Zimmers cap bittersweet season


Mike Zimmer

Posted: 8:35 a.m.

MIAMI - A month before she died so suddenly in the middle of the day in the middle of her life, Vikki Zimmer was out to dinner with her husband when they began talking about their oldest child Adam.

"How honored do you feel that your son wants to be just like you, idolizes you and even has your mannerisms?" she asked Mike Zimmer.

But this week Mike Zimmer is hoping his son is nothing like him when he meets up with him here Friday at the Super Bowl. That's when Zimmer, the Bengals defensive coordinator, flies in from Cincinnati and plans to rescue his son from the final grinding hours of preparation and take him to dinner.

Since Adam is the Saints assistant linebackers coach in charge of the care and feeding of the New Orleans defense for everything from overseeing the playbooks to signaling in plays on game day, his father knows how much he'll need it.

"I always said if I ever go back, I'm going to enjoy at least some of it,"  Zimmer recalled Wednesday of his lone Super Bowl appearance with the Cowboys 15 years ago. "I didn't spend any time with my family. I didn't go out to dinner or anything like that. I was grinding. I was just so intent on trying to win. I told him the other day that hopefully he'll get a chance to enjoy some of it and we'll do it when we get together Friday."

When Zimmer coached the Cowboys secondary in that win over the Steelers in Arizona, 11-year-old Adam Zimmer carried the cord for his father's headsets on the sidelines. There will be no such storybook, full-circle scenes Sunday.

"He needs to make sure my sisters are OK up in the stands," Adam Zimmer said with a grin after wolfing down a quick lunch on a hectic Wednesday he attended the Saints media session before going to the first practice of the week. "I think the league would probably frown on it."

Saints head coach Sean Payton made a standing offer this week to Mike Zimmer and told him he could sit in on meetings, attend practices, whatever he wanted.

"But I don't want to get in the way," Zimmer said.

Just imagine the emotions for them. It is all so bittersweet, of course. Ever since Mike Zimmer came home from work for dinner on a Thursday - Oct. 8 - and found his wife of 27 years gone because of natural causes.

"I can't imagine it. I can't relate to that. To lose your mother when you're only 25 and Adam was so close to his mom," said Saints linebacker Scott Fujita. "That's the one thing about football. Your family is scattered. His dad was in Cincinnati. His sisters were in Texas. When he got back to New Orleans, it was in the middle of everything and I don't know if he had the proper time to grieve. But we knew we wanted to be there for him. He's like my little brother. We've got one of the closest rooms on the team."

If Mike Zimmer could lean for support on his "Little Sisters of the Poor," his fond nickname for his recycled defense, then Adam Zimmer says he has a bunch of big brothers in New Orleans. Shanle, another linebacker, calls him "the spirit of the game."

Along with Fujita, Shanle, and fellow linebacker Mark Simoneau, Zimmer arrived to work under Payton in 2006. Fujita and Shanle had been discarded by the Cowboys, Simoneau by the Eagles.

"The four of us really get along," Fujita said. "We came from other teams and Adam was this kid right out of Trinity University who looked like he was 12. Now he looks like he's 15. I don't know if you've noticed it or not, but now he's got a stubble."

Adam Zimmer needed them back in October and they came through. It was the Saints bye week but all the linebackers, position coach Joe Vitt, and Payton attended Vikki Zimmer's funeral mass at Holy Cross Immaculata Church high on Cincinnati's Mount Adams.

"When I saw all 10 of them come walking down the aisle," Adam Zimmer said, "yeah, it was a big lift. It really helped me get through it."

Just like his dad's guys do in Cincinnati, Adam says they check in on him. They text. Shanle says they've made sure he gets over to their houses to watch some Monday Night Football. Simoneau had Adam over to his house for Christmas. The Vitts had him for Thanksgiving.

When the Saints had a bye week last month to prepare for their first playoff game, Mike Zimmer called Payton to remind him that week was Adam's 26th birthday. When he got to his desk the morning of Jan. 13, Adam found cupcakes from Beth Payton, Sean's wife.

"They're taking good care of me," Adam Zimmer said.

But they will tell you he's also taking care of them.

Fujita and Shanle both played for Adam's father in Dallas and they back up what Vikki Zimmer said. Same mannerisms. Same intensity. Same brains. It is why the thirtysomething backers (Fujita and Shanle are 30, Simoneau is 33) don't throw the kid out of the room.

