I haven’t been enamored with the rebranding of NFL Films to suit the here-and-now programming needs of the NFL Network.
But “A Football Life” has been a refreshing NFL Films-produced series profiling leading coaches and players, some with a more recent historical perspective.
And just recently, NFL Films has gone back in time with a wonderful short film about former Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman, the curmudgeonly but authoritative “Dr. Z,” one of pro football’s seminal historians.
“Yours Truly, Dr. Z” — which is linked here to NFL.com because it is not embeddable — is less than 10 minutes, but movingly explains how Zimmerman has been unable to read, write and communicate since 2008, when he suffered the first of three strokes.
He’s 81 now, and still with a sharp mind, but it’s simply heartbreaking to watch him look around his amazing home library. As Chad Finn writes in the Boston Globe, Ken Rodgers, the film’s producer, and actor Tom Wopat, the narrator, took some educated guesses about what Zimmerman wanted to say in making it a first-person tale. Says Rodgers:
“It was trial and error, a time-intensive process,’’ said Rodgers. “I would say, ‘So is it true you boxed Hemingway?’ And he would answer with his, ‘Oh, when-when-when-when,’ and shake his head. In this case, he pointed to his crotch. ‘Oh, when-when when-when-when.’ And I’d say, ‘Hemingway hit you below the belt once in a while?’ and he’d say, ‘when-when-when-when’ and shake no and point to his crotch. And I’d say, ‘He hit you below the belt more?’ And he lit up: ‘Yeah, yeah.’
“And so the sentence was, ‘He hit me below the belt more than he hit me above it.’ And the whole essay was done that way.”
Sports Illustrated‘s Doug Farrar explains the originality of “Dr. Z” before the age of the Web and analytics:
“The thing I most like about Bill James’ work is the thing I most liked about Dr. Z’s — he was able to present concepts that would have been lost in the hands of others. He could make the most advanced ideas acceptable without talking down to the reader, because he had a wonderful, original, and conversational style. And with that, he would take you into the immediacy of the action, just as he would lay open the secrets of the game for all to see. When he wrote a game story, it was different than anybody else’s game stories. Why? Because he went through the door with his own ideas, and he wasn’t going to change that for anyone.”
In a 2009 post, shortly after the news of Zimmerman’s first stroke was being absorbed, Tommy Craggs of Deadspin gave his most notable title, “A Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football,” a fresh assessment:
“Reading the book now, you’re amazed not just at how well it holds up, but at how progressive it would seem if it came out today. He wasn’t much of a stylist, but Zimmerman had an offensive lineman’s instinctive empathy for the overlooked and underappreciated (he played on the o-line in semi-pro ball in New Jersey), and as much as anything the book is an exercise in elevating the anonymous, the thoughtful eccentrics, the violent technicians who gave their best years and a knee or two to football.”
Gregg Rosenthal thought Zimmerman’s 1988 book on Duane Thomas was not only underrated, but also Dr. Z. at his essence:
“Zimmerman let the subjects of the Thomas book tell their story, like he did in so much of his writing. Zimmerman knew, better than anyone, how to get football men to reveal the good stuff.”
At The Classical earlier this year, Diana Moskovitz pumps Dr. Z’s Super Bowl history as being ahead of its time:
“This is a collection of essays for cynical times, a collection that doesn’t embellish the game because the writer knows it is just a game, albeit one that gets more attention than the others. It’s a collection that predates the NFL owning its own cable station, the monstrous PR staffs kept by teams and many of the taxpayer-funded stadiums. And yet there is Dr. Z, in the 1980s, speaking his bitterness at how controlling, corporate and buttoned-up the NFL had become.”