I was lost in thought, standing near the Los Angeles Raiders' practice field, when I saw him walking by.
"Bob?" I said.
He looked up.
Then he smiled—the same familiar smile—and he came over and we shook hands. Well, bless me, after 15 years I had found my old coach.
Bob Zeman is 48 now, but he looks just about the same as when I played right cornerback at Northwestern for him in 1969. Lean and broad-shouldered, he still looks like a player, which he had once been—first as a two-way back at Wisconsin, then as a safety for seven years in the NFL. He had left Northwestern after that '69 season—his second there and my first as a defensive back—and that's when I lost him.
I knew that he had gone on to other coaching jobs in college and the pros, but our paths had never crossed, and I had resigned myself to never seeing him again. It gave me a bad feeling because there was something I wanted to tell him.
"I'm coaching the linebackers," he said. "I just started last May. Before that I was with Buffalo. And before that, Denver." Working for the Raiders was nice, he added. He had been with them from 1971 to 1977 as defensive backfield coach; this was sort of a homecoming.
"They all come back," Raiders owner Al Davis would say later. Then Davis added, "Bob was a good pro player, not a great one. But he was tough."
I found this compelling, for Zeman hadn't coached like a tough guy. In a sport dominated by wild-eyed tyrants, he seemed to me—an impressionable and scared 20-year-old—to be an eminently reasonable man. Moreover, there was a vulnerability to him, almost a softness, that made all the players respect his occasional periods of silence and not want to take advantage of him. He was a little bit shy.
As Zeman and I spoke, an incident from the spring of 1969 kept coming to my mind. I had just moved from offense, where I had been a bust as a wide receiver, to defense. Zeman and I had not met formally, but he was now my coach, and because of graduation and other factors, I had been penciled in as his first-string right cornerback.