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On the edge with Jim Zorn

- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2008

Jim Zorn never just takes it easy.

While one of his NFL coaching compatriots was drawing plays in the sand on his summer vacation, Zorn was racing downhill on a mountain bike in British Columbia.

While another was sipping wine on Nantucket, Zorn, the first-year coach of the Washington Redskins, was running furiously up a vertical slope near the family house outside of Seattle.

Most NFL coaches just relax during their few weeks of downtime in the offseason. They put in notoriously long hours during the season and work under intense pressure. They've earned the chance to simply do nothing.

But Zorn can't just kick back. That's not him. He doesn't do sedentary - and that goes for the people around him, too.

Zorn and his family bike and kayak around the island in Puget Sound they call home. He and his wife each year make the arduous hike to Camp Muir, 10,500 feet up on Mount Rainier.

At 55, Zorn is eligible for AARP membership, but he won't be heading off to a quiet life of golf and retirement at Leisure World any decade soon. And when he finally does, you can bet he'll get there the hard way.

"Jim will bike off a rock ledge with a 3-foot drop," says Jim Trezise, Zorn's close friend and former kayaking partner. "Normal people would just walk their bikes around something like that, but Jim goes airborne. He likes living on the edge."

Zorn's family - wife Joy, daughters Rachael, Sarah and Danielle, and son Isaac - embraces his deep desire for physical activity and for the testing of limits. But like Trezise, they knew that Zorn was more different than he understood.

A passion for action

Zorn starred at quarterback at little Cal Poly Pomona, where he also threw the javelin, played badminton and became a champion speedskater. He skateboarded whenever he could.

Zorn took his passion for action to greater heights - literally - as the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks in the National Football League. Zorn and his best buddy, Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent, climbed Mount Rainier - and tossed around a football on the summit.

Zorn ardently took up mountain biking and, later, kayaking - he toyed with the idea of competing in the Olympics - snowboarding, rollerblading and dirt biking.

Zorn is sitting in his office at Redskin Park, a world-class racing bike resting against the wall and a framed photo of him on a kayaking trip sitting nearby.

"Mike Holmgren thought my doing all these sports was wacky," Zorn says of the Seahawks' coach, "but I'm interested in trying all these things if I can do them safely and with somebody that's experienced. Just because I don't know how to do it doesn't keep me from at least trying. In my mind, it's very normal stuff.

"I don't see myself as a light-your-hair-on-fire type of guy. I see myself as enjoying all the things that are out there. You might think just doing it is the extreme, but I've never been good enough to take it to the extreme. I have a strong desire to live on."

Yes, but he also accepts the inherent risks.

Zorn got caught by mistake in a dangerous rapids on one of his first serious kayaking expeditions and went backward over a waterfall. He emerged from under water not counting his extremities in thankful prayer but rather laughing from the excitement.

"We're rowing and we can see the horizon line and the water drop off in the distance," says Trezise, who met Zorn when he was a youth leader of Rachael's church youth group in Logan, Utah. "It's the Class V rapids so I say, 'Let's get out.' But there was only one small eddy to pull over. The guy in the lead boat was delayed getting out of his boat, so we couldn't fit into the small eddy. We bounced off his boat, got turned around backwards, and the current pulled us back out.

"At this point, I told Jim that we had no choice but to go for it. It's probably a 12-foot slide at a 70-degree angle into a big pool. We hit it pretty good. Jim was totally under water. I was up to my neck. The boat was vertical. It popped out of the water and flipped. We fell upside-down and on our heads."

A tough competitor

That kind of fall normally wouldn't prompt guffaws, but Zorn doesn't have average standards of competition.

Joy Zorn could only shake her head when she heard that story and wonder why her husband couldn't take up a new sport without aiming for the Olympics, why he couldn't just dial it down a bit.

"For a long time, I don't think Jim realized that the average Joe didn't do some of these things," Joy Zorn says. "When people would come over, he would expect them to get on a mountain bike and ride a bunch of miles into Seattle with us. He doesn't realize that he and our family have a level of fitness that the average person doesn't have."

Or even the average NFL coach.

Only eight of the other 31 coaches in the NFL were good enough athletes to also play in the league. Zorn is the only coach to start at quarterback in the league and to play at a high enough level to be the key player of a franchise, in this case the expansion Seahawks of the 1970s.

Zorn wasn't a pretty passer - he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in five of his seven full seasons as a starter and retired with a 67.3 quarterback rating - but he was exciting to watch.

He had the ability to make things happen with his legs as well as his left arm. He was a leader, driving the Seahawks to consecutive 9-7 seasons in just their third and fourth years of existence.

