It was a friendly round of character assassination to pass the time. Denver Bronco guards Dave Widell and Brian Habib were relaxing between two-a-days in late July. The arrival of a reporter asking about Gary Zimmerman, their line-mate at left tackle, provided an ideal antidote to their boredom.
Widell thought for a moment and then offered this: "Next to Habib, he's the most overpaid guy on the team."
Habib let that slide. "A complete pessimist," he said of Zimmerman, who happens to be a four-time Pro Bowler. "You could give him a million dollars, and he'd say, I'm gonna get killed on taxes.' "
"You know, he's a survivalist," said Widell. "Gary's building a fortress on a hill in Oregon. He's stockpiling ammunition for the revolution."
"If I'd known you were going to talk to Widell," Zimmerman says, "I'd have told you to keep a safe distance. He spits when he talks."
Zimmerman's spread in Oregon, two hours east of Eugene at the base of the Cascade Mountains, is not so much a fortress as a getaway. In July 1993, when the Minnesota Vikings irked him with what he perceived to be their duplicity and stinginess, Zimmerman, a Viking for seven seasons, refused to leave there for camp. In his final meeting with Viking CEO Roger Headrick, Zimmerman felt Headrick was patronizing him. "I felt like knocking his teeth out," he says.
In late August of that year the Vikings traded Zimmerman to Denver, and, in spite of missing all of training camp, he started every game last season. Quarterback John Elway had a career year. These events were not unrelated. "It's a great feeling, knowing that if you give [ Elway] some time, he'll get something done with the pass," says Zimmerman, taking a not-so-subtle swipe at the Vikings. "In the past I'd give a guy time and nothing got done."
Zimmerman is not a subtle man. He grew up in Fullerton, Calif., 30 miles east of Los Angeles, and he played college ball for the Oregon Ducks. He never considered going to college in Southern California. "I don't like L.A." he says. "I don't like cities."
As luck would have it, Zimmerman was drafted out of Oregon by the USFL Los Angeles Express, for whom he played two years before joining the Vikings. Habib, who also began his NFL career with Minnesota, as a defensive tackle, recalls having to block Zimmerman in practice. "He would just knock the——out of you," says Habib. "But he has some of the smoothest footwork I have ever seen."
Says Widell of Zimmerman, "He can dance with a finesse guy like Derrick Thomas. Then, if he's up against a power end like Richard Dent or Chris Doleman, he'll play a power game. He's known for pass blocking, but what people don't realize is that last year he graded out about 95 percent for his rim blocking. He's a great player, and a good guy. But don't write that.