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Mike Zimmer's resiliency defines undefeated Vikings

NFL players have never been more accessible. Their personal lives are on full display as they romp about on social media, while every second of their Sunday work lives is published to the public on Game Pass.

The league's 32 head coaches, though, stay at a distance. Bunkered away in offices across America, their strategies remain under wraps as the savviest of them find a way to say virtually nothing at all about their in-house plans to knock off the next opponent.

We've never known less about these men -- and that's exactly how they like it -- but there is one subject they'll happily discuss with both honesty and zeal: their fellow coaches.

After all, who knows more about the toil, sacrifice, loss, pain, pride, delight and obsession that bubbles below the surface of these football lifers?

And when it comes to a shared regard for one of their own, I'm not sure there's a more beloved brother than Mike Zimmer, the vastly respected, salt-of-the-earth leader of the Minnesota Vikings. Zim's a man who came to the role late in life, but wasted no time making the most of it, turning the imperfect roster he inherited in 2014 into a formidable operation featuring a smothering defense, a balanced offense and -- five games into the 2016 season -- a perfect record.

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Not unlike Bruce Arians in Arizona, Zimmer's long-awaited ascension doubles as a case study of a very real problem in the NFL: Two of the game's brightest minds were passed over time and again for the annual wave of buzzy candidates and hot, young coordinators du jour -- too many of whom wind up flushed out of a job within a few seasons as the process begins all over again.

Passed over repeatedly, Zimmer was described to me this week by his peers as a man who always knew what he wanted to do. The Earth is littered with engineers, painters, tax men, hobos, mathematicians, film stars and anonymous souls filling cubicles in every city east to west.

Zimmer didn't want any of that. He wanted football.

"Here's the thing about Mike ... ," said former Cowboys vice president of player personnel and current writer Gil Brandt. "Mike had a goal set that he wanted to become a coach in the National Football League. And he turned down an opportunity to become a head coach at Nebraska [in 2004] to stay as an assistant coach [with the Cowboys]. Very few people roll the dice that way."

By 2004, though, Zimmer already had done his time in the college world, beginning his career as a defensive assistant at the University of Missouri way back in 1979. From there he migrated across the land to coaching appointments at Weber State in Ogden, Utah, and then to Washington State before finally landing his first NFL gig as a defensive backs aide with the Cowboys in 1994.

After two decades as an NFL assistant, Zimmer could have been bitter about all the lesser names who passed him by to fill the league's annual swath of vacancies. He could have steamed over the long list of chosen souls handed prime opportunities long before Zimmer finally ascended, at age 57, to lead the Vikings. The frustration would be understandable, but Zimmer's friends know that isn't how the man is built.

"I do think it makes it special for him because I think he wanted to be a head coach and this is that opportunity now," Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells said of Zimmer's long wait. "Experience is a great teacher. So the more experience you have -- and he's been in the league for a long time -- I think the time he spent as an assistant coach was absolutely beneficial. Others get it at a younger age and they get a chance at a younger age, but his time came now and it looks like he was pretty well-prepared for it."

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Growing up as the son of an NFL player and high school coach, the late Bill Zimmer, football surged through Mike's bloodstream from an early age. The temperament for the job is an area where many men crumble, but Zimmer -- brick by brick -- was built for the role.

"He's a veteran coach," Parcells said. "And his father was a coach, so he lived that life at the dinner table his whole life. So he's mentally prepared for the ups and downs that go with coaching and with the ups and downs of the people who critique how his job is done. So, he's prepared for those things."

Things like watching your promising young quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater, crumble to the ground with a dislocated knee and torn ACL just days before the opener, an injury so gruesome that Vikings teammates were left horrified on the practice fields of Eden Prairie.

Things like losing Matt Kalil for the season after the starting bookend suffered a torn labrum in his hip. And things like watching future Hall of Fame runner Adrian Peterson vanish off the active roster after tearing the meniscus in his right knee. It all adds up to one fat, tangible excuse for a failed season in Minnesota.