"I enjoyed all the detail of being a quarterback, preparing for a game and then executing the game plan," Zorn says. "The competition, the strategy were things I thrived on."

Coach Chuck Knox benched Zorn midway through the 1983 season. The demotion humbled Zorn, but he watched replacement Dave Krieg intently and gave him suggestions to improve his performance. And so a coaching career was born.

"I thought, 'OK, maybe I can do this for a living,'" Zorn says. "When I retired, I came back to Chuck and asked him to hire me. He said, 'No, I don't want to be your test case to see if you like this industry. You need to go out and whatever level you need to start at, you need to start there ... and work your way up.'"

And so he did. Zorn spent nine years coaching at three different colleges - Boise State, Utah State and Minnesota - before returning to the pros in 1997.

"I've always taken the hard road to eventually get to where I've gotten," Zorn says.

That was the case on the field, as well.

Strange trip to the NFL

Zorn didn't play organized sports - a couple of innings of Little League aside - until he ran cross-country in ninth grade at Gahr High School in Cerritos, Calif.

Zorn began his football career the next year, but he hardly played a down at quarterback until his senior year. He was benched midway through his sophomore year at Cerritos Community College - coincidentally, the school that also produced Zorn's predecessor with the Redskins, Joe Gibbs - because the coach "didn't like my style of leadership."

Only little-known Cal Poly Pomona wanted him, so Zorn accepted the Broncos' offer of half a scholarship. Zorn was one of the top passers in the nation as a junior in 1973, and he was still living at home.

Zorn had a fine senior year but was bypassed by NFL teams in the 1975 draft. He signed as a rookie free agent with the Cowboys, who cut him. Invited to training camp with the Seahawks in 1976, he surprisingly beat out former Detroit Lions regular Bill Munson to win the job as the starting quarterback.

Zorn went on to pass for more than 10,000 yards in his first four seasons, becoming only the third quarterback to do so. But he lost his job in 1983 after seven-plus years as the Seahawks' starter and by 1987 was out of football.

He began his coaching career at Boise State in 1988, followed by stops at Utah State and Minnesota, where in 1996 he earned a degree in art.

Zorn returned to the NFL with the Seahawks in 1997 as a quarterbacks coach. He never advanced beyond the level of position coach until he was hired by the Redskins on Jan. 26 to serve as their offensive coordinator.

Redskins owner Dan Snyder, meanwhile, was considering a number of top NFL coordinators and coaches - Steve Spagnuolo of the New York Giants and former Giants coach Jim Fassel among them - to replace the just-departed Gibbs when he realized he already had on hand the man he wanted.

Zorn was promoted to the top spot two weeks after joining the Redskins.

"Jim knows his X's and O's, but he also has a way with people," Largent says.

Matt Hasselbeck is proof of that.

Under Zorn's tutelage, the current Seahawks quarterback soared from untested backup to Super Bowl starter and Pro Bowl passer.

"That first year, I didn't understand what Jim was doing," Hasselbeck says. "I wanted to run the offense and lead the team to the Super Bowl, and he's got me working on how to take a snap, how to take a three-step drop, how to talk to the guys. It was really frustrating. Jim was trying to develop me as a leader and as a quarterback, but he tore me down before he built me back up. ...

"Jim's committed to building a relationship, building trust. I've had more success than I could have envisioned."

Seneca Wallace, the Seahawks' backup quarterback, says Zorn's "knowledge is amazing - not only football, but life."

A 55-year-old rookie

Zorn will need all of that knowledge when he takes the field as one of the oldest rookie coaches in the NFL. The average age for a head coach at his debut is 44 - a figure Zorn exceeds by 11 years.

In addition to the pressure of being a rookie, Zorn faces the difficult task of replacing in Gibbs a Hall of Fame coach and a figure beloved by Redskins fans.

"I won't pretend to try [to be Gibbs]," Zorn says. "I'll try to do my thing. I can't worry about comparisons. We're starting out with a clean slate."

The comparison, however, is telling. Zorn is just 12 years younger than Gibbs, but when he gets animated he seems about half Gibbs' age - and he frequently gets animated, whether encouraging and teaching during practice or telling his life story during a lengthy interview.

"I don't really do a lot of this [athletic] stuff anymore because I want to get really good at being an NFL head coach," Zorn says. "I'm seriously working at that. But I need that balance in this time of year so that I can spend the long hours during the season. I'm not trying to be cute or show anybody anything. The other coaches that dedicate themselves to only football, that's the way that they have to do it. They're comfortable with that. They've had success doing it their way."

Zorn's way includes daily 45-minute Stairmaster workouts during the season, even if a showdown with the archrival Cowboys is looming.

