The Hall of Fame Series: Gary Zimmerman

Tackle
Minnesota 1986-92
Denver 1993-97

Perhaps the most unique Vikings acquisition to get inducted into the Hall of Fame, Gary Zimmerman was originally selected with the third overall pick in the 1984 NFL Supplemental Draft of USFL and CFL Players (the only draft of its kind) by the New York Giants. Drafted in the USFL, Zimmerman played the 1984 and 1985 seasons for the league’s LA Express. The historical draft also saw quarterback Steve Young get drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and with the fourth overall pick, the Philadelphia Eagles selected defensive end Reggie White.

Following the folding of the USFL in 1985, the Giants traded Zimmerman to the Vikings in exchange for two second-round picks. The investment quickly paid off, even if his new head coach wasn’t initially sold on the move. Jerry Burns, taking over for the retired Bud Grant, greeted Zimmerman by saying, “Who the hell are you? You’re too little to play.”

It didn’t take long for Zimmerman to prove that he could play, though. Even though he didn’t play left tackle until he got to the USFL, Zimmerman was a natural at the position. Standing 6-6 and weighing 294 pounds, he started every game of his rookie season. In 1987, Zimmerman was selected to the first of his seven career Pro Bowls as well as first-team All-Pro honors for the first time. That season, Zimmerman missed the only four games of his Vikings career due to the players’ strike. He continued to anchor the left side of the line in the magical postseason run that saw the Vikings upset the Saints and 49ers as road underdogs before losing to Washington 17-10 in the NFC Championship.

Lined up next to rookie guard and future Hall of Famer Randall McDaniel, Zimmerman was selected as a first-team All-Pro once again in 1988. The two formed an impenetrable left side for the remainder of Zimmerman’s time in Minnesota. They helped pave the way for the NFC’s most potent rushing offense in 1991, but Burns resigned after the season, and Zimmerman’s future began to get murky.

Zimmerman returned to Minnesota in 1992, helping lead the Vikings back to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. He was selected to his fourth Pro Bowl following the season, but his relationship with new head coach Denny Green had soured. Zimmerman said he would have retired before returning to Minnesota, refusing to show up to camp in 1993. “I had a personal issue with Dennis,” Zimmerman has said of the breakup, but he wouldn’t elaborate.

Knowing that there was no chance for Zimmerman to return, the Vikings traded Zimmerman to the Broncos before the 1993 season. In return, the Vikings got WR Vance Johnson, a 1994 first-round pick (CB DeWayne Washington), a 1994 sixth-round pick (TE Andrew Jordan), and a 1995 second-round pick (S Orlando Thomas). Johnson actually failed to make the Vikings roster and returned to Denver. Washington, Jordan, and Thomas all made serviceable impacts, with Thomas’ being the most impactful and long-lasting. It was far from the worst trade the Vikings have made in dealing away a future Hall of Famer.

Zimmerman, meanwhile, helped the Broncos’ offense become a perennial top-10 unit. In 1996, the Broncos had the top-ranked offense in the league. In 1997, they once again had the top-ranked offense as well as the top-scoring offense in the league. Zimmerman missed two games during each of these seasons with shoulder issues and a bad hip. Despite this, he was still elected to his final All-Pro first-team in 1996. He admitted to getting injections those final two seasons just so that he could play, but he says he would do it again. Following a disappointing loss to the Jaguars in the 1996 AFC Divisional Game, the Broncos came back in 1997 to win their first Super Bowl, defeating the Packers 31-24.

The Super Bowl victory ended up being the final game of Zimmerman’s career. He was named to both the 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Teams and finally selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008.

But it was what he did off the field that might leave the largest impact on today’s NFL. Zimmerman didn’t talk to the media in Minnesota, and when he arrived in Denver, he carried on his self-imposed rule. It was when guard Brian Habib, who was Zimmerman’s teammate in Minnesota, joined him in Denver that the ban became widespread. When longtime offensive line coach Alex Gibbs returned to Denver in 1995 following a four-year stint with the team in the 80s, Gibbs made the media ban a uniform policy for all Broncos linemen.

For those that remember the old Monday Night Football player intros, the Broncos offensive line was the only group of players who didn’t do individual video intros. The tradition stuck around even after Zimmerman retired in 1997 and after Gibbs left in 2003. Upheld by center Tom Nalen, the policy was upheld until Roger Goodell became commissioner in 2007, forcing every player to speak to the media. Sorry, Marshawn.

Quiet yet durable, athletic yet overpowering, Gary Zimmerman was the prototype at left tackle that teams covet today. Although his time in Minnesota ended bittersweet, he still says that his early years with the Vikings helped develop him as he went up against players like defensive end Chris Doleman and defensive tackle Keith Millard in practice every day. He helped give the Vikings an identity after the first half of the 1980s was an adjustment period for the franchise. For that, Zimmerman’s impact on Minnesota, while somewhat short-lived in only seven seasons, will be remembered forever.