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Never one to grab spotlight, Zimmerman finally gets his moment

CANTON, Ohio -- Here's the thing about the gatekeepers of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: They work in the media and interviewing players is pretty much a staple of their job.

They're human, too, these writers and broadcasters who comprise the panel that annually selects the Hall's inductees. When someone does something to make their job more difficult -- such as, say, a player who constantly refuses to be interviewed -- they tend to feel at least some level of resentment.

Gary Zimmerman actually took that lack of cooperation to an unprecedented level. He got the entire offensive line on which he played with the Denver Broncos to boycott the media.

Not for a day. Not for a season. This lasted pretty much through all of his five years with the Broncos ... and for a good nine years after his retirement following the 1997 season.

The idea behind the policy, which had the full support (and reinforcement) of then-Broncos offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, was that the nomads paid to help make the stars look good should have unity in anonymity. No one in the group should draw attention to himself by talking with reporters because, as the commonly held football saying goes, the only time anyone notices an offensive lineman is when he draws a penalty or gives up a sack.

Zimmerman was mostly an exception to that rule. For most of his 12 NFL seasons (the first seven with Minnesota), he was noticed for being one of the greatest left offensive tackles to ever play the game. He was one of the more highly decorated players at his position with selections to two All-Decade teams (1980s and 1990s) and seven Pro Bowls. In his final year in the league, he helped the Broncos win a Super Bowl.

The Hall voters didn't appreciate the silent treatment from Zimmerman or his linemates, who would actually have to pay a fine if they violated the no-interview code. But ultimately they didn't hold it against him. Ultimately, they focused on the right thing, which was the fact Zimmerman performed well enough to become the second player in Broncos history to be enshrined. His quarterback, John Elway, became the first four years ago.

Did the silence have anything to do with the fact Zimmerman had to wait until the sixth year of his eligibility to be selected? Perhaps. As I said, the voters are human. I've been in that meeting room with them and I can say with certainty that they can hold a grudge. I can't say with certainty that such was the case with Zimmerman, but it's entirely possible.

Either way, this never concerned Zimmerman. He wasn't much of talker anyway. Elway discovered that soon after Zimmerman arrived in Denver late in the preseason in 1993.

However, there was a sound that his new left tackle generated that Elway would never forget.

"Just the blow he delivered to those guys rushing the passer," Elway told The Denver Post. "It shocked me, the noise that it made when he struck the defensive lineman on a pass rush."

Zimmerman didn't want or need the attention. He didn't think it would ever find him, which actually ended up helping to drive him to the greatness he achieved.

"I hear people who are bulimic, they see themselves as fat," Zimmerman said. "When I was playing, I saw myself as not good enough, so I always tried to be better. I don't know if that's a real element, but I could watch people and think they did a good job but then watch myself, and I was like kind of embarrassed, so I tried to work harder."

And he was satisfied with doing his job and nothing more. If it cost him a post-playing-career gig on television or a place in Canton, so be it.

Besides, it wasn't as if Zimmerman had made entering the Hall any sort of career goal.

"I never thought of myself being in there," he said. "People have a hard time with that, but that's just the honest truth. I just never thought that way."

Obviously, he speaks with reporters now. He has been doing a whole bunch of interviews since February, when he was selected for induction.

Now, Zimmerman has a dilemma. He has to give the biggest speech of his life during Saturday night's induction ceremony. He has struggled to put together something that he can complete -- as smoothly as possible in front of thousands in Fawcett Stadium and national television and radio audiences -- in the allotted 10 minutes per inductee. He has stayed up as late trying to find the right words ... and not too many of them.

"For the first time in my life," Zimmerman said, "I have too much to say."

Ultimately, though, his playing career said enough.

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