Longtime football writer Paul Zimmerman, better known as Dr. Z, died today at age 86, his former colleague Peter King announced. Zimmerman hadn’t written for years due to a series of strokes, but for a time he was one of the best football writers out there and worth remembering today. Here’s what I wrote for The Classical back in 2013 about Dr. Z and his work.
It appears to have been built to last forever, in a way that books are maybe still made but seldom seem to have been made. Even before you turn a page, the printing tells you it’s special. The pages are huge squares, nearly twice the size of a typical magazine page, and on heavy paper that, for all its heft, seems to command some reverence, a sense that these sturdy pages are still meant to be handled with care. The cover displays the iconic photo of Vince Lombardi, glowing with Super Bowl victory, on board the shoulders of Green Bay Packer Jerry Kramer, who looks up adoringly at Lombardi. The staging of it, too, is a little religious. It’s all a bit much, maybe, but in that way fitting for a book about the biggest game in the sport that, at least in terms of TV ratings, Americans love most.
The book is Sports Illustrated Presents Dr. Z’s Greatest Moments in Super Bowl History, and its author is Paul Zimmerman, who is not a doctor but was known to a generation of Sports Illustrated readers as Dr. Z. Each of Zimmerman’s essays are surrounded by glossy color photos from that game, shot by the photographers of Sports Illustrated. There is Joe Namath’s victory trot after Super Bowl III, Lynn Swann’s epic catch and Jackie Smith’s memorable end-zone drop. In short, it seems like a can’t-miss, sure-thing classic. That certainly seems to be the intention. On the first page of the 1989 first edition, the editors write, “We envision it as a volume to be saved and savored.”
Today, you can buy it online at Amazon for $3.95, shipping not included.
The Super Bowl’s supremacy in the sports culture is fact, as much a given as water being wet and Florida being strange. In 2011, Nielsen estimated that 111 million people watched the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the game. The next year, an estimated 111.3 million watched the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots. There are: celebrities and rumors of celebrities, parties and photos of parties, a great many commercials, increasingly elaborate music-like performances by musicians, the weirdest and loudest patriotism anywhere on television, which is saying something. There is, between all that, also a football game.
Technically, it’s not a holiday. But chances are more Americans celebrate Super Bowl Sunday than the average actual holiday. We do not invite people over, fire up the grill and gather ritualistically around on Columbus Day. We do not read stories in the local newspaper localizing how area residents feel about Washington’s birthday. The Super Bowl is talked about and written about and shouted about a lot, and yet there is somehow always room for more of that. There is certainly room for a book—large-format, handsomely mounted, full of photos—on the game.
And then there’s the affection for Dr. Z, who no longer writes after suffering a debilitating stroke in 2008, remains beloved by sportswriters, especially those covering football. Zimmerman attended every Super Bowl for decades. His book from 1970, The Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football, gets name-dropped today by football writers discussing the smaller nuance of the game, as in “Look at this beautiful piece of advanced offensive line work I’m pointing out, which also is discussed in Paul Zimmerman’s Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football.” The book was updated in 1984, dubbed The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football.
He is beloved by fans of classic magazine Sports Illustrated, the statistics gurus at Football Outsiders and the band of outsiders at Deadspin. There is no arguing about Dr. Z, really. He is so beloved and so respected, that he could in theory write more or less whatever he wanted about the Super Bowl, and it would be not just accepted but widely applauded. He does just that in his essays his Super Bowl essay collection, and that might be why nobody talks about it.
The Super Bowl began inauspiciously, in 1967. It was, at that point, not the Super Bowl—the name would’ve been presumptuous for a game that didn’t sell out and was not widely watched on either of the two television networks that broadcast it, and of which no recording (or official recording) presently exists. The name of the game, at that point, was the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, which Dr. Z makes sure to point out. Sure, he could take this time to tell you about the importance of this first game, discuss all the legends on the field. Instead, Dr. Z tells you about the time Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi—the man whose name is on the trophy awarded to each year’s Super Bowl winners—lied to him.
Right, that guy. Lombardi used Dr. Z—then a reporter for the New York Post—to plant a story about a pair of rookies he was going to play in a Packers-Bears game. The story ran. Neither rookie played a down. His anger at Lombardi noted, Dr. Z explains how stoked he was for the game, so much that when his editors tried to get him to cover a basketball game the same day, he wriggled out of the assignment so that he could stay home and watch the game on television. And so we have a legendary coach acting not-so-honest with the press, a junior reporter dodging his assignment and we’re only done with the first essay. Incidentally, or not, the Packers won the game.
