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Coaching fraternity celebrates Vikki Zimmer

Posted: 4:15 p.m.

In the NFL, Tuesday is the day the grinders grind.

With the players off, Tuesday is the day the coaches shutter themselves in the dark to watch tape, draw Xs and Os, erase said Xs and Os and draw them again, punch printouts, meet, break, eat lunch at the desk, miss another dinner at home, eat in the cafeteria, and somehow come up with a game plan that can be practiced and perfected for the next four days before Sunday.

All except this Tuesday, the day they said goodbye to Vikki Zimmer in a jam-packed mass at Holy Cross Immaculata Church high on Cincinnati's Mount Adams and in the heart of the coaching fraternity.

The Bengals came on buses from Paul Brown Stadium. The Saints came on a plane from New Orleans. Vikki Zimmer, the wife of Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer for 28 football seasons, had married a coach and gave birth to one and so her family is one in the same.

That's pretty much what head coach Marvin Lewis told the church when he eulogized her with Isaiah 41:10  ("Fear thou not; for I am with thee ... I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness") and reminded her three children that they now had an extended network of aunts and uncles they could call at any time.

That's pretty much what Vikki's husband said when he chose three of his players, safety Roy Williams, middle linebacker Dhani Jones, and defensive tackle Domata Peko, to serve as pallbearers.

If there was anyone who knew what made the coaching fraternity strong and nurturing and comforting, it was Vikki Zimmer, 50 years young when she left last week with her treats and notes and phone calls so suddenly it blew open a hole so wide in the fraternity that it took two NFL teams to fill it.

But they did because that's what a fraternity does in times like this. They are really the only ones that know about the missed meals, the calls on birthdays, the nights they're home too late and the mornings they're gone too early, and the 24-hour criticism from outside.

The players came, too, Tuesday. Every defensive player and most of the offensive players made the walk down the aisle of Immaculata. Carson and Shaelyn Palmer left the twins at home, but Jon Fanene and Leon Hall carried their babies. Vikki Zimmer would have loved that.

And she would have loved the fact that all of the Saints starting linebackers honored her own baby with their presence. Adam Zimmer, Vikki and Mike Zimmer's oldest child now 25 is, of course, a coach, and the Saints assistant linebackers coach.

If you needed a babysitter, there were three generations of them. A generation ago, Vikki Zimmer and Rebecca Bratkowski, wife of Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, babysat the children of Mike Price when their husbands worked for him at Weber Stare.

Price, now the head coach at Texas-El Paso, was there. So was Sean Payton, the head coach of the Saints. Vikki Zimmer's daughters, Corri and Marki, babysat Sean and Beth Payton's kids Connor and Meghan when the husbands coached together in Dallas.

"I'd come home and there'd be something for Connor from Vikki," Payton recalled Tuesday. "It'd be a basket or something. And it wouldn't even be for his birthday. It would be like for his first day of school or something. Connor would call her 'Vikkizimmer.' It wasn't Miss or Vikki. It was just 'Vikkizimmer.'"

Vikkizimmer was always doing that kind of stuff. Stuff for the fraternity. Stuff for everybody. It didn't matter. Lewis told the church about the parties she'd have for the coaches' wives when they were on the road and her husband's smile when he talked about his family from the day Lewis first met him.

So did Mike Zimmer when he got up there and talked for about two of the bravest minutes you'll ever see, saying his wife had such a big heart and asking her to wrap her wings around the family while they live the rest of their lives trying to make her smile.

Rebecca Bratkowski hurt badly Tuesday. But she was able to smile, too.

You know who caught the garter at Rebecca and Bob's wedding?

Mike Zimmer.

That was when Brat and Zim were at Missouri with Price and he took both of them to Weber State, where Vikki and Zimmer met and got married. When the Zimmers surfaced in Cincinnati last year, it was like old times.

Rebecca has just returned from Missouri taking care of ill parents, just like Vikki did last year when she lost them both. She understood what Rebecca was going through.

"I had a voice message from her. They were going to pamper me because I'd been away for six weeks," said Rebecca Bratkowski of Vikki and other wives.

The Paytons had to leave and Vikkizimmer wouldn't have minded. If anyone knew about Tuesdays and game planning and the need to get back to the office, Vikkizimmer would have been the first one to tell them to leave. Of course, she would have sent them back with a kiss and a treat.

So Mike Zimmer kissed Beth Payton and nodded at his son.

"Look after him," he said, but he knew she would because that's what a fraternity does.

Vikkizimmer would have loved that.

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