News of Jim Zabel’s passing kind of hit me last Thursday evening — just the history of what he’s meant to me and many other diehard Hawkeye fans.
Cold beer, warm friendships, juicy brats with the crunch of sauerkraut, an Ottumwa reunion on a grassy hill alongside many other town gatherings with Z on the radio. It doesn’t get much better than that.
A tailgate outside of Kinnick Stadium on a sunny fall afternoon wouldn’t have been the same experience without our master of ceremonies, Z, discussing the upcoming Hawkeye game with his steady partner Ed Podolak — a game you’d been thinking about all week.
I don’t believe there is picture more appropriate for the famous line in
“Field of Dreams:” “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”
Anticipation of the game was peaked by Z and Eddie, waiting for the black and gold to emerge from the tunnel and take the field in the “Swarm.”
Listening to Z and Eddie, life’s worries were put on hold. A wonderful comfort and joy could be felt across the festive tailgating fields.
I’ve been going to Iowa football games my entire life, and Z was the emcee to some of my highest highs and lowest lows. I can remember every Iowa score and meaningless stats for decades, but I can’t remember my phone number or important dates on the calendar.
That’s because those victories were euphoria or relief and the losses were emotional scars. You remember them because you anticipated the games all week, you lived and died on each play, and you analyzed it all day afterward. This is the life of an avid Hawkeye football fan, and Z was an integral part of it for 50 years broadcasting and beyond.
No, Z wasn’t the most accurate announcer. In fact, he’d drive you nuts sometimes trying to figure out what just transpired. But, his passion and excitement on his calls could not be duplicated. When you look back on his most famous calls, it about brings a tear to your eye and an emotional deep breath.
No. 1 Iowa beating No. 2 Michigan in 1985 on a last-second Rob Houghtlin field goal, “THE HAWKEYES WIN! THE HAWKEYES WIN! THE HAWKEYES WIN!” Z exclaimed. When tight end Marv Cook caught the winning touchdown on the final play against Ohio State, “IT’S AN IOWA TOUCHDOWN! MARV COOK! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT! ED PODOLAK IS HUGGING AND KISSING ME!” Z screamed.
He was our Harry Caray, lovably unrefined and passionate to the end.
In the last few years, Z had joined Jon Miller and Ed Podolak on the post-game call-in show and amazed us with his sharp-as-tack memory, recalling plays and games 50 years ago as if they’d just happened. After a loss, the bridge-jumping fans would phone in and call for all the coaches to be fired. Z would lend perspective ... he was like the steady captain of the ship who has been through choppy and smooth waters many times before. He was therapeutic to emotionally wounded Hawkeye fans.
Z had a heck of a sense of humor too. In 2008, Iowa beat Minnesota on the road 55-0. A strange event happened at the game. A guy and a lady met in the concession line for beer and decided to slip into the men’s bathroom and, how do I say this ... made whoopie as fans cheered them on. It was all over the national media. The next night, on the “Two Guys Named Jim Show” on WHO Radio, Z said, “Everyone scored in that game except Minnesota.”
I would listen to the “Two Guys Named Jim Show” with Z and Jim Walden every Sunday night at work.
Z also was telling the story of a Michigan fan and an Iowa fan being captured as prisoners of war. It was decided to execute them, but each could have a final wish. They first asked the Michigan fan for his final wish, and he declared, “I would like to hear ‘Hail to the Victors’ one last time.” Then they asked the Iowa fan what his final wish was, and he said, “Shoot me first.”
Gary Dolphin had said at a Southeast Iowa I-Club once that Zabel couldn’t die because the government hadn’t found a secure place to bury his liver. People could joke with Z. That’s what I’ll miss about Z, his self-deprecating humor and his passion.
Z summed up his career by saying, “I had fun.” It’s a great lesson: Give yourself permission to enjoy your life and live it with passion.
I and all Iowa fans will never be able to think about the history of Hawkeye sports without thinking of Z’s passionate link to it.
Everybody, raise your glasses, bottles or beer cans: “A toast: To Z!”