But Zimmer wouldn't allow his team to cling to the trauma.

"No one is going to feel sorry for us," Zimmer announced after Bridgewater went down. "No one is going to cry. I'm not going to feel sorry for us either. I'm not going to let this team feel sorry for us."

Visibly shaken by losing Bridgewater -- the person, as much as the player -- Zimmer emotionally recounted his first steps after the calamity: Dialing up his old friend Parcells for a healthy dose of perspective; followed by a private, spiritual conversation with his late father, Bill.

By the time he met with Vikings scribes and TV types, Zimmer spoke with a degree of vulnerability and passion rarely seen during today's scrubbed and bland league media sessions.

"Hey, my wife [Vikki] passed away seven years ago, right?" Zimmer said. "It was a tough day. The sun came up the next day, the world kept spinning, people kept going to work. That's what we're going to do."

Who expected what would come next? Refusing to go quarterback-free into an otherwise promising season, the Vikings swung for the fences, shipping a first- and (conditional) fourth-round pick to the Eagles in exchange for Sam Bradford, the oft-injured signal caller widely seen as a failed experiment under center since being drafted No. 1 overall by the Rams in 2010.

Zimmer and the Vikings were criticized for the trade, but it just goes to show what we all know: Absolutely nothing.

Bradford has gone on to play like a super-charged version of his former self, lacing aggressive throws downfield, showing chemistry with his pass catchers and capably turning Norv Turner's offense into a balanced operation in an Adrian Peterson-less universe.

"Bradford is a guy who's a scratch golfer, he was [a standout high school] basketball player, he's an excellent person," Brandt said. "A lot of people wouldn't make it possible for the Bradford trade, but I think Mike realized what he was getting in Bradford and so they rolled the dice. And you've got to give [Zimmer] credit because they had a team that they thought they could win with. Why not put the money out now and take out an advance loan, so to speak, with a draft choice that you give up a year from now?"

Brandt pointed to a "flexibility" in Zimmer's character that made the Bradford deal possible. General manager Rick Spielman acknowledged the trade was "very unique," one that would not have happened were it not for "great insight" from Vikes assistant Pat Shurmur, the former Rams play caller who coaxed Bradford to an Offensive Rookie of the Year nod in 2010.

Not every head coach would trust a tucked-away assistant with such a massive decision, but those who know Zimmer insist he's the farthest thing from a power-hungry figurehead.

"He's a very straightforward, honest, candid-speaking guy. And I think eventually the players learn to admire that and they embrace that," said Parcells, who began his lengthy mentorship of Zimmer during their time together in Dallas from 2003 to '06.

First-year Browns head coach Hue Jackson is another longtime friend and colleague, having worked under Zimmer as an assistant defensive backs aide with the Bengals in 2012. Jackson returned to the offensive side of the ball the following year, but Zimmer's influence was lasting.

"I think I've stolen everything from him," Jackson said laughing. "My time with him, being on his defensive staff, I just learned that you've got to stick to it. You got to have a plan and have true beliefs in who you are and what you are -- and be that. You don't have to be somebody that you're not."

Jackson's 0-6 Browns are off to a rough start this season, a turn of events that tells us something else about Zimmer the man.

"Me and Zim text probably every week," Jackson said. "He's picked me up a lot this year. He's somebody I lean on and depend on and he's been there for me and I appreciate it. He is doing an outstanding job. I'm proud of what he's doing."

Joked Jackson: "I'm glad this year that we don't play them. I know what a Mike Zimmer-coached football team looks like and plays like."

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If the NFL waited too long to anoint Zimmer, his peers paint the picture of a coach who handled personal setbacks the same way he dealt with losing his quarterback and star runner.

"There was disappointment that it didn't come earlier," Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. "But Zim is the biggest person I know who lives in today."

Patterson met Zimmer in 1988 at Weber State. During subsequent stints together at Washington State, with the Cowboys -- and today with the Vikings -- Patterson sees Minnesota's coach as a man who isn't swayed by fame or flashes of external power.