"What we respect about him is his knowledge of the game. It's unbelievable for a guy his age," Shanle said. "You've got to have a lot of respect for anybody that puts that much time into it."

Fujita says not only are Adam's mannerisms "uncanny" to Mike's, but they also have the same strengths. He always found it extremely valuable when Mike Zimmer would talk through his thoughts in putting together the game plan instead of just handing it to them.

"He's got a huge career in front of him. He can do whatever he wants to do," Fujita said. "Position coach, coordinator, even head coach. He's got the ability to do what his dad does. Identifying what opposing defenses are trying to do to attack you. (Mike did) the best job of thinking out loud so we could see what was in his mind when he was putting in the game plan. Adam does a really good job of stuff like that."

Adam Zimmer doesn't do the game plan, of course, but he is coordinator Gregg Williams' eyes and ears as the quality control guy breaking down film. But his role has expanded during his four seasons with the Saints and Vitt says he works on the field at every linebacker spot.

"He does more than copying," Fujita said and Shanle says his tip sheets that he hands out two days before the game are invaluable.

"Whatever day we come in, we know he was watching film the night before," Shanle said. "He gives us tips from what he sees from certain players in their stance. Down and distance ... he knows things tendency wise ... he does a good job breaking us down."

Adam Zimmer remembered at that first Super Bowl all he pretty much did was watch video games and he's got to be feeling a little bit of déjà vu trying to break down Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Shanle said he has yet to see the Manning tip sheet, but Zimmer has already provided some on the Indy running backs' stances and alignments.

Neither Zimmer pulls any punches about wanting to work together one day and Fujita asks, "That's going to happen. How could it not?"

Could if not happen in Cincinnati? Mike Zimmer just re-upped for three more years in a deal that is believed to make him the Bengals' first $1 million coordinator. Adam Zimmer is in the final year of his deal in New Orleans and gets the vibe the Saints like what he's doing. Mike Zimmer said he broached the subject with head coach Marvin Lewis awhile ago but not lately.

"I don't want to look like I'm just following my dad around," Adam said. "I don't want to get a job just because he's the coordinator. I want the job because I'm a good coach, not because he's a good coach. I want to earn my stripes.

"You never know. It's something you don't talk about until after the season."

Mike Zimmer is worried about what is going to happen to Adam after the season when all the work is done. Mike admits he has hit the wall as he adjusts to life without Vikki.

"I've been doing it now for a couple of weeks," he said. "Last weekend I didn't do anything. There was nothing to do. I just watched TV. I'm coming home from work yesterday and I'm wondering what I'm going to cook for dinner. I think it's a little easier for Adam because he's living by himself but I know it's been hard on him."

In fact, Mike thinks he miscalculated how much Vikki's death has affected Adam. He instinctively showered attention on his 23- and 19-year-old daughters assuming Adam would be OK as the boy.

But Adam called his mother every night he left work and he still has her number in his phone and will look at it from time to time.

"I couldn't have got here without her," he said.

When Mike Zimmer decided to coach in Baltimore three days after Vikki's death, the Bengals invited him to bring family members on the charter and Adam, his sister and grandfather made the trip to see the Bengals win on Carson Palmer's 20-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Andre Caldwell with 22 seconds left cap a penalty-filled drive.

"My sister and I kind of let it go when that happened," Adam Zimmer said. "Then I knew she was OK. On that last drive, I just had a feeling they were going to score. I think she had something to do with the refs throwing all those flags around."

Adam watched Lewis give Mike the game ball a few minutes later, and Payton did the same thing the next week when the Saints beat the Giants at home.

"There was no question that was the thing to do. I don't even know if we talked about it," Fujita said.

Mike Zimmer is hoping for another celebration Sunday. He went to the NFC title game with the girls and they had trouble getting back to the car amid all the mayhem. This one might be a little more laid back because there is going to be a concert.

"I hope I celebrate with a beer with Adam listening to Kenny Chesney," Mike Zimmer said.

And if they lose?

Mike Zimmer thought about that for a minute.

"Same thing, I guess," he said.

And that won't be bad, either, on a day Mike Zimmer will finally stop and smell the roses of a Super Bowl.

But they are a bouquet of bittersweet.

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