Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman, widely considered one of the best football writers of all time, and who covered the NFL for 29 years as Sports Illustrated’s lead pro football writer as part of a 55-year career in journalism, passed away today in Noblesville, Ind.
Zimmerman’s writing career was cut short by a series of strokes in November 2008 that left him unable to speak, read and write. But his impact on the writing and football industries was profound.
His 1970 “A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football” and revised 1984 “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football” are textbooks to this day for young football writers trying to learn the game and trying to learn to write about the game.
“When I started covering football in 1984, he was Peter Gammons and Bob Ryan and Tex Maule rolled into one,” said Peter King, who worked with Zimmerman at Sports Illustrated, and completed Zimmerman’s autobiography, “Dr. Z: The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer”, in 2017. “His football knowledge was peerless. He knew the technical side and loved it, and he loved the personal side, too.
“After I got over being on his team (at Sports Illustrated) and learned to talk to him on his level, I learned to yell at him when necessary and learned a lot more about covering the game. ’Talk to the offensive linemen,’ he’d say; ‘they’re the smartest guys. Avoid the crowds,’ he’d say; ‘get your own stuff.’
“Totally unforgettable, in so many ways.”
As a 15-year-old, Zimmerman sparred with Ernest Hemingway in a Manhattan gym. He broke his nose four times as an offensive lineman in high school (Horace Mann High in the Bronx, N.Y.), at two colleges (Stanford and Columbia) and for his Army team (the Western Area Command Rhinos, in Germany). He also played semi-professionally in New Jersey for the Paterson Pioneers and the Morristown Colonials.
Before joining SI in 1979, Zimmerman worked for the Sacramento Bee, New York Journal-American and the New York World-Telegram & Sun, and he spent 13 years at the New York Post, where he covered pro football and three Olympic Games. He was one of the few journalists to get close to the Israeli compound during the 1972 hostage-taking in Munich; he bucked two lines of security guards and took a rifle butt to the head.
Zimmerman served as the 10th president of the Pro Football Writers of America during the 1982 season. He received the PFWA’s highest honor, the Dick McCann Award, in 1996 for a long and distinguished contribution through coverage. In 2014, the PFWA instituted the Paul “Dr. Z” Zimmerman Award, given for lifetime achievement as an assistant coach in the NFL.
Zimmerman was still writing multiple columns a week for the magazine and its website, SI.com, until he suffered his strokes.
Linda Bailey Zimmerman was by his side constantly from the time he suffered the first of several strokes until his passing. The two married in 1999, and Zimmerman called her “the Flaming Redhead”. He was also survived by two children from his first marriage to Kate Hart, Michael and Sarah, and a granddaughter, Natasha Mariner. Zimmerman also leaves behind Linda Zimmerman’s two children, Nathan Bailey and Heather Snopek, and their families.
The PFWA sends its condolences to Zimmerman’s family and many friends. He will be missed by all who knew him or read his work over the years.
Dr. Z’s career in his own words (excerpted from his memoirs): https://www.si.com/mmqb/2016/06/27/dr-z-paul-zimmerman-memoir-life-journalism