Dr. Z hated airports.
I thought this was weird. 20 years later, I know I'm the weird one. I like airports. I like wandering from place to place. I like LaGuardia because it has a place where I can buy olives and lunchmeat by the pound and call it a salad. I like the people moving from place to place like me, and I like the waiting when no one can expect anything from you. Now I know this is weird, because everyone tells me it all the time.
When Dr. Z said he hated airports, it was News. Paul Zimmerman leapt onto the internet like a fish who'd been introduced to water at the age of 65. He used his newfound milieu to talk about his wife, wine he liked, and how much he detested airports. Also football, so much football, and in a way that nobody else had ever tried to talk about football. All of this was innovative in a way that can no longer be communicated accurately.
I was 18 and dedicated to absorbing every iota of information about Michigan football, and football in general, that existed. Here is the thing about 1997 that baffles today: this was possible. I read everything. As 1997 progressed in a potentially memorable direction I downloaded 150x120 pictures of Charles Woodson for posterity. I flipped over to reports about the Raiders, who might be using a Michigan alum as a fourth receiver. I read every damn thing about Michigan football that existed and when that was over I looked for any possible reference to Michigan football from NFL folks.
Dr. Z existed apart from this. He was Sports Illustrated's main NFL analyst, and also completely insane. He charted every game for every NFL team. He used the opinions derived from this Sisyphean task to bludgeon coaches and assorted other NFL persons with his opinions until they admitted he was right. I remember one particular safety for the Arizona Cardinals—at the time a 5-11 makeweight with a consistency the Lions could only aspire to—who Zimmerman proclaimed was an All-Pro despite the fact that nobody could be bothered to look at an Arizona Cardinal. The next year that guy was an actual, legitimate NFL All-Pro, and boy did Zimmerman let you know about that. This was perfect.
It's hard to explain? At the time I was downloading every episode of the first season of South Park and looking at it on the hard drive I'd set aside for this task with a feeling of distinct pride. Late in my freshman year I took a trip to North Campus with my friend Sunil to use the Media Library's CD burner. I put a bunch of Tragically Hip and They Might Be Giants bootlegs on a CD that would actually play in your car and felt amazing. The internet opened up wide, like Lewis and Clark broaching the Rockies.
The internet was simultaneously mind-blowing and manageable. Platforms were still hard to come by. The ones that existed were an entirely new paradigm. And the football internet was dominated by a 65-year old guy who charted every-damn-thing and didn't mind telling you about his wife and his Various Foibles.
He was right about as often as anyone can be when talking about something as squirrelly as football players making football plays. I moved to Detroit when I was 10 and had a Lions phase that lasted from about then to about college and hated Z about half the time, because he'd say the Lions wouldn't be good. Then they were good. Then I'd like Z because he'd say the Lions would be good, and then they wouldn't be good.
I grew up and realized that Zimmerman was doing his level best in a field of applied chaos. For seven hundred consecutive years I projected that Rich Rodriguez's team would have a turnover ratio approximately equal to the one he had at West Virginia. QED.
It should be no surprise that I tried to be him. Back in the day when blogs were worth talking about people would ask me why I started this thing, and I'd say I was frustrated with the shallow level of coverage Michigan got. I only thought that because there was a man out there saying Arizona Cardinal safeties should be All-Pros before everyone else agreed. When they asked me what my influences were I'd name anything and everything outside of sportswriting, and then I'd say Paul Zimmerman, Dr. Z, the patron saint of charting.