Commentary

Mike Zimmer finds solace in coaching

Originally Published: August 2, 2010
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

Mike ZimmerAP Photo/Gail BurtonTen months after his wife Vikki died suddenly, Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer says "the hardest part is probably the loneliness."

CINCINNATI -- Their condo on the Ohio River is the way she left it. There's a beige couch with matching throw pillows and blanket, a style-conscious collection that strongly suggests that there's no way this place was decorated by a football coach. There's a flowery wreath on the table and a sign on the wall. It says, "There is always something to be thankful for."

Mike Zimmer clutches the remote of his large flat-screen TV, watching sports, counting the hours until training camp starts and the world rights itself. Silence is the enemy. It seeps in everywhere -- the car, the grocery store, at breakfast -- giving him too much time to think.

A few days ago, Zimmer was eating at a coffee shop down the street from his condo. He glanced at the couples, the friends sitting together, the people laughing and chitchatting. He turned to his left and spotted an old man eating breakfast alone. And then Mike Zimmer, the ultra-intense, highly sought-after defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, thought something to himself: That's me in 30 years.

"The hardest part," Zimmer says, "is probably the loneliness, I guess."

It is Tuesday, hours before another training camp starts in Georgetown, Ky., 10 months removed from the day Zimmer left work to check on his wife, Vikki, and found her dead. And nothing is really the same. He subsists mainly on microwaved frozen meals, still refers to just about everything with a "we" and constantly texts, dotes on and worries about his daughters.

He knows it doesn't make sense that a man surrounded by 81 football players could feel alone. That he can drop F-bombs over the span of a two-hour practice but still cry over a random memory. That he can be so jangled up inside that he'll go to church, three times a week sometimes, and light candles and ask existential questions. But that's what the quiet does to you.

A buzzer goes off in the laundry room. It's time to pack, and for Zimmer to get back to his hard-charging, testosterone-oozing, 16-hour-a-day life, the life he knows, the one that gives him a semblance of peace.

'Truly … his better half'

They met under the backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains, two kids, seemingly opposite, converging on a jogging track at Weber State University in the early 1980s. She was a pretty, petite dancer who had the distinction of being named Miss Weber State; he was a rugged football coach from Peoria, Ill., whose toughness was forged at birth. Football was everything in the Zimmer family. His dad, Bill, played in the NFL, coached him in high school and taught him how to methodically outwork his opponents.

Football was nowhere on Vikki's list of interests. She didn't know what a draw play was, and didn't exactly care. But it was clear, early on, that Zimmer was smitten. The couple was at a party once with Mike Price, who was then the head coach at Weber State, and Price's son turned to his dad and told him, in a conversation later relayed to Zimmer: "This is the one. You can tell how he's acting. That's the one he's going to marry."

Zimmer family
Courtesy of Zimmer FamilyThrough all the job changes, Vikki always managed to hold the family together: (from left) Adam, Corri, Vikki, Marki and Mike.

Within a year, they were married, thrusting the young ballerina who once played the lead role in "The Nutcracker" into the world of a coach's wife. To this day, Zimmer jokes, he doesn't know what Vikki saw in him. But to everyone else around them, it was clear they were the perfect match. Vikki smoothed out Zim's rough edges. She kept him balanced.

"It's funny," Bengals defensive tackle Tank Johnson says. "When he's a hardass, he's a hardass. But when he's around his family, he's the softest SOB you've ever seen. She truly was his better half."

The life of an NFL coach's wife is described by some who've lived it as being similar to that of a military spouse. There's the constant moving, the long gaps of virtual separation, the stress and secrecy. When training camp starts, some wives joke that it's time for their husbands to step into the submarine. They're only half kidding.

"You make the best of where you are," says Rebecca Bratkowski, whose husband, Bob, is the Bengals' offensive coordinator. "And there's always something good about every place you go."

The Zimmers and Bratkowskis have a deep history together. In 1980, Mike caught the garter at Bob and Rebecca's wedding. Bob and Mike were assistants together at Missouri, then coached under Price at Weber State. Back then, the staff was very family oriented.

Price's daughter would often babysit for his assistants' young children. And the wives would often lean on each other in their times of solitude. It was a sorority of sorts, among a handful of women who advised and chuckled and knew things the rest of the world couldn't understand.

