When we are about to play, have just played, or are even thinking about the Minnesota Vikings, my thoughts immediately zone in on by far the greatest player connection we have, the incomparable Gary Zimmerman.
And those thoughts are, in this case, a little like this column, worth savoring for a moment because guys like Zim are like the eclipse that we all recently watched. They do not come along very often. Fans know he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, having played the best five seasons (1993-97) that any offensive lineman ever had in Denver.
I remember when we traded with Minnesota for him back at the end of camp in 1993, on Aug. 24, after playing his first seven years with the Vikings.
Current Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips was then the head coach. Zim had been holding out in Minnesota, had not had a single practice, and the press speculated about how good he would be immediately.
Wade responded that "He will be the second-best player on the field. We have John Elway, which is the only reason he will not be the best."
My recollection of the first time I met him is that of his rock-solid physique, his taciturn manner and his grim determination.
He said, "Let's get this press stuff over with."
With that, we walked out of the locker room and he met the press--for just about the last time in his five years here.
He did not like to talk about himself, but few in the history of the game ever played like Zim, who anchored the offensive line that blocked for Elway and Terrell Davis on the way to the Denver Broncos' first world championship in 1997.
I remember a scene late at night or early in the morning at the Super Bowl XXXII championship party when the offensive linemen gathered in folding chairs, each with a beverage and a cigar, with Zim and the others exchanging the comments of warm satisfaction that seemed so much like a "man's man" moment, the hunter-gatherers taking some time to savor their accomplishment around the campfire.
Zim was so good he was named to the NFL All-Decade team--twice! That vote is done by the same group that votes on the Hall of Fame, so his talents were not a secret. He was selected first team All-Decade in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, one of fewer than a dozen all time players to be so honored.
Photos from Bronco great Gary Zimmerman's Hall of Fame Induction
In fact, he might actually be the best lineman to ever play in two leagues, as he actually began his career out of the University of Oregon with the Los Angeles Express of the defunct World Football League.
The first Broncos offensive lineman to join the Hall, Zim started all 76 games played as a Bronco, helped Denver lead the league in total yards twice (1996 and 1997) and post three straight top-five NFL rushing totals (1996-98).
He personified toughness and discipline. Including his years with the Vikings, Zim started all 184 games played, was named to seven Pro Bowls and had the enormous (and enormously difficult to achieve) honor of being named first or second team All-Pro eight times over two decades.
Make no mistake, he was the best offensive tackle in pro football for a two-decade span, roughly one-fifth of the entire history of pro football.
Further, he would never consider sitting out with injury. After one of our seasons was over, he required three separate surgeries, but asked the doctors if they could do them all at once, so he could just get them all over with.
The doctors complied, and when he was being wheeled through the hospital corridors, all bandaged up, a nurse passed by and said, "You poor man. You must have been in a terrible traffic accident."
"No, ma'am, Just playin' football," the taciturn Zim replied.
Where is he now?
Zim and his family still reside in Oregon, out past the woods in Bend, where he lives the retired life and occupies his time with outdoor activities that have included some snowmobile rescue work.
I imagine those to whom he gives a wintertime lift are grateful to see him arrive, but I hope they do not expect him to talk a lot. Lest one get the wrong idea, he is a charming, kind, gracious man. Just because he does not yap about everything does not mean his feelings do not run deeply.
Every time we see each other he reminds me to call and stop by if I'm ever traveling through Bend. This has not happened yet, but I know his door would always be open.
He is as proud of being a Bronco and has feelings as strong for owner Pat Bowlen as any player I have had here.
Zim returns to Denver for all our alumni functions and when he was chosen for the Hall of Fame, he selected Mr. B to make his presentation.
Gary Zimmerman embodies the strong, silent, enormously talented and accomplished American who embodies the best of all our values.
The Broncos playing the Vikings is just the perfect excuse for me to write about Zim, who absolutely never would boast about himself.
So this one's for Zim.