This week at The MMQB is dedicated to the life and career of Paul Zimmerman, who earned the nickname Dr. Z for his groundbreaking analytical approach to the coverage of pro football. For more from Dr. Z Week, click here.
By K.C. Joyner
What type of tribute is adequate for a person who made it possible to live your dreams? That is the question I ask myself every June 22, when attempting to give thanks for everything Dr. Z did for my family and me on that date in 2005.
When I was a teenager in the 1980s, Paul Zimmerman’s “The New Thinking Man’s Guide to Pro Football” and the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract series made me want to write football books that aimed to combine Zimmerman’s tape-based analysis with James’ advanced analytical methods.
The vagaries of life prevented the immediate pursuit of that dream, but by the end of 2003, my wife and I had saved up enough money so I could quit my job and put in the two seasons worth of tape breakdowns needed to generate the information to pen a book of this nature.
Fast forward to early June 2005. I sent blind copies of this book, “Scientific Football 2005,” to every editor, writer and football television personality for whom an address could be found.
Zimmerman was on this list, but I was still beyond shocked when returning from a trip to the grocery store to find my wife running into the garage to say that Dr. Z had just called and he wanted me to call him back.
During this return call, Paul said that he was impressed with the book and was planning on writing something about it for SI.com. We spoke for about 15 minutes and he said he would be in touch regarding when his write-up would be posted.
Jump ahead to June 22, 2005. Up to this point a grand total of three copies of Scientific Football 2005 had been sold, so at the time it was looking like investing our life savings into it could have been a huge mistake. Instead it turned out to be a life-changing move, and it was all due to Dr. Z.
Early that afternoon Paul sent over an email that had a link to the article. I was hopeful that the article would contain some kind words about the book, but was blown away when he wrote, “I’ve never seen such a complete look at this phase of the game” and that he was very impressed with the quality of the player observations.
It became clear immediately after his article was posted just how much influence Dr. Z had with his readers. Book orders started coming in from all over the United States within minutes of the article being posted.
Many of these orders were accompanied by fan emails that generally said the same thing, which was, “I’ve never heard of you before, your website looks like it was home made (it was) and your book costs $49.95, plus shipping, but if Dr. Z says the book is good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.” This level of reader trust is incredibly difficult to achieve and Paul had it in droves.
The next surprise was just how far across the globe Dr. Z’s influence reached. It wasn’t much of a shock when book orders starting coming in from Canada, but over the next couple of months, orders came in from Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Mexico, Australia, China, Japan—the list eventually contained countries from five different continents.
“If it’s good enough for Dr. Z, it’s good enough for us, no matter how much it costs.”
These international readers wrote similar emails to the ones sent over by the domestic customers, but the international audience also had to deal with much higher shipping costs (not insignificant for a book weighing more than four pounds) and the delays inherent with international delivery. Those barriers didn’t stop them, as these readers all said the same thing—if it’s good enough for Dr. Z, it’s good enough for us, no matter how much it costs.
Dr. Z’s influence didn’t stop with fans. Orders also came in from multiple NFL teams, player agents, well-known football writers, play-by-play and color commentators, a top producer for a major pay TV outlet, a lead producer for one of the top morning television shows and a variety of other people in sports media. From a career perspective, the most impactful of these were the two ESPN editors who ordered copies. Those contacts led to my being hired by ESPN’s Insider section, a group I work for to this day covering the NFL, fantasy football, and college football.
This was all more than enough to make me want to pledge undying loyalty to Dr. Z, but Paul also served as a terrific sounding board early in my career by providing much-needed writing advice and fatherly-like admonitions about keeping successes and failures in perspective.
It says a ton about Paul that this wasn’t the first time he did something like this, as he gave career breaks and advice of this nature to many people in the industry. It’s why whenever someone comments about how great Dr. Z’s writing was, it’s worth remembering that he is every bit as great of a person.
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