At Super Bowl XII in New Orleans, Paul Zimmerman was a busy man. In addition to writing his daily column, a news story and several sidebars for the New York Post, he also was plugging away on a book, an as-told-to collaboration with Lyle Alzado, defensive lineman for the Denver Broncos. Long after most of his colleagues were off for a night on Bourbon Street, Zimmerman remained a solitary figure in the pressroom of the Hyatt Regency, transcribing his notes and pounding out chapters long into the early morning hours.
All of us who covered that game in 1978 agreed it was one of the great marathon performances in sportswriting history. And so, it should come as little surprise that the man now known to millions of readers of Sports Illustrated as Dr. Z has done it again in "The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football," an updated version of his original work published in 1971.
Zimmerman is not a stylist in the tradition of the great chroniclers of baseball -- Roger Angell, Roger Kahn and Thomas Boswell, among others. He always has been a nuts-and-bolts, tell-it-straight writer, with an emphasis on the nuts. My favorite chapter both in the original and the updated version is entitled "A Gallery of Ruffians, Flakes and Oddballs."
John Riggins, of course, is prominently mentioned. He and Zimmerman got to know each other when Riggins was playing for the Jets, cutting his hair in a Mohawk, and Dr. Z was covering the team for the Post. Steve Tannen, who played with Riggins in New York and was one of several wackos on those Jet teams of the 1970s, also is included. "You know what killed me," Tannen said the day after Riggins was named Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl XVII. "Watching Mike Adamle interviewing Jack Kent Cooke on TV and asking him, 'Is Riggins as crazy now as he was then?' Crazy? With the Jets, Adamle used to take off all his clothes on flights back from games and sit there in his underwear. 'Why, Mike?' I'd ask him. 'More comfortable,' he'd say."
Dedicated Redskin fans will appreciate an update on one of the team's strangest players, the infamous Joe Don Looney, the former Oklahoma all-American who scored a touchdown in his first game for Otto Graham, then played out his option in a salary dispute.
He never did get paid, and Zimmerman traces the rest of his checkered career -- a stint in the Army, one year with the New Orleans Saints, then a world traveler with stops in Hawaii, Hong Kong and Peru.
"He met a guru, Swami Muktananda, Baba to his friends, followed him to India, trimmed his weight to 150 pounds and worked as a common laborer and keeper of the swami's elephant," Zimmerman writes. "He shoveled elephant droppings. 'Chief of Compost' was the way he described his job."
For those who take the game a bit more seriously, the book has other virtues, though I must admit I was rather disappointed to see the NFL's drug problems kissed off in only a single page. The purists will be delighted with Zimmerman's detailed analysis of the technical aspects of the game. This is a man who keeps detailed charts of every drive of every football game he has ever covered. I once watched him in a press box chart the Sugar Bowl off television at the same time he was charting the Orange Bowl live. There are scads of Xs and Os, more than you ever really wanted to know about the 4-3, the 3-4, bump-and-run, the one-back offense, etc., etc.
In the final analysis, though, this is really a people book, chock-full of fascinating anecdotes about players of every size and position, from the days of Marion Motley (incidentally, Zimmerman's personal choice as the all-time greatest he's ever seen) right through Super Bowl XVIII.
That's one game most Redskin fans clearly would like to forget, but Zimmerman also treats Washington's favorite team rather nicely. He is clearly a great admirer of Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs and General Manager Bobby Beathard, and not so crazy about George Allen. Zimmerman lists Redskin offensive tackle Joe Jacoby among his 25 all-time best offensive linemen and has high praise for Joe Theismann, as well. But Theismann does not have the same high praise for the quarterbacking trend of the late 1970s and '80s -- the coaches calling all the plays from the bench.
Zimmerman was talking to Theismann during the Pro Bowl last year about his performance in the Super Bowl loss to the Raiders. "I asked him why he didn't try to get the ball to his close-in tight end, Don Warren, on the right side, to try to get Ted Hendricks runnning with him," Zimmerman writes. Theismann replied bitterly, "I don't put in game plans . . . I don't even think about them anymore. I am an instrument. I don't get involved in the process. I've totally given up on that aspect of it. I've become a tool of the game."
Theismann, of course, has since stopped talking to reporters, except after football games. Fortunately for the rest of us, most of his peers are still jabbering about the game they play. And Dr. Z is usually there, getting most of it down on paper the way a thinking man should.