But this was a different, smaller Super Bowl; a quirkier essay makes sense, maybe. The essay on Super Bowl II, the last Lombardi won, would be a celebration of his greatness. Instead, Dr. Z peers into the long darkness ahead. After the game, he quotes Lombardi as saying, “The history of the Packers is in the future, as great as it’s been in the past.” Dr. Z responds, in the essay, with a two-word retort, a reminder of the long, championship-free decades that followed.
“Some future.” And then that essay, too, is done.
From there, the tone is set. There will be no glorification of the players we’ve come to accept as heroes. There will be no quotes about overcoming adversity and staring down hardship. There are few stats, fewer glory stories. For all the glorious photos and heavyweight paper stock, a book that has the feel of a sort of secular bible instead reveals itself as a book for a very specific and somewhat cynical football fan.
In contemporary sportswriting, so much of what we consume can come down to two categories: smarts and heart. There are the writers who inundate with stats and jargon, the better to make of readers the most informed viewer possible—impress your friends and colleagues, maybe even guess final scores with better than average accuracy. Or there are writers who seem to move their readers with prose. Feel the adversity, not too much but a little; laugh with surprise at the unexpected—crazy old game, can’t predict it, and so on—pick a hero and ride with him, all done in time for dinner. We met Manti Te’o’s girlfriend this way. Dr. Z transparently did not give a damn about any of that.
Dr. Z’s collection of Super Bowl essays won’t make you smarter. There is very little in it that will make you sound a genius at a dinner table or water cooler, unless you know someone (not a reporter) who actually cares about how much more accessible athletes were in those early years. There is even less that will make you believe these men are heroes of the gridiron, NFL marketing be damned.
There is, too, very little discussion of individual plays. Heck, Zimmerman barely discusses the games—the actual Super Bowls, that is, that provided all those photos that fill out the book—at all. In Super Bowl IV, his essay is all about the bizarre pre-game accusations linking the Chiefs’ quarterback to a Detroit gambler; he would be proven innocent weeks later. Super Bowl V is deemed a downer because the AFC team was really a transplant from the old NFL, the Baltimore Colts.
Super Bowl VI is a lesson in the silliness of the MVP award, which should have gone to Cowboys running back Duane Thomas but doesn’t, Dr. Z estimates, because he almost never talked to the media, and the winner was expected to give a speech. Instead, Roger Staubach won the award. (Also, the Cowboys won.)
And so on with this agreeable, half-cynical semi-quarrelsomeness. The perfect season by the Miami Dolphins? Dr Z believes the 1948 perfect season by Paul Brown’s 1948 American Football Conference Cleveland Browns is just as good, but that darn NFL just doesn’t want to acknowledge anything from outside its purview. The next Super Bowl he declares a boring game that he barely remembers. Which is fine, since he doesn’t write about it very much, instead preferring to discuss how he managed to be the only writer at the event not humiliated by Hunter S. Thompson in print. His trick? He let Thompson enter the betting pool more than once. He later ruminates on how those early 1970s Dolphins teams seemed unstoppable, until they were torn apart by the heftier contracts offered to certain players to switch to the rival World Football League.
There are no lessons, really, and certainly no diagrams of plays or telling statistics or Important Emotional Motivations. There are no life lessons, no saviors, moral or otherwise, whose victory we can savor or defeat we can mourn. You will not find Lombardi giving advice about winning, or the Dolphins ruminating on how to achieve perfection or any musings on what we can take away from all those San Francisco Super Bowl rings. Musings, yes. On those familiar topics, definitely not.
This is a collection of essays for cynical times, a collection that doesn’t embellish the game because the writer knows it is just a game, albeit one that gets more attention than the others. It’s a collection that predates the NFL owning its own cable station, the monstrous PR staffs kept by teams and many of the taxpayer-funded stadiums. And yet there is Dr. Z, in the 1980s, speaking his bitterness at how controlling, corporate and buttoned-up the NFL had become.
Football is brutally unfair, and Dr. Z knows that. The right team doesn’t always or even often make the Super Bowl; it certainly does not necessarily win. The best people, let alone the best players, don’t always get rings. The Super Bowl, for all its pomp and circumstance, is really just another football game, except with higher ticket prices, more media coverage and way more PR folk blasting out press releases, offering opportunities for mini-interviews with bored greats of the game, leveraging synergies, and so on. Underneath all that is something much smaller: men who play a game, and who will—if their bodies allow them to—do so again next season. Public willing, there will be an audience. This is what Dr. Z wrote about, before all that became so impossible to miss, and so heatedly denied.
It’s clear that Dr. Z would just as soon forget Super Bowl VI—you remember, the downer where the wrong guy won the MVP—but what he remembers about it is telling. In one mass interview, Dr. Z wrote, someone asked rightful MVP Duane Thomas if the Super Bowl was the ultimate game. “Well,” the rookie replied, “they’re playing it next year, aren’t they?”
Originally published at The Classical on Feb. 1, 2013.