"We were all just young kids," Rebecca says. "We became a really close-knit group."

But inevitably, in coaching, groups splinter. The Bratkowskis have moved eight times in their marriage; the Zimmers have been to five stops around the college ranks and NFL. But somehow, Vikki managed to hold the family together. She cared more about raising their three kids -- Adam (26, a defensive assistant with the Chiefs), Marki (23) and Corri (20) -- than any media analysis of whether Mike's 4-3 defense was sound.

Sure, she would go to the games, even when times were bad and Zimmer told her to stay home so she wouldn't be subjected to the fans' surly comments. Thing is, they were rarely bad with Zim. He helped engineer some of the best defenses in the NFL in Dallas, winning a Super Bowl with Barry Switzer, then thriving under Bill Parcells.

When criticism came down from the stands, within earshot of Vikki, she occasionally would fire back with a, "You don't know how hard they work!" She was always the compassionate one, everybody's mother. She shuddered at the four-letter words Zim would rain on his players and told him he needed to be nicer. She softened bruised egos with cookies and brownies.

It would make the old coach roll his eyes, the Post-it notes reminding him to bring in the treats, the trays he'd have to lug in some early mornings when all he wanted to do was break down film and build his guys back up.

Some of the sweetness he never knew about until she was gone. Like how she gave a grocery bag full of food to a homeless lady, then kept another bag of food in her car in case she ran into the woman again.

"She was the sweetest, kindest, most caring person who'd never say a bad word about anybody," Zimmer says. "I mean, [that] story really typifies her. That was my wife."

The rock of the defense

When the Zimmers came to Cincinnati in 2008, they decided to lease a tidy, wood-floored condo, which sits a few miles from the stadium. His new job as the Bengals' defensive coordinator wasn't exactly rooted in stability. He inherited a group of castoffs and a defense that was consistently near the bottom of the NFL. Critics blasted owner Mike Brown for not opening his coffers to produce a team serious about winning; the people of Cincinnati had given up on the defense.

"When I first got here, the expectations of the defense in Cincinnati were … they were the worst thing ever," he says. "I felt sorry for them after hearing all the different things people were saying. So that was sort of our rallying cry."

His first year in Cincinnati, his defense finished a stunning 12th. His motivational tactics were the stuff that would turn a pack of marshmallows to steel. He gathered his team in a meeting room and pointed to the seventh-round draft picks, the washed-up veterans, the guys, he said, that nobody else wanted. He asked them to raise a hand if they ever had been cut from a team. Outstretched hands filled the room.

"If we don't start playing better," he told them, "you're going to be out on the street!"

Deep inside, Zimmer loved the fringe guys. Those are the men, he says, who know they can't slip up again. Those are the ones desperate enough to do anything to prove themselves because they know they have only this one last shot.

Tank Johnson was one of those guys last summer. The troubled tackle sat in Zimmer's office during camp, listening to the background report that was being whispered in league circles. Johnson was arrested multiple times in his younger days in Chicago, spent a suspension-shortened season in Dallas, then signed with the Bengals in the spring of 2009. This was seemingly it for the former second-round draft pick, and Johnson, perhaps, could feel it.

[+] EnlargeMike and Corri Zimmer
AP Photo/Gail BurtonMike and Corri comfort each other at the Bengals' game the weekend after Vikki's death.

"He told me what the perception of me was in this league," Johnson says. "And a lot of times you don't get to hear that. He came right to me and told me, 'Hey, this is what's out there on you right now, and if you want to be successful in this league, you're going to have to clean A, B and C up.'

"He didn't leave any gray area. When a coach is straight with you, you can take it a lot better."

The "Z-fense" -- as some Bengals like to call it -- was churning right along on Oct. 8, 2009, when Zimmer got a call at work. It was his mom, asking whether he had heard from Vikki. Zimmer's daughter called, too, saying she had tried to call three times but Mom wasn't answering. It wasn't like Vikki. She always had her cell phone on.

Zimmer left work and headed to the condo, and found her dead in their bedroom. Her two beloved dogs, a dachshund and a Yorkie, hovered around her. One of the dogs was licking her.

