A day after Cincinnati beat Baltimore to move to the top of the AFC North Division, a day after showering defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer with hugs and support, the Bengals opened their hearts and talked about family. And about love. And about courage. Hardly anybody talked about football.
Mostly, us reporters asked – and the players talked – about Vikki Zimmer, Mike Zimmer’s 50-year-old wife who died suddenly Thursday. She was a woman who made them cookies on the Mondays after they won a game. She was the mother figure who made newcomer Roy Williams so much more comfortable in his first days in Dallas. She was the one who loved the players and the one who soaked in the gratitude they held for her.
A sampling of the comments from today:
“If you ever did anything nice for her, she wanted to, right away in turn, do something nice for you, which a lot of people don’t do,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “She wanted to always reciprocate right away. I think that’s what we’ll all remember about her.”
“(When I first got here), I remember coach Zim caught me and said, ‘My wife really wants to meet you. She said you’re her new favorite player,'” defensive tackle Domata Peko said. “She was a sweetheart. Every Monday after a win, we’d come in to watch the film, and she’d make us cookies and snacks. She loved the team so much.”
“She was family,” Williams said. “She was like a mother figure to me. She was always sending me notes, making sure I was OK. She will be missed. I really feel like she was the rock of that family, holding them together. I’m not saying they’re going to fall apart now, but she was the bright spot in Zim’s life.”
That last point is tremendous. She was the bright spot in his life, the mother of his children, the one who made the brownies with the marshmallow frosting that Williams would have to sneak after Zimmer left the room. She died on Thursday. He coached on Sunday. How did he do it? How did he summon the strength to call defensive plays? How did he keep his emotions in check on the sideline? How did he not break down in tears?
When the Bengals discovered the death, they let Zimmer decide his next step, his next path. “I don’t want to be a distraction,” he told Lewis. The Bengals coach assured his friend that he wouldn’t, that he could fly to Baltimore with the team, or later Saturday, or Sunday, or not at all. But a distraction? No. His players love him too much to cast him in that light.
The CBS cameras managed to catch Zimmer a few times on the sideline Sundsay, speaking words into his headset. Vikki, I’m sure, was somewhere in his mind that was trying to process the football game taking place in front of him. At the end of the game, with the Bengals win assured, the cameras zoomed in on him again. He was eaten alive by his team’s hugs, by players saying they had won the game for him and for his family.
“He needed us,” defensive end Jonathan Fanene said. “But we needed him too.”
Then, in the locker room after the game, Lewis awarded him the team ball. For courage, for the inspiration he gave to his players, for the performance of his unit. For, most of all, being braver than most anybody could hope to be.
I still don’t know how he did it.