Mike Zimmer looked into the camera before his media session on Monday and said hi to his grandson Nash, who was watching the press conference via live stream. It was a bit of a “hello, mom,” moment in reverse, a grandpa cheering up a young person’s day.
Nobody in their right mind will tell you Zimmer has gone soft, but we’re beginning to see a different side of the 65-year-old man from Lockport, Ill. He may have grandchildren, but Zimmer is still the hard-nosed, Copenhagen-dippin’, varmint-shootin’ ball coach who became famous for cursing out his defensive line on Hard Knocks. In a land of offensive wizards from the beautiful people’s club like Sean McVay and Kliff Kingsbury, Zimmer is as old-school as leather helmets and cassette tapes.
However, he spent a meaningful chunk of time talking about his grandchildren and children in general on Monday. He’s coaching the least-vaccinated team in the NFL, and he knows that the Delta variant is a threat to children under 12 who cannot receive the vaccine.
“I just care about these players, and I care about their families,” he said. “If they miss a game because of COVID, so be it. But I don’t want them to get sick, and I don’t want their families to get sick or their kids to get sick or my grandkids to get sick.”
Let’s be clear, Zimmer wants to win football games, and he knows that it will be harder to do that if Kirk Cousins, Adam Thielen, or Harrison Smith contract COVID-19. There’s a practical element to his desire to have his team fully vaccinated. But it’s not solely about winning games, and I’m hard-pressed to believe that he’s politically motivated here.
Last season, he griped that the governor wouldn’t allow fans into U.S. Bank Stadium when other teams were playing in front of quarter-, half-, or full-capacity crowds. Why? Because it would help the Vikings win games. Granted, Minnesota plays in an indoor stadium where the air is recirculated, and most of the teams allowing fans to attend played al fresco in Sun Belt locations. Do you really want the Vikings to open up the west-facing windows in the middle of December? We all know the answer to that question.
Many people are uncomfortable with a mandate to put anything in their bodies, but this is meaningfully different than the ongoing vaccine debate. Most people don’t play a contact sport for a living, and few take Toradol to do their jobs. NFL players are asked to do things for their job that most people are not. Zimmer has made it clear where he stands on vaccinations, but he’s chosen to provide information to his players rather than leaning on an old-school coach’s authoritarian instinct.
This week he brought in Dr. Michael Osterholm, an Iowa-born coronavirus expert and the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota, to speak with the players. He had previously brought in the NFL’s COVID expert and has provided informational material to his players.
“He’s one of the top specialists in the world, and I thought he was very good with his points, answered a lot of questions,” Zimmer said. “Whether or not that changes anything, I don’t know.
“He understands the importance of when people look up to our football players, especially now with all the – and I don’t want to get into it all that much – but with this Delta variant and how it’s affecting younger people all over the world, I think that the more we can show it’s safe…we’re all going to stay healthier.”
Will he convince the holdouts? Zimmer feels it’s unlikely, even with FDA approval of the Pfizer shot. To be an NFL player, you not only have to have irrational confidence in yourself but high risk tolerance. Many of the players in the league are in their early 20s and feel invincible, and they’ve been given every reason to believe that they are.
“Who knows? Who really knows?” he said. “Sometimes when guys are 22 and 24 and 25, they’re pretty bulletproof. I know I had a lot of opinions when I was that age. I still got them now, too, by the way.”
Whatever ends up happening, Zimmer’s taking the right approach here. By arguing from both a pragmatic and idealistic standpoint, he’s letting the players know that he’s doing everything he can to win games while also expressing care for their well-being and that of their families. There’s a big-picture element to his argument, given he’s worried about unvaccinated children, but also a narrow focus as well — the Vikings could lose games, and players could forfeit their paycheck.
It’s unlikely that players who are holding out will change their minds. But Zimmer is putting as much effort into this as he does preparing his team for Sundays. He wants to win as many games as he can during this critical season, but he’s thinking about his grandson, too.