Hamilton County chief deputy coroner William Ralston says Vikki Zimmer died of natural causes. She was only 50. Ralston says it's "not all that rare" for someone as young as Zimmer to die of natural causes, a term that is used when a person dies and there is no foul play or drugs involved.

To the Zimmers, it will never make sense. For months after Vikki's death, Mike Zimmer slept on the couch, trying to block out the memories. He coached that weekend, three days after her death, because he knew Vikki would want it that way. The Bengals upset the Ravens 17-14 in Baltimore. They gave Zimmer the game ball, which sits in his living room next to his TV.

The grind of the season was a welcome distraction, and when Cincinnati made the playoffs, it further delayed some of the pain. When it was over, a number of teams inquired about Zimmer's services. He thought about leaving, about sealing up and packing away such a numbing year.

He wasn't sure he had the strength, back then, to start over.

"We're very thankful for Zim's decision to stay," safety Roy L. Williams says. "Besides his daughters and his son, we are his family. There's no better place than being with your extended kids here on the football field.

"He's the rock of our defense."

A support system

The Bengals took turns looking out for the Zimmers. Mike Brown flew family members to Cincinnati for Vikki's funeral. The Bratkowskis had Mike, Corri and Marki over for Thanksgiving.

"I don't ever want him to feel like we're not in this with him," Rebecca Bratkowski says.

"It's tough. I mean, I send him cards every now and then just so he knows that he's not forgotten, that Vikki's not forgotten. We're here, and it's OK to talk."

Rebecca and Vikki talked so many times in their final stop together. Vikki was the one who planned the outings with the coaches' wives, and she comforted Rebecca last year when her father died. After Vikki's passing, the wives didn't want the tradition to end. So they got together and learned how to line dance and do the electric slide. Vikki, Rebecca says, would've loved that.

"It was such an appropriate thing to do because she was a dancer," Rebecca says.

"She was a tiny person with a huge heart and a great smile. She was just a blast to be around."

Sharing his grief

True story: Practically nothing stops an NFL coach in-season. Crowns break off of sore, abscessed teeth, yet the average coach delays going to the dentist until at least January. Nobody on the outside understands it, how the world stops for football.

Zimmer has been through so much, has changed so much, but he doesn't waver from his commitment. He was recently diagnosed with skin cancer and was advised to have surgery. Zimmer, 54, told his doctor that it would have to wait for a couple of weeks, when the Bengals returned from camp.

[+] EnlargeMike Zimmer
Frank Victores/US PresswireZimmer thought about leaving Cincinnati after such a numbing year, but wasn't sure he had the strength to start over.

"It's nothing," he says. "It really isn't. It's what they call basal cell; it's not a melanoma. It's not an urgent thing. The doctor wasn't worried about it, so I wasn't worried about it."

He's softer now, "more feminine," he jokes, but somehow manages to balance everything. In the months after Vikki died, he carried his cell phone on the field in case his daughters called. He won't do certain things now because of his kids. Coach Marvin Lewis asked whether he wanted to jump out of a plane with the Golden Knights; Zimmer didn't want to risk it.

He thinks about the frailty of life more. He had Bill Cowher on his mind last week after the former Pittsburgh Steelers coach lost his wife, Kaye, to cancer.

"Bill Cowher's wife was 54," he says. "I notice these things a lot more than I did before. I have more empathy now. Because I know what they're going through."

In the days after Vikki's death, Zimmer received boxes of letters from people throughout the country, strangers who shared stories of grief. Some postmarks came from prison. One man from California wrote that his wife died 24 hours after the birth of their only son.

"That was probably the thing that helped me the most," he says. "I found out I was not the only one."

And he's never alone. Coach Lewis had his annual pre-camp kickoff party last week, and Zimmer, at first, didn't feel like going. He thought about the wives and families and how, a year ago at this time, he was there with Vikki. He forced himself to go, and was surrounded by stories and laughter and happy memories.

When it was over, Zimmer knew he needed that.

This is where he belongs, surrounded by 81 men, pushing on like on any other hot and desperate August afternoon.

"You see him thinking of her," linebacker Dhani Jones says, "and then he might do something a little bit different because she would've wanted him to do it. I don't know, it's just like a look. Instead of not giving any compliments, he might give us one."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com.