The thing about losing legends is that you can’t even pretend there’s any way to replace them. In the sports world, the only constant is change, with players and coaches hopping from team to team throughout their careers. Media companies, especially with the financial challenges affecting them in recent years, have seen similar turnover. But the show must go on, the team must suit up a new option, the website needs content, and ultimately we find that very, very few of us are truly irreplaceable.
Paul Zimmerman, aka “Dr. Z,” the longtime Sports Illustrated scribe who passed away on November first, was one of those rare irreplaceable legends. When he suffered a stroke nearly a decade ago, SI didn’t even attempt to fill his shoes one-for-one. Dr Z wrote first-class feature stories that stacked up with anybody’s, but that was a small piece of the puzzle. He broke down film in the days before All-22 was widely available, and as a former offensive lineman in college and the semi-pro level, he knew what he was talking about. He had connections and sources that nearly rivaled longtime colleague Peter King, but his opinions were his own. To this day, national writers build “All-Pro” teams out of regurgitating common opinions about linemen based on a few splash plays and reputation; Dr. Z would watch and grade film and come to his own conclusions, making his All-Pro selections must-read.
He also brought historical perspective, having written about football professionally even prior to the AFL / NFL merger, and having followed the sport for decades. His Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football remains to this day one of the best overviews of how the game was played in the early years of the NFL. Dr Z brought that perspective to his analysis of the contemporary game; if he had a hint of a “get off my lawn” attitude in his stumping for the old guard, it was a refreshing contrast to a media world that judges two seasons ago as prehistoric. No one in big media has brought anything close to Zimmerman’s historical context.
In the years since Dr. Z’s last byline, a lot has changed, but these changes only reinforce how much Dr Z was ahead of his time. The play-by-play grading that outfits like Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions do owes much to Dr. Z’s charting. His willingness to buck convention and apply analytical logic presaged the statistical revolution spearheaded by Football Outsiders and Football Perspective. The tape breakdowns done by Greg Cosell, Chris Brown—and yes, Inside the Pylon—stand on the shoulders of Dr. Z. The quality of reporting and analysis on the NFL has never been higher, yet there is still a Paul-Zimmerman-shaped void that has never been filled.
Ultimately, when I think of Dr. Z’s writing, I think of the man himself. I never knew him personally, but his presence shown through in every sentence. He wrote with a Hemingway-esque bluntness, unflinching, uncompromising, and funny, too. He was tough but not in a phony way and he had a soft side; he loved wine and frequently alluded to his wife, the Flaming Redhead. I still think of him when I hear a unusually long—or, more rarely, short—rendition of the Star Spangled Banner; he disdained excessive length and ornamentation. Out of deference to Zimmerman’s insistence that the Air Coryell scheme is the real “West Coast Offense,” I still prefer “Walsh Offense” to describe the system that Bill Walsh’s 49ers made famous. Dr. Z came across as witty, smart, tough, thoughtful, emotional, analytical, pugnacious, idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, reverential, energetic, and unique. If that doesn’t make sense to you, go ahead and read some of the good doctor’s writing.
Dr. Z’s death follows on the heels of a loss closer to home, that of my high school math teacher Martin Badoian. I wasn’t a football player in high school—I’m 6’0”, 150 lbs now and was a foot shorter and half that weight as a HS freshman—so I turned my eye towards Canton High School’s other glamour squad: the math team. Under Mr. Badoian’s tutelage, the CHS math team won the New England championship 19 out of 21 years, despite being a public and not especially large school.
How did he do it? It seemed like it was through sheer force of will. We never had a textbook; he would send home problem sets every night that he had written himself. He had filing cabinets full of math problems from decades of math meets. The amount of mandatory work wasn’t excessive, but there was plenty to keep you busy if you wanted extra work, and Mr. Badoian had a way of making us all want extra work. His favorite quote (variously attributed to Bobby Knight, Vince Lombardi, or Fielding H. Yost), was “Everyone wants to win. It is the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.”
You couldn’t hide in Mr. Badoian’s class. He would call on you even if you didn’t have your hand raised, often because you didn’t have your hand raised. He had a sixth sense for who wasn’t prepared. He never announced a test; one day you’d come into class and there would be face-down papers on the desk. It didn’t take long to learn what was expected and what it would take to meet those expectations.
His unusual style and fantastic results ultimately were only the reflection of an uncommon man. When I think of Mr. Badoian, I’ll think of his boundless energy and enthusiasm, his booming voice, the funny nicknames or mispronunciations he would call people, his wall of pictures of Sophia Loren cut out of newspapers and magazines, the low tone he would get in his voice when you disappointed him, and the joy he exhibited day-in and day-out in the four years I was lucky enough to learn from him. If he had off-days, we never saw them. In 2004, after 50 years of teaching, he “retired,” which meant he cut down to teaching three classes while still coaching the math team. He finally stopped only when pancreatic cancer forced him to a couple months ago, at the age of 90.
As large as Mr. Badoian and Dr. Z loom in my mind, one loss in 2018 looms even larger: that of my Nana, who passed from congestive heart failure a few months ago. She wasn’t nationally or regionally famous like Zimmerman or Badoian, but she was a legend among her friends and family. We nicknamed her “Command Central” for the way she served as a communications hub for the family. She was the mother hen, organizing trips to Florida among her friends up until she could no longer travel. Nana loved holidays and always had special theme socks and vests. When my cousins and aunts and uncles shared thoughts after her passing, stories kept surfacing of her various holiday traditions with each of my cousins. Each story was personal, but in a way they were all the same, too. When I make Irish soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day, I think of the smell of caraway seed pervading her house. When I eat turkey and gravy on Thanksgiving, I think of her flying down to Houston to spend that holiday spent with me when I was in college. I can still see her direct look and hear her cackling, mirthful laugh.
I was ready for Nana’s passing, about as ready as I could be, anyway. She was 97, and had good health and her wits about her until shortly before the end. When she died, I was more sad for my mother and aunts than for myself. What I wasn’t prepared for was the fresh realization almost on a daily basis that Nana is gone. When I email pictures of my kids to my mom, I reflexively want to put Nana in the CC line. It is almost unfathomable to imagine Thanksgiving and Christmas without Nana; it is like a new loss every time I think of it. I knew someday she would leave us, but I never really understood that she’d be gone.
It has been long apparent that Dr. Z would never recover his ability to write, but as long as he was still alive, I held out a kernel of hope. Mr. Badoian couldn’t coach the Math Team forever, but it feels wrong for anyone else to do it. Nana’s gravitational pull within our family leaves a giant vacuum in her absence. Their stars shined a little brighter than everyone else’s. Even at the age of 38, I feel so flimsy and unsure of myself in comparison. The thing about losing legends is that you can’t even pretend there’s any way to replace them. But dammit, I am going to try to learn something from their examples.