As football fans, it’s easy to forget that our favorite Minnesota Vikings, like Adrian Peterson and Teddy Bridgewater, are just like you and me — human. They laugh, they cry, they smile, and they live everyday lives off the field that aren’t much different than our own.
This simple fact made it that much harder to watch Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer choke up when addressing the media yesterday. He wasn’t holding back tears remembering a defeat or lamenting an injury; he was mourning the loss of his father, Bill Zimmer, who died suddenly Tuesday night in Naples, Florida.
Bill has struggled with his health in recent years, and was unable to travel for his son’s first season with the Vikings in 2014. Last week, Zimmer left Vikings training camp to visit his father in Naples, and the two watched the team’s afternoon practice together on a tablet.
“It’s been rough. My dad was a heck of a mentor,” Zimmer said. “I got some letters from people saying what influence he had on a lot of people’s lives. He had been sick but we didn’t expect it.”
Zimmer, the hard-nosed, brutally honest leader of the Vikings, reminded us in that emotional moment that there’s more to life than football, even if football connected Zimmer to his father at a young age.
From 1960 to 1993, Bill Zimmer was the head coach of Lockport High School in Illinois, leading the team to a 164-143-5 record in his 34 seasons, per the Chicago Tribune. His son Mike, who attended Lockport, played quarterback for Bill and was a standout wrestler in the offseason. And early into his son’s career, Bill recognized Mike’s passion for the gridiron.
“Even when he was a kid, we would put a game tape in at home and he would sit back and watch,” Bill said in an interview with the Star Tribune’s Patrick Reusse last year. “He wanted to know what the game was all about.
In his first season with the Vikings, Zimmer led the team to a 7-9 record and won the hearts of fans in Minnesota. His tough mentality, old-school approach to the game, and the immediate respect he earned from his players proved he knew what the game was all about. Ask the younger Zimmer, though, and he’ll attribute his early success as a head coach to his late father.
“He taught me so many things about the way to work, the way to get up in the morning,” Zimmer said. “If you’ve got a problem, continue to work on it to get it fixed.”
And moving forward, Zimmer understands that he’ll always be a student of the game, learning new concepts and developing new schemes. He may be a pioneer of double-A-gap pressure concepts, but Zimmer is constantly growing as a coach thanks to his father.
“Maybe the biggest thing I take, is he’d take a high school team and one year ran the wishbone, and the next year, they’re running the spread offense,” Zimmer said. “He wasn’t afraid to try things, to learn new things, so it was good.”
As the Vikings prepare for the 2015 season, newfound optimism surrounds the team, and much of that has to do with Mike Zimmer’s leadership. Adrian Peterson‘s back to wreak havoc on defenses, Teddy Bridgewater is developing into a solid quarterback, and the young defense is expected to take a major leap, but Zimmer is the driving force behind this Viking ship.
“Honestly, I’d be disappointed if they didn’t bust their butts,” Zimmer said when told that the players wanted to practice hard for a grieving Zimmer yesterday. “That’s what we do here. We work and grind and things like that. I don’t want them to get better for me. I want them to get better for themselves and for us as a team.”
With the lessons learned from his father, Mike has instilled that mindset in his players, and he expects nothing but the best from the Vikings each time they step foot on the field. Whatever success he has moving forward with this team, Zimmer will always remember his father’s wise words and mentorship.
“He has the same personality with players as I did,” Bill said in the same interview with Reusse last year. “You got to know when to start in on them. You also have to know when to stop, or you’re going to lose a player. Mike knows both.”
Our thoughts, prayers, and condolences are with Mike Zimmer and the entire Zimmer family as they grieve the loss of Bill Zimmer.