Paul Zimmerman, the author of the story on the Philadelphia Eagles that begins on page 42, is in his fifth season as our NFL writer, and he remains obsessed by football—any kind of football. He owns two video recorders, to simultaneously tape the games from both NFL conferences each Sunday. He photocopies and memorizes the rosters of the teams playing in Saturday's televised college games. He's a Peewee League football fan. As for his assignments, Associate Writer Rick Telander once said, "Zim covers a football game as if everybody's life depended on it."
On a typical Dr. Z NFL Sunday, Zim rises at 7 a.m., has breakfast and scrounges up some clothes, going for "whatever's on the chair," which may be one of his favorite faded Hawaiian shirts from Pro Bowls past and baggy jeans. At about 8:30 he has his first anxiety attack of the day, a condition dating from November 1966, when he woke up in a sweat, having dreamed that he missed the kickoff of the Notre Dame-Michigan State game.
By 9, panic recurs—"I'm not normal," Zim says, "till I get to the stadium"—and at 10, unable to stand it, he drives to the stadium and checks the field and wind direction. Then the teams arrive. Next, Zim averages the heights, weights and experience of both squads. He readies his cigars. By noon his game face is officially on.
When it's time for the national anthem, Zim puts a watch on it, as he has for the past 20 years. A self-proclaimed numbers freak—he says it's 1,840 steps from the United gate to the terminal in the Honolulu airport—he likes his Star-Spangled Banner short and sweet. The fastest rendition he has clocked so far: 51 seconds, by John Kiley, Fenway Park organist, Red Sox game, 1977; the slowest: 2:28, by Pearl Bailey, Yankee Stadium, World Series, 1978. (On Sunday, Phil Pepe of the New York Daily News wrote that rock singer Gary Puckett had "labored through" the anthem, on a recent home stint at Yankee Stadium, in 2:34, "but Puckett's mark must be authenticated by official anthem timer Paul Zimmerman.")
At the kickoff, poised with three sets of charts, a slew of colored pens, three cigars and a towel around his neck—remember we're talking obsessed—Zim gets down to business. He keeps a play-by-play diagram showing good blocks and tackles, a pass-frequency chart showing all eligible pass receivers and defenders plus a running stat chart, noting the number of yards each player has accumulated.
Afterward, his locker-room interviews complete and his story in, Zim heads home to study tapes of the day's other NFL games, keeping charts on all of them, too. He saves them all—Zim has charts going back to the Columbia-Penn game of 1947.
It does get absurd, as even Zim admits. "One game night Katie [his wife, a pediatrician, who's the real Dr. Z] and I had a big fight. During the time-outs. She said, 'There's more to life than football!' When we made up, she looked at me and said, 'My God, you didn't miss a play, did you?' I said. 'Nope.' "