I doubt you will hear my name mentioned when Gary Zimmerman makes his speech Saturday night at the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony, but it wouldn't be out of the question if he thanked me for the honor. After all, if I had done my job a little better, there's a good chance Zimmerman would not be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Zimmerman was a high school linebacker from California when he arrived at the University of Oregon as a 6-foot-5, 235-pound freshman in 1980. The Ducks moved him to the interior offensive line, and while he gained 30 pounds over the next four years, he remained a center/guard. And why not? In a 1983 game against Cal, Zimmerman was actually named Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Week -- unheard of for an interior offensive lineman.
Needless to say, Zimmerman was regarded as the premier offensive lineman in Oregon history. This is where I entered the picture.
The upstart USFL had recently been formed and was trying to make a splash by signing big-name college talent. A number of NFL team executives were dispatched to reach out to various prospects to convince them to stick with our league. I was assigned to Steve Young, Reggie White and Zimmerman (0-for-3!).
Zimmerman called me one night during the 1984 combine workouts in Seattle to let me know he was signing a contract the next day with the Los Angeles Express. He started his career there as an offensive guard. As luck would have it for him, Express left tackle Mark Adickes suffered a knee injury early in the '84 season and Zimmerman filled in for him.
If Zimmerman went straight to the NFL as a guard, who knows if he would have been moved to tackle? I'm sure he would have had a terrific career as a guard, but would it have been a Hall of Fame career?
Zimmerman was drafted by the New York Giants in a special supplemental draft in 1984. When the USFL ceased operations, he told the Giants he would retire rather than play in New York, so the Giants traded his rights to Minnesota for two second-round picks. He became an immediate starter as a "rookie" with the Vikings. In his seven years with Minnesota, he was named All-Pro four times.
In 1993, the relationship between Zimmerman and the Vikings became acrimonious. Zimmerman wanted to draw some of the deferred money that was owed to him, and then-Vikings general manager Roger Headrick wanted to penalize him for taking the money early. For the second time, Zimmerman threatened to retire. Headrick didn't help matters when he told Zimmerman, "If you retire now, you can look forward to flipping burgers the rest of your life."
By August of '93, the Denver Broncos stepped in and traded for Zimmerman -- sending a first-round pick, second-round pick and sixth-round pick to Minnesota. After earning three Pro Bowl nods with the Vikings, he made the Pro Bowl squad four more times as a Bronco. More importantly, he helped Denver win Super Bowl XXXII -- and then rode off into the sunset, retiring as a champion.
Zimmerman was one of those guys who had great feet and long arms. He didn't overpower you as a blocker, but the man he was blocking rarely made the play.
The player who gave Zimmerman the most problems in Denver was someone who was also a finalist for the Class of '08 -- the late Derrick Thomas. Zimmerman told me that he usually played well against Thomas in Denver -- but it was the crowd noise in Kansas City that made it tougher for him to handle Thomas' quick first step.
One of the few players in NFL history to be named to two All-Decade teams, Zimmerman hasn't forgotten that things could have been different for him. The first thing he said to me when I spoke to him after his election to the Hall of Fame was, "I'm sure glad you didn't talk me out of playing in the USFL."