Nothing inspires more fear in the heart of a young SPORTS ILLUSTRATED reporter than the following news: "You'll be fact-checking Dr. Z's story this week." As word of the assignment spreads, colleagues stop by the reporter's office, proffering words of sympathy and perhaps a copy of the NFL Record & Fact Book. Senior writer Paul Zimmerman's love and respect for football border on the monomaniacal. and woe unto the reporter who questions the veracity of a Dr. Z fact. "I wrote it," responds Dr. Z, whose Dr. Z's Forecast, a preview of upcoming NFL games, appears in each of our INSIDE THE NFL columns and who also contributes a weekly column to our Web site (www.cnnsi.com). "What other source do you need?"
After all, Dr. Z, an 18-year SI veteran, is the man who wrote both A Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football and its sequel; who each week during the football season views—either in person, on television or on tape—at least eight NFL games and as many college football games as possible in their entirety; who, when watching any game, charts it as minutely as if it were the Pacific and he Magellan, using four colored pens. "One team's drives are noted in black pen, the other team's drives are in blue," says Zimmerman. "Injuries are in red, freakies—bad calls by officials, fights, players getting put out—are in green."
It's Zimmerman's passion with all matters pertaining to the gridiron that led this week to his ranking of the top 10 big backs in pro football history (page 38) and his feature piece on the Notre Dame teams of 1946 and'47 (page 104). Thirty years ago, while drinking beer at The Olympic Club in San Francisco after playing in a rugby match, Zimmerman found himself discussing the afterlife with another patron. "In my dream of the first day in heaven," Zimmerman told his companion, "I'm sitting at a table with a box of cigars on one side and a bottle of brandy on the other side, getting ready to chart a game, and a curtain unfolds before me to reveal that it's a game between the Notre Dame and Michigan teams of 1947."
When the newfound acquaintance, John O'Connor, informed Dr. Z (not actually a doctor, though he does have a master's in journalism) that he had been a reserve for the 1946 and '47 Irish, a story was born. Zimmerman first wrote about the '46 and '47 Notre Dame teams in a column for the New York Post. Earlier this year he was asked to expand the story for our pages. In May, Zimmerman traveled to South Bend with his new bride, Linda Bailey, whom he had met two years earlier at the NFL meetings in Phoenix. Bailey visited family in the South Bend area while Zimmerman hunkered down for a week of exhaustive research. "The people at Notre Dame had reams of old files in a basement on campus that nobody had perused for years," says Zimmerman. Not surprisingly he proceeded to peruse them microscopically.