Remembering Bob Zeman, former Broncos assistant coach and All-AFL safety

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Bob Zeman was more than a former Broncos defensive back, and he was more than a former Broncos assistant coach.

In the words of his eldest son, Eddie, he was a nurturer.

“I use that word because I looked up the definition of coach, and that wasn’t him,” Eddie Zeman said Thursday. “I looked up the definition of teacher, that wasn’t him. Educator, wasn’t him. He had a way of touching people. He touched these young people in a way that I believe after their experience with Bob, they went on to touch other people.”

“… My father would reach out to somebody to help them be the best they would be."

But Bob Zeman was indeed an AFL All-League safety as a player and he did lead the linebackers during the height of the Orange Crush defense.

It’s this duality of Zeman’s personality and his career that led to the outpouring of kind words this week after Zeman’s family announced that he had passed away on May 3.

Zeman was 82 years old.

“I was very fortunate, because I played with him and I coached with him,” Ring of Famer Lionel Taylor said. “We played with the Broncos, then I played against him and then I coached with him in London. As a player, he was a great reader of the quarterback’s eyes. He could read the quarterback. He was very smart as a player. And I got to know him as a coach. I’ve got news for you: We grew very close together as coaches. He taught me quite a bit about defense. I found out too he was a great, great person. You didn’t know it from looking at him, but he was really a funny person.

“Of all things about him though, he was a great family man. He loved his family and he was a great person. He treated everybody the same. You could see he cared for you. That’s the thing. He didn’t just coach people, he cared for them. I’ll bring up Goose Gonsoulin. Those two were so close together that it was like they were twins. But the one thing I’ll say about Bob Zeman is that Zeman was a great friend of mine, and I will miss my friend — no doubt in my mind. So condolences to the Zeman family and all.”

Zeman played 28 career games at safety for the Broncos from 1962-63. He was named to the AFL’s All-League team following the 1962 season.

He tallied seven career interceptions and one touchdown during his two years in Denver. Zeman is among the players who could be chosen for the Broncos Top 100 Team, which allows fans to help determine the best 100 players in the franchise’s history.

“He loved coming to Denver [as a player],” his son Clarke Zeman said Thursday. “It’s a shock when you’re traded, but he loved coming to Denver and being with [former Broncos head coach] Jack Faulkner. He was one of his coaches with the Chargers and became the head coach in Denver. [Zeman] really enjoyed playing side-by-side to [Ring of Famer] Goose Gounsoulin. He had the finest year of his playing career in ’62.”

Added Eddie Zeman about his father’s playing career: “He was such a humble man. It was hard to get anything out of him. He would never celebrate himself. So I had to look deep into it. … He was a self-sacrificing man."

The former 10th-round pick played six years in the league.

Years after finishing his playing career, Zeman returned to Denver as a coach in 1978. He coached the linebackers for the Orange Crush defense through the 1982 season. In all, Zeman had a 23-year NFL coaching career.

“When he came back as a coach, he just really loved the Denver area and the Mile High support,” Clarke said. “It was the Orange Crush era of the franchise, so he had the privilege of coaching Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson and Bob Swenson. He always commented how intelligent the linebackers were and that they could all run. … He loved coaching under Joe Collier, the defensive coordinator. As a family, we really loved living in the Denver area.”

And it was clear to Zeman’s family that Bob Zeman loved the game of football. As a player and a coach and a nurturer, he constantly made that clear.

“I think he had the opportunity to have a career doing something that he loved,” his son Donnie said. “He loved it down to his soul, and he dedicated his life to it — to the guys on the team and the organization. He always told us, ‘If you can find something you love doing, you’ll never have to work again, because it’s not work.’

“He lived that.”

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