EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Mike Zimmer was already smiling more than usual, sporting a relaxed look of satisfaction rarely revealed in public during the NFL season, when he really let his guard down a few minutes into his postgame news conference deep inside Minnesota’s still-buzzing stadium.
“Hey, let’s open these things up!” Zimmer blurted out mid-sentence, prodding a Vikings official to push the button that removes the window shades and allows the premium ticket-holders in an adjacent lounge to peer in the room.
His wish to interact with the customers who cheered the Vikings on to a last-play divisional round victory was granted.
Zimmer then proceeded to slowly and rhythmically clap above his head, dignifying the ritual “Skol” chant performed by the purple-clad fans at each game honouring the area’s Scandinavian heritage and the team’s nickname.
“You deserve it!” Zimmer said, again interrupting his own answer to acknowledge the crowd.
From peers around the league to players in the locker room to people up and down the organization, there’s a strong sentiment that Zimmer has earned this, too, pulling within one win of a Super Bowl appearance.
The way the Vikings finished their 29-24 victory over New Orleans on a last-chance 61-yard touchdown pass from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs suggested they’re on some kind of charmed path, an uncharted territory for this championship-deprived franchise. Zimmer, for his part, has experienced his own share of painful setbacks.
“I just think he was so proud of us,” tight end Kyle Rudolph said. “Proud of us for fighting until there were zeros on the clock.”
Zimmer is only here, preparing the Vikings for the NFC title game in Philadelphia on Sunday, because he himself resisted the urge to quit.
After being passed over for so many head coach vacancies during a six-year run as Cincinnati’s defensive co-ordinator, Zimmer nearly cancelled a second interview in Minnesota in 2014 after a different team that considered him chose a different candidate. He ignored the discouragement in his head, instead accepting the offer to become the ninth head coach in team history at age 57.
“Sometimes you wonder, but I have a lot of confidence in myself,” Zimmer said at his introductory news conference at team headquarters. “I feel like I was destined to do this.”
That first season, the Vikings improved by two wins to finish 7-9 with rookie Teddy Bridgewater forced into action ahead of schedule at quarterback and running back Adrian Peterson absent for all but one game because of the child abuse case and subsequent NFL discipline dispute he was involved in. In 2015, they went 11-5 and ended Green Bay’s four-year hold on the NFC North title.
The potholes in the road were waiting, though.
Blair Walsh’s 27-yard field-goal try went wide left at the end of the one-point wild-card round loss at home to Seattle.
The 5-0 start in 2016 was washed away by a torrent of season-ending injuries, including Bridgewater, Peterson and several offensive linemen.
Offensive co-ordinator Norv Turner resigned the day after Zimmer had the first of eight eye surgeries to address a torn retina. The third procedure forced him to miss a game for the first time in his career .
The first quarter of the 2017 season brought knee injuries to quarterback Sam Bradford and running back Dalvin Cook, who needed reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL.
The Vikings didn’t blink, though, particularly with the experience of 2016 so fresh. Case Keenum deftly took over for Bradford, and Jerick McKinnon and Latavius Murray became a productive backfield tandem.
All of these on-field hurdles have paled next to the pain Zimmer has endured in his personal life. His wife, Vikki, died suddenly in 2009. His father and former high school coach, Bill, passed away during training camp in 2015.
Zimmer was hired by the Vikings because of his acumen as a defensive strategist and teacher, having started his 24-year NFL career as the defensive backs coach for Dallas before a promotion to defensive co-ordinator in 2000.
Calling plays has been his forte, a responsibility he has yet to give up despite his duty as the main man on the staff on game day, but his ability to mould a disciplined, selfless unit from a collection of alpha males and high draft picks helped the Vikings’ defence rank first in the league in 2017 in both fewest yards and points allowed.
Beneath the gruff exterior is a deep affection for his players, an emotion that has caused his voice to crack and his eyes to well up several times over the years in various public discussions of their development or character.
He’s a football coach just like his father, though, and the critical eye and demanding approach are always quick to come out.
“We can’t make these mistakes in playoff games or we’ll be going home,” Zimmer said on Monday, reflecting on the reality of the performance after the euphoria of the winning play had worn off.
Now the Vikings must go on the road to face a team with a 14-3 record just like theirs, the last and biggest obstacle looming before they can experience a Super Bowl.
“We’ve got a bunch of fighters on this team,” Zimmer said. “They’ve been a resilient bunch all year long. I expect it to continue to be that way.”