I was lost in thought, standing near the Los Angeles Raiders' practice field, when I saw him walking by.
"Bob?" I said.
He looked up.
Then he smiled—the same familiar smile—and he came over and we shook hands. Well, bless me, after 15 years I had found my old coach.
August 18, 1985
Bob Zeman is 48 now, but he looks just about the same as when I played right cornerback at Northwestern for him in 1969. Lean and broad-shouldered, he still looks like a player, which he had once been—first as a two-way back at Wisconsin, then as a safety for seven years in the NFL. He had left Northwestern after that '69 season—his second there and my first as a defensive back—and that's when I lost him.
I knew that he had gone on to other coaching jobs in college and the pros, but our paths had never crossed, and I had resigned myself to never seeing him again. It gave me a bad feeling because there was something I wanted to tell him.
"I'm coaching the linebackers," he said. "I just started last May. Before that I was with Buffalo. And before that, Denver." Working for the Raiders was nice, he added. He had been with them from 1971 to 1977 as defensive backfield coach; this was sort of a homecoming.
"They all come back," Raiders owner Al Davis would say later. Then Davis added, "Bob was a good pro player, not a great one. But he was tough."
I found this compelling, for Zeman hadn't coached like a tough guy. In a sport dominated by wild-eyed tyrants, he seemed to me—an impressionable and scared 20-year-old—to be an eminently reasonable man. Moreover, there was a vulnerability to him, almost a softness, that made all the players respect his occasional periods of silence and not want to take advantage of him. He was a little bit shy.
As Zeman and I spoke, an incident from the spring of 1969 kept coming to my mind. I had just moved from offense, where I had been a bust as a wide receiver, to defense. Zeman and I had not met formally, but he was now my coach, and because of graduation and other factors, I had been penciled in as his first-string right cornerback.
In the secondary's first meeting Zeman diagramed a play on the blackboard. He looked out at me and said, "Dave, what do you do here?"
My name is Rick. But I couldn't tell him that. It would have been too arrogant for my first words to my new coach to be, "My name's not Dave." My hold on that first-team spot was tenuous, and I could see myself bouncing down the depth chart for appearing cocky. So I answered the question and said nothing about my name.
But as spring practice progressed, Zeman continued to call me Dave. The longer this went on, the more embarrassed I felt—for myself and for him. I didn't know how to get out of the mess. Each time he called me Dave, I cringed.
Then one day in a meeting Zeman looked at me and said, "Your name's not Dave."
I looked up to see what he would do. If a tough guy thought I had been trying to make him look foolish, he might have thrown me out of the meeting. A real tough guy might have run me till I dropped.
What Zeman did was smile. And then he blushed. It was a nice thing to do.
Where does "nice" fit into football? A lot of people would say it doesn't fit in at all, that trying to be nice while trying to knock somebody's head off is at best counterproductive, at worst schizophrenic. And this may be true. But nice does fit in when it allows you to harness certain fears, when it reassures you that people are decent, that life goes on, that this is all just a game.
In 1970, the year after Zeman left Northwestern, our secondary finished second in the nation in pass defense by following what he had taught us. We had taken strength from his words. And just now I wanted him to repeat what he used to tell us before games.
"You mean about completions?" he asked.
"Well, the other team is going to complete some passes. Everybody does." He shrugged. "That's all. It's no big deal."
I wanted to hear it again. It's so rare to hear a coach say that what goes on afield is no big deal. And yet when you're alone on a flanker in front of 80,000 people, it is just the sort of thing you need in your mind. It frees you from fear and lets you play.
Zeman and I parted soon after our surprise meeting, and it wasn't until later that I realized I never told him what I wanted to say. What it boils down to is this: The competitive sports segment of my life has passed, and middle age beckons. I've had more than 40 coaches in my day—in half a dozen sports—and I'll never have another. I don't need or want to be coached again. And saying that, I have to add that I still don't know what motivates coaches or how they get their honest reward. Surely they must wonder sometimes if they've done any good with their X's and O's and talks, if they ever really touched a pupil, if there's anybody out there who, after careful reflection, will say that you, Coach—you right there with your whistle and cap and silly shoes—you were the best I had.
Bob, I'm saying that now.