"I think the biggest thing with him is: What you see is what you get. There's no Hollywood in him. There's no play one way for the cameras and then be a different way behind closed doors," Patterson said. "He is who he is. He's going to tell you the truth. He's going to tell you like it is -- whether you like it or don't like it. And he's been that way since the first day I met him."

Brandt also offered a theory for why Zimmer might have been forced to wait for a coaching gig longer than others.

"What happened is, Mike is not a 'me' type of guy," Brandt said. "A guy who says, 'I did this. I did that.' And he was interviewed for a lot of jobs and never got the job. But I know what they thought of him at Cincinnati and the guy's a hidden gem."

Zimmer is seen league-wide as one of the game's premier teachers. Patterson backed that up, describing him as riding into every practice more obsessed than ever with proper technique and hands-on player development.

"Back then, his drive was just to try to be the best coach he could be," Patterson said of Zimmer's early career. "He had a quest for knowledge. It wasn't about trying to become a defensive coordinator in the NFL or a head coach in the NFL or even a head coach in college. It was to try and gain knowledge and become the best football coach he could become and to ask as many people as he could about technique. Why do your corners do this with their feet? Why are they doing this with their hands?"

Lauded in Cincinnati for his ability to grow rookies into reliable starters, Zimmer has imbued the Vikings with a similar stress on teaching.

"Even though he has great players, he still coaches them like they're the guys at Weber State," Patterson said. "We try to find a way to make these guys better, and the way you do that is by making them technicians. That's why he's a huge stickler on that. He's never a guy who's going to say, 'You know, Anthony Barr is a great athlete, so he's just going to make plays off his athleticism.' No, he's going to coach Anthony Barr like he was the 5-foot-10, 205-pound linebacker who ran a 4.9 at Weber State -- not the 6-foot-5, 250-pound linebacker who runs a 4.4."

Still, isn't it easier for a fresh-faced Adam Gase to successfully reach a roster stocked with millionaire millennials? Not according to those who have seen the 60-year-old Zimmer in action.

"He has great rapport with players," Brandt said. "He's like Bill Parcells. He knows how to get on them and then pat them on the back. 'Give them some sugar' is what they refer to it as."

Said Jackson: "He's a straight shooter. He doesn't sugarcoat the truth, and I believe all pro players want to know the truth and they want to know what they're doing good and what they're doing bad. And I think if you have somebody who's going to be honest with you and tell you what you need to do to improve and show you how to do that -- you've got to respect that. And you're going to want to play to that."

Patterson has zero doubts about Zimmer's ability to light a fire under his charges -- no matter the age chasm.

"That's an easy answer for me. Everything's black and white with Zim. There's no gray," Patterson said. "Nobody in this building, from equipment manager to trainer to whatever, has any gray on what Coach Zimmer wants or what he thinks. He's going to tell you exactly the way that it is, exactly what he wants and exactly how he wants to be better. And every player in that locker room knows where they stand, whether it's good or bad. ... I think that's the reason why the players have an appreciation for him, why they play hard for him and why they respect him."

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The Vikings won't stay undefeated. There will be trying moments, stormy stretches of play and more starters lost to injury. Setbacks and ugly fates that sink lesser teams will attempt to waylay Minnesota, too, but Vikings fans can rest easy: The current culture under Zimmer invites the bad news, only to barrel right through it to the next uncharted vista for a franchise that suffered endlessly before his arrival.

Typically, you don't work in the NFL for two-plus decades without making a few enemies, but Zimmer might be the exception. Fellow coaches came out of the woodwork to praise his teaching ability, but all those conversations invariably turned back to the man himself.

"I've known him all this period of time. He's a very smart guy, very loyal guy. He's not above and beyond talking with people. You'll sometimes wonder how he finds the time to do all the things he does," Brandt said. "I just think, as a human being, he's a guy who's very, very sensitive to people's feelings. I don't know how you describe it, but he's just a really good football coach and good person."

Said Parcells of his old friend: "I root for him hard."

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