Five days removed from his latest eye surgery — the eighth on his troublesome right eye — Vikings coach Mike Zimmer left Minnesota on Monday to return to his ranch in Kentucky, where he is expected to spend the next few weeks focusing on his recovery.
During a follow-up appointment with his doctors Monday morning, Zimmer reluctantly agreed to put his health above his football team as the Vikings this week begin the third and final stage of their voluntary offseason program with the start of organized team activities.
But Zimmer said the doctors gave him “really good news” about his eye, which has bothered the coach since last fall, when he had the first of his surgeries.
“This is probably the best it’s ever been and if I don’t screw it up by going out and yelling at players and doing things that I shouldn’t be doing, then I think this will be the best development we’ve had,” Zimmer said in a Monday interview with KFAN Radio.
In a statement, General Manager Rick Spielman said Zimmer “will be taking time away from the team to dedicate to recovering from eye surgery and restoring his health. We all agree Mike’s health is the priority and we believe rest and recovery are in his best interest for the long term. We anticipate Mike back on the field in a few weeks.”
It is unknown if it was ultimately decided by Zimmer or the Vikings that he needed to take time away from the team. The Vikings did not make Zimmer available to local reporters Monday but did arrange for him to appear on KFAN, their official radio partner. He admitted to “pushing back” when doctors recommended he take a leave of absence.
“The doctors all got together and we had a long meeting about what’s the best recuperation of this eye and they said that I need to try to spend the next couple of weeks just working on my recovery,” said Zimmer, who turns 61 in June. “At this point now we just need to take it easy and make sure it continues to heal the right away.”
Zimmer first had surgery to fix a torn retina on Nov. 1, the day after an ugly Monday night loss in Chicago. He scratched his right eye during that game and when he got it examined the next day doctors discovered the torn retina. He had a second surgery a week later. At that point, Zimmer’s doctors were hopeful that he was in the clear.
But later in November, Zimmer experienced more vision issues and was sidelined for a Thursday night home loss to the Dallas Cowboys following emergency surgery for a detached retina the previous night. Zimmer was back at work the following week and was able to fly with the team to Jacksonville for their game against the Jaguars that weekend.
Zimmer said at the NFL scouting combine in March that he had a fifth surgery scheduled for April and believed he would be in the clear after that and cataract surgery later in the offseason. During that interview in Indianapolis, the coach told a reporter who was sitting a few feet away from him that “I can make you out, but you’re blurry.”
Still, he was again active in the scouting process this offseason, hitting the road with Spielman to attend a number of college pro days and work out players in person.
Since early March, he has undergone four more surgeries, three initially unplanned.
Zimmer told KFAN that during a recheck “a couple days” after an April 17 surgery to put an oxygen bubble in the eye, doctors told him he had developed a cataract. So he had a follow-up procedure to remove the cataract and put more oil back in the eye.
But that silicone oil made the pressure in his right eye “very, very high,” Zimmer said, so much that the doctors were concerned he could develop glaucoma if it was not treated. So another surgery was needed to take the oil out and put more oxygen back in.
Zimmer has tried to maintain a sense of humor about his eye issues when speaking about them publicly. But after revealing Saturday at his foundation’s first youth football camp that he had an eighth surgery last Wednesday, Zimmer, his right eye red and his eyelid half closed, gave a befuddled shrug when asked if that would be the last surgery.
Monday morning, Zimmer sounded much more upbeat after doctors told him the retina is now totally attached and “looks great” and that pressure in the eye has subsided. Now it is up to Zimmer to follow their orders by focusing on his recovery in Kentucky.
While special teams coordinator Mike Priefer oversaw the team when Zimmer missed that December loss to the Cowboys, the plan is for the entire coaching staff to split up Zimmer’s duties during OTAs. Defensive line coach Andre Patterson will take on a larger leadership role, making sure Zimmer’s message continues to get across to the players.
Zimmer said the Vikings will send him daily video of practice to evaluate and then provide feedback to his staff. So Zimmer won’t be unplugging completely.
“I was the one pushing back on it because I know how important it is to be with the team and try to accomplish things we want to get accomplished during these OTAs. But we have a great bunch of coaches, and they do a good job,” Zimmer said, adding, “It’s unfortunate timing, but it’s more important to do it now than during the season.”