisation with Zorn scrambling in desperation, a step from disaster, suddenly flinging a pass to a magically open Steve Largent. They were the faces of the Pacific Northwest then, with Zorn driving Largent to the games from the Holiday Inn in nearby Issaquah, Wash., over the floating bridge in the VW bug he bought in high school as Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" spilled from the cassette deck and the quarterback howled along to the words.

A jazz station of low wattage and even smaller ratings called KJZZ ("Kayyyy Jaaazzzzzzzzzz" Zorn intones) hired him to host a show in which he talked sports and played songs. The problem was Zorn wasn't much interested in talking sports or playing the music he was assigned, choosing instead to bring in records from his voluminous home collection that seem to cover just about every genre possible.

Soon, Zorn's career as a disc jockey was over, but not without the experience of another adventure attempted. Just like the competitive kayaking, or the mountain climbing, or the sky diving, or the television commentating, or the pottery making, or the BMX racing, or the competitive collegiate badminton, or any of the other dozens of experiments he has undertaken in his life that prompt his wife, Joy, to laugh and call him her "Renaissance man."

Then, this past winter, he was presented with the greatest experiment of all: the chance to be an NFL head coach. And Saturday, the Redskins reported to training camp with him at the helm. This despite the fact that the closest he had been to such a job was a decade of tutoring quarterbacks for the Detroit Lions and the Seahawks. Nonetheless, it was the position he secretly pined for, never campaigning, not even hiring an agent, somehow figuring that someday it would come simply because he was good at what he does.

Zorn is standing, at this moment, on the side of Tiger Mountain, a rise of considerable elevation about halfway between Seattle and the Cascade Mountains. In a few days, the movers will come to take his family's things to the new house in Great Falls. But for now, he is leaning on two walking poles, staring up a mud-splattered hiking path that disappears deep into the trees.

As a player, he used to ride mountain bikes up here with a friend who owned a bicycle shop. This was before the mountain-bike craze, and the bikes were bulky things with fat wheels. But he and his friend recklessly thundered over the mountain's paths, oblivious to the career-ending danger that loomed one blind jump over a log away. Once, they even chased the fresh blood of a wounded animal until they found a cougar nursing a cut paw near the peak.

Now, Zorn walks the mountain. Of course, his definition of "walk" is very different from most. At approximately 7 in the morning, he had pulled into the parking lot near the trail's entrance in a silver Audi with a bicycle rack on the roof, and Joy and two of his adult daughters, Sarah and Danielle, in the back. They jumped out, grabbed the walking poles from the back of the car and without even stretching, said a few pleasantries. They then began to walk in long, fast strides up the path until, within seconds, they were completely gone. Zorn himself plunged after them, the click, click, click of his poles growing fainter in the wilderness, until he realized his guests could not keep up. So he stopped and rested against his poles, marveling at how often he is recognized on the streets of Virginia as the new coach of the Redskins.

Perhaps it is because of his lack of head coaching experience or maybe that he is working for an owner who has had six coaches in the past eight years, but he notes an odd tone from these well-wishers. They say "good luuuuck?" like it is a question, almost -- he has decided -- as if they are really saying "no way."

Zorn laughs. Then, looking around, he suddenly appears struck by how this must look -- the unknown, untested new coach of the Redskins standing on a mountain with poles in his hands discussing the intricacies of DJ Riz's musical selections, deciding he likes the amplified electronics and not so much the dance grooves -- when his face begins to cloud.

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