Obituary of Paul Zimmerman
NOBLESVILLE, Ind.-Paul Zimmerman, the legendary pro football writer who set an example for future generations of media with his insightful, vivid and oft-vitriolic prose about America’s most popular sport, died Thursday at an assisted-living facility in central Indiana. He was 86.
It’s hard to imagine a man having a fuller life, even though Zimmerman’s last 10 years were sadly impacted by a series of three strokes 10 years ago this month. Those strokes left him unable to write and speak. For such a raconteur and observer of the football and American scenes, his silence was a huge loss for football journalism and commentary that has never been filled.
Zimmerman and wife Linda had relocated to Indiana in October from New Jersey, where he lived for decades, to be closer to his wife’s family.
Known as Dr. Z-a nickname bestowed in his SI prime by managing editor Mark Mulvoy to acknowledge the deep knowledge he had about football-Zimmerman was not limited to documenting pro football. He sparred with Ernest Hemingway, played college football briefly for both Stanford and Columbia, feuded on and off with Joe Namath while covering the miracle Jets for the New York Post, documented the Munich Olympics and the hostage crisis there in 1972, and for 29 years was Sports Illustrated’s lead pro football writer. He wrote about wine. He traveled the world. He was so serious about his job, to the end, that he spent more than a month every year on one of the most frustrating and oft-fruitless exercises in sports journalism: the NFL mock draft. If it was going to have name on it, he was going to take it seriously.
He was acerbic. He was blunt, always. He documented the game and the men in it like no one before him and no one since, with a mix of deep insight from playing the sport for years and later charting games with his hieroglyphic symbols for decades. There were tremendous game stories and you-are-there feature stories that made readers feel like they were sitting there with Chuck Noll having a glass of cabernet or with Joe Montana dissecting a Super Bowl-winning drive.
He never pulled a punch. Writing in Sports Illustrated about the lack of starry, brutish defenders in 1983, Zimmerman opined: “It’s corporate football and I think it’s dull. I hear Woody Widenhofer, the Steelers defensive coordinator, tell me, ‘We can use up to 20 different players on one series. Everybody makes a contribution.’ And I want to kill him. Makes a contribution? What is this, the March of Dimes?”
Late in his career, he figured out the internet too. His column for SI.com in his final decade merged football with life, including the vacations and vineyards he loved, and introduced his fans to his bubbly second wife, Linda, who he called the Flaming Redhead.
At the time of his strokes, he was nearing completion on his memoir. That book, “Dr. Z: The Lost Memoirs of an Irreverent Football Writer,” was published in 2017. And he reached a different audience in 2014 when NFL Films supervising producer Ken Rodgers made an Emmy-winning short film, “Yours Truly, Dr. Z,” about Zimmerman’s life after being felled by the strokes.
Born in 1932 in Philadelphia, Zimmerman was originally married to Kate Hart for 20 years. In 1997, he married Linda Bailey. Zimmerman leaves two children, Michael and Sarah, from his first marriage, and a granddaughter, Natasha Mariner. He also leaves Linda Zimmerman’s son, Nathan Bailey, and daughter, Heather Snopek, and their families.
A memorial service will be held in the future, but details have not been determined. Randall and Roberts Funeral Center has been entrusted with Paul's care.
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