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Way Back When: The greatness of Gary Zimmerman


As the Broncos prepare to line up against the Minnesota Vikings, my thoughts turn to by far the greatest player ever to play for both teams, Gary Zimmerman.

The NFL's modern free agency system began in 1993, and the Broncos' first foray into that player pool produced Don Maggs, a left tackle from the Houston Oilers who now is the answer to a trivia question as Denver's first free agent. But Maggs got hurt in the offseason and proved not to be the answer.

To their eternal credit, personnel executive Bob Ferguson and head coach Wade Phillips aggressively sought out another left tackle, and this produced one of the all-time greats, at any position. On Aug. 23, 1993, the Broncos traded for Gary Zimmerman, and that still ranks as one of the greatest trade acquisitions in Broncos history.

When the Broncos made the trade with the Minnesota Vikings for Zimmerman, they added a player who was the key to protecting John Elway and who was to be on two NFL All-Decade teams, for the 1980s and the 1990s.

I well remember when we acquired Gary. He was an all-time great player — fantastic at every stop, from college at Oregon to the USFL and then to the Vikings — but was very taciturn with the media.

I went to his locker to grab him for his introductory comments and he said while rising, "OK. Let's get this medic stuff over with." He was not what I would call talkative, but I knew we had plenty of players who talked a lot. What Gary did was play, at the highest level, all the time.

"Coming to Denver was the best thing that ever happened to me," Zimmerman says. "It was like I was adopted. The Broncos were like a family, just a great organization. Pat Bowlen was a fantastic owner. In the few times we ever lost, it was like letting my dad down."

Zimmerman was inducted into the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame in 2003 and followed that up with selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008, the first Broncos offensive lineman to make it to the Hall. He played five years for the Broncos 1993-97) at the same standard that he had established for his entire career, including his seven previous years in Minnesota (1986-92).

"I was talking to my college roommate once and he asked me how long I was going to play," Zimmerman says. "'Until I get a ring,' I said."

As Zimmerman added to his greatness on the offensive line, Denver changed coaches and brought in Mile Shanahan. Not long after that, Gary had his ring in 1997.

Zimmerman's acquisition was a major piece of the championship puzzle for Denver. The Broncos' offense featured four future Hall of Famers: Zimmerman, Elway, tight end Shannon Share and running back Terrell Davis. With an explosive and balanced attack, it was the best offensive unit in the NFL then, and still would be listed as one of the best today.

"I knew my role," Zimmerman says. "I was supposed to protect Elway. There are many other things that go into being a left tackle, but number one is they brought me in to protect Elway."

Zimmerman was an iron man who started all 76 games in which he played as a Bronco. In fact, in his 12 seasons in the NFL from 1986-97 with Denver and Minnesota, he started all 184 games in which he appeared on his way to a remarkable five All-Pro honors (three first-team and two second-team selections by the Associated Press) and the unique distinction of being among a handful of players named to two NFL All-Decade teams.

There was one instance in which Zimmerman suffered a shoulder injury and was told by Shanahan that he had to leave the game. "Is Elway coming out too?" he asked Shanahan. Told that Elway was not, Zim said, "If Elway stays in, I stay in," and he played the rest of the game.

A three-time Pro Bowler as a Bronco, his stellar performance helped Denver to its first-ever world championship with a victory over Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII.

"That was my one shot," he says now. "I had played with a lot of personal success in high school, college, in the USFL and with the Vikings, but the ring is what you play for. It was so cool when we accomplished that. It completed every goal a player could have. …

"Mike said we were the best team, and that was our only goal in 1997. We really were determined and single-minded on winning the Super Bowl. Obviously it was fantastic, for every player, coach and fan. It was a dream come true."

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