It seems everyone, top to bottom, has offered Mike Zimmer free advice as the Vikings coach has undergone four eye surgeries since Nov. 1.
“I had my urologist tell me I shouldn’t have been on the field for the game [at Jacksonville] last week,” said Zimmer, laughing as he sat in his office three days before Sunday’s game against the Colts at U.S. Bank Stadium. “He said, ‘I don’t know what a urologist would know about it, but I’m just thinking about you, Coach.’ He was kind of working on the wrong end of me. But he meant well.”
They all do, Zimmer said. But Zimmer also wants people to know he’s following doctor’s orders and being careful because, “I’m really nervous about this thing.” He’s getting better, he said, and even believes that someday all of this — the scary needles, the setbacks, the eye patch and even the incessant pirate jokes from defensive ends Everson Griffen and Brian Robison — will have been worth it.
Why? Because he feels it has strengthened his appreciation for coaching and improved his perspective toward the gut-wrenching chaos of an NFL gameday, which had always been the 60-year-old’s most draining stress inducer.
“There are times I’ve thrown up before games,” Zimmer said. “I get nervous and uptight and worry. When I missed [the Dallas game], you kind of realize, at least for me, how much I missed and appreciate gameday.
“The losing, to me, has always been way worse than the winning is good. I don’t ever think we’re not prepared, but it’s the idea of a guy drops the ball, or the ball bounces the wrong way, or a guy makes an unbelievable catch in the end zone and you get beat.”
And last week’s win at Jacksonville?
“Even though the game was close, I didn’t feel that nervousness and anxiety throughout the game, for whatever reason,” Zimmer said. “I was more like, ‘Man, I’m pretty lucky. I got the greatest job in the world.’”
An emotional day
Zimmer still planned on coaching the Thursday night Cowboys game when he woke up on Dec. 1, hours after his third surgery for a detached retina. And that was an emergency procedure performed after Zimmer’s vision worsened significantly at the team’s final walk-through of the week.
A scleral buckle had been placed on the retina to hold it in place. When fluid underneath didn’t drain as expected, it was determined on the morning of the Cowboys game that a fourth surgery would be needed the following day.
“If the buckle would have come off,” Zimmer said, “I could have lost my sight.”
Yet Zimmer couldn’t pull the trigger on sitting out and enacting an emergency plan that he and General Manager Rick Spielman had discussed a month earlier. If things got too risky, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer would step in.
“When all this stuff started, I thought there was a chance I was going to miss four weeks,” Zimmer said. “Typically, they put an oxygen bubble in your eye, not an oil bubble that I now got in there now, and you can’t fly. I’m figuring I’m basically going on IR.”
Zimmer talked to head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman the morning of the Cowboys game. He talked to Spielman. At one point, defensive line coach Andre Patterson spoke up and said what everyone at Winter Park probably was thinking.
“Andre told Rick, ‘You’re going to have to tell him he can’t do this,’ ” Zimmer said. “Rick did. Pretty much. I mean he didn’t tell me. But he strongly convinced me.”
It was an emotional day.
“I know this sounds corny,” Zimmer said. “But I really love the fans, the organization and the team, and I want to be there for them. So it was hard.”
Zimmer’s daughter, Corri, who had seen her dad coach three days after the unexpected death of his wife and her mom, Vikki, in 2009, was shaken by the news.
“She said, ‘You’re not going to coach?’ and started crying,” Zimmer said. “She said, ‘You love coaching. How can you not coach?’ It was emotional.”
Problems started a year ago
Zimmer said the vision in his right eye started faltering a year ago but only while hunting. He had it checked out and was given a special contact lens to wear while hunting.
Then street signs became less visible. On Oct. 30, the night before the Vikings game at Chicago, Zimmer notified Sugarman that something was wrong with his eye. Sugarman called in a doctor to examine Zimmer at the team hotel.
“Then I scratched my cornea during the game,” Zimmer said. “I called Eric over during the game and said, ‘It’s almost like a spider web that I’m seeing.’ It was weird. The next morning is when all hell broke loose.”
He had surgery Nov. 1.
“They made the mistake of showing me the needle,” Zimmer said. “It’s pretty long.”
A week later, when the first surgery didn’t take, Zimmer needed a second one.