Zorn has, however, abandoned one tradition he followed as a Seahawks assistant: biking to home games. Seems that Snyder wanted his head coach on the Sunday-morning bus to FedEx Field.

"I feel the need to work out every day," Zorn says. "When I don't have time, I don't feel right like I'm a day behind. When I get a good workout, I feel like I'm a day ahead."

Zorn will need all that energy. Not only will Zorn shoulder, for the first time, all the responsibilities of an NFL head coach, he also for the first time will run a pro offense and continue to coach the quarterbacks. He will have some help in that last task from Chris Meidt, a newcomer to the NFL whose previous stops were tiny Bethel and St. Olaf colleges - hardly Ohio State or Southern Cal.

"A lot of the time I'll spend with the QBs will be that first 20 minutes of practice where we're working individual drills," Zorn says. "The burden I'm going to have, if there is one, is off the field. Mike [Holmgren] didn't spend any meeting time [with the QBs]. I'm going to carve some quarterback meeting time into my day so I can continue to keep those guys speaking the language and seeing what I'm seeing."

A fit family man

Zorn is certainly fit and trim for a 55-year-old, but he wasn't raised on the fast track.

While his father, Art, was advancing from the assembly line to the front office of the local General Motors plant, his mother, Esther, was keeping a close watch on him and his two sisters.

As a teenager, Zorn began to push the envelope, taking off with a buddy to skateboard in abandoned aqueducts or riding his purple Stingray bike to the ocean and back.

"There are a lot of little adventures within young boys," Zorn says.

As his athletic career blossomed, Zorn became a serious Christian. He never acted like the big man on campus. He worked throughout college, driving the Zamboni at a local rink at 5 a.m. and helping run the Davy Crockett canoe ride at Disneyland.

When he asked out the cute waitress from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1977, it wasn't with the expectation that she would be thrilled to date the city's biggest sports star.

"Jim's wide range of interests is what first struck me," Joy Zorn says. "He would never talk about football. Jim was a different kind of a guy. First of all, his faith came out loud and clear right away. All the other guys I had dated were the classic dinner and a movie or dinner and a concert. Jim was just so odd with the things that he invited me to do.

"[On our first date], we got a hamburger and went window-shopping. Then pretty early on, we went to look for mole traps at the hardware store because he had moles that were making big bumps in his yard."

Flabbergasted that Joy, the daughter of British immigrants, didn't own sneakers, Zorn bought her a pair and, of course, expected her to immediately become an athlete.

"We were driving and he suggested we go for a run," Joy Zorn says. "I could probably take five steps before I was winded, so I said no. He said, 'OK, Joy, but I need to go for a run.' We pulled into a park, and he took off. I couldn't believe it. So I decided I wasn't going to just sit in the car, so I put the shoes on and started around the soccer field.

"All of a sudden, Jim comes out of the trees and he's cheering me on. 'That's the way to start! Way to go. Even one time around the field, and you'll be running in no time at all.' It actually did start me running. I've run a couple of marathons, and I still run. That was Jim's first coaching job."

Zorn's kids were next in line.

"We would be riding bikes up a hill and I would be crying and he would have his hands on my back pushing me up the hill," Rachael says. "Another time we were rock climbing. Sarah was probably 7 or 8. It was probably 30 feet to the top, and she was scared. He kept saying, 'Sarah, trust me. This rope can hold you.' It was healthy being pushed out of our comfort zone a little. I think he knew what we could handle."

Rachael, 28, went on to play tennis in college. Sarah, 24, became a national champion rower. Danielle, 20, plays lacrosse at Gordon (Mass.) College. Isaac, 13, also has made lacrosse his sport of choice for now.

"I think I had the best childhood," Rachael says. "My dad was very creative. We did stuff people didn't usually do. We went skiing, snowboarding, rock climbing. He pulled us behind the car on our skis. It kind of just seemed normal. We all played tons of sports. He never pressured us to do anything, but when we decided to do something, he made sure we did it to the end and did our best.

"My dad's life isn't football. His family is his life. Football happens to be his job. When he had time off, we were at home. I remember telling him once that he should play golf like the other dads. He said that he would rather be with us."

Zorn might rather be the coach of the Seahawks. He's spent more than half of his adult life in Seattle, where he still is very much a celebrity and where his passion for the outdoors is more widely shared.

Still, there was no way he was going to turn down Snyder's offer to move to Washington, D.C.

"Jim believes that God gave him a gift to play and coach football," Trezise says. "Since I've known him, he thought he was going to be an NFL head coach someday."

When the Redskins kick off this season on Sept. 4 in prime time against the defending champion New York Giants, Zorn will finally get to live out that dream.

(To read profiles of Jim Zorn's five predecessors as Redskins coach, click here.)