“The first time, they gave me numbing drops and three shots before the laser surgery,” Zimmer said. “The second time, they gave me numbing shots and one shot. Then they started doing the laser and I was like, ‘Whoa!’ I jumped back and said, ‘I can still feel this.’ ”
Zimmer needed another shot to numb the eye.
“They drew blood on that one,” Zimmer said. “It was a pretty good amount. You can ask Sug. He’s been with me every step.”
Coaching face down
Zimmer was allowed to watch the Dallas game on TV.
“I had to lie down on my side,” Zimmer said. “It was pretty weird. But, honestly, it gave me a little bit different perspective of the team, too. So I was able to see some things I wanted to change a little bit.”
After his fourth surgery, Zimmer was told he’d have to lie face down for 24 hours.
“That,” he said, “was not fun.”
Sugarman brought a massage table and a massage chair to Zimmer’s house.
“I did have my iPad down there so I could watch tape,” Zimmer said. “So I’m doing what they say. I’ve got these drops I got to put in four times a day. I’ve had to sleep on my left side. I went to the doctor Tuesday and he said I can sleep on my right side now, but I still can’t sleep on my back and I can’t fall asleep with my head back over the couch or anything like that.
“And I have to get checked again next week. If everything looks good, then it probably will be every couple of weeks until they pull the oil bubble out in three to four months.”
Teddy, injuries and Norv
Zimmer jokes with gallows humor that he could write a best seller on all the strange things he has experienced in less than three full seasons as an NFL head coach.
Adrian Peterson started things off by missing 15 games because of child abuse charges in 2014. Teddy Bridgewater kept the unusual events rolling this season when he suffered a gruesome season-ending knee dislocation during a simple drill in practice 12 days before the start of this season.
“I was looking downfield at the time,” Zimmer said. “We were running a play-action pass. I just heard everybody start going, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’ I watched it on tape and it was nasty. No one touched him. He stumbled a little bit and was just trying to get his balance. That was a pretty rough one. Sug did a great job on that one because the players were in shock.”
And the injury bug hasn’t stopped chomping, especially on the offensive line, where 11 players have been used and four tackles are on season-ending lists.
“It’s not funny,” Zimmer said. “But you kind of get to the point where you’re like, ‘What the heck else can happen?’ ”
There was one thing that happened this year that Zimmer doesn’t joke or laugh about. It came Nov. 2, when offensive coordinator Norv Turner walked into his office, sat down in the corner chair and resigned.
“It was shocking,” Zimmer said. “We talked for a while. I don’t know that I really tried to talk him out of it. It bothered me because I thought he was a friend of mine. So that’s what bothered me the most.”
Does Zimmer still consider Turner a friend?
“Do I think he’s a friend of mine? Not today,” Zimmer said. “Maybe years from now.”
Zimmer and his team have been scrapping side by side ever since Turner walked out. They’re 2-4 since then, but, at 7-6, they’re still in the playoff hunt.
“I think we all knew what kind of guy Zim is,” linebacker Chad Greenway said. “But I think what he’s done with his eye just upholds everybody’s thought of him. His priority is this team, even sometimes at the expense of his own regard.”
Spielman said Zimmer’s personality has rubbed off on the players and made this a mentally tougher organization.
“Most times, teams are going to take on the personality of their head coach,” Spielman said. “I think this team definitely has taken on the personality of Zim as far as how it reacts to all the adversity that we’ve been through. They watch him and his leadership and how he reacts to things. I think once they see how he reacts to things, they take that lead and keep fighting through anything.”
Once the players got a sense that Zimmer’s eye will be OK, they came after the old-school hunter with both barrels.
“When he has the patch on, the pirate jokes by Everson and B-Rob are relentless,” Greenway said.
“Everson says, ‘Aye, Aye, captain!’ a lot,” Zimmer said. “B-Rob was saying last week, ‘We play Jacksonville, not the Raiders.’ When the patch is off, they ask me if I’m winking at them. Just silly stuff. But, hey, you can’t be sensitive when you’re as hard on them as I am.”
Zimmer isn’t sure when, or if, strange things will stop happening to the Vikings. But he likes to note that through it all, they still have seven wins, one fewer than at this point last year.
“I really don’t believe there is any kind of curse,” Zimmer said. “I think we’ve gotten a lot better since we came in here. There have been a lot of freak things this year. When we were 5-0, people said we were the best team ever. Now, they say we’re the worst team ever. How will it end? I hope it ends with a championship.”