IOWA CITY, Iowa – The 2015 Iowa football team has taken us on an incredible journey that nobody in their wildest dreams could’ve imagined.
Probably not even Jim Zabel, who is the focus of this column.
My only regret about this historical season, besides the devastating loss to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game, is that people like Zabel, who absolutely adored the Hawkeyes, aren’t here to live and breathe it with us.
Just think of all the “I love it! I love it! I love its!” we would’ve heard by now if Zabel were here to chronicle the magic from this fall.
I was inspired to write about Zabel, who died on May 23, 2013 at the age of 91, after recently finding a short note that he had written to me. It was dated Oct. 1, 2010. Zabel sent the note, along with a copy of his book titled “Jim Zabel 65 Years of Fun & Games.”
His note read as followed:
Here is my new book hot off the presses. I thought you would like to see it. A lot of memories here, and I think you can identify with a lot of them.
Stay in touch.”
Reading that note for the first time five years ago made me happy and proud that my friend and former neighbor in Des Moines thought enough of me to send an autographed copy of his book.
Reading it this week made me cry because I miss my friend.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, would’ve cherished this improbable journey to the Rose Bowl more than Jim Zabel would have.
He devoted his life and his soul to covering the Hawkeyes as a radio legend. We hung on his words for decades, words that painted a picture in our minds about what was happening on the playing field.
He’d get carried away sometimes with his descriptions, but that was part of Zabel’s appeal on the radio. He loved what he was doing enough that he energized his listeners with his enthusiasm.
He was a Hawkeye through thick and thin and there was plenty of both during his career.
Zabel was fortunate to have covered Iowa’s first five appearances in the Rose Bowl, a period that dates from 1957 to 1991. I just wish he could’ve made it a six pack of Rose Bowl coverage because he would’ve savored the experience.
Zabel would’ve been so proud of the Iowa football team’s grit and determination and of Kirk Ferentz for silencing his critics.
I could picture Zabel right now laughing it up with Ferentz and former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry, who now lives in Mesquite, Nev. Zabel and Fry worked great together, each feeding off the other’s colorful personality.
I feel lucky to have known Zabel for most of my life. My first memories of him are as my neighbor who always drove a big, shiny car. Zabel lived a block from my house in a section of Des Moines called Beaverdale.
He often would drive by and offer words of encouragement to us kids playing kick the can or whiffle ball or some game in the street. It got to the point where we knew when Zabel would cruise by in his giant car because he was either coming or going from his high profile job as a radio and television personality.
What I remember the most about Zabel besides his boundless energy is that he loved to communicate with people. He always made me feel important after I started covering the Hawkeyes by just doing little things like asking about my parents or asking what I’ve heard about Iowa football recruiting.
Zabel lived for the moment, but he also was curious about the future of Hawkeye athletics, especially when it came to recruiting.
Finding Zabel’s note has caused me to think about some other people who are dearly missed, people like former Iowa City Press-Citizen sports editor Al Grady, who died in 2004, and former Iowa Sports Information Director George Wine, who passed away in 2012. This season would’ve meant so much to both of them.
Grady and Wine built their lives around University of Iowa athletics, especially football and men’s basketball. I relied on both of them for story ideas and as fact checkers. They were my sources for information before the Internet.
But they were also friends who I greatly admired. This 12-1 football season would’ve meant so much to both of them.
Finding Zabel’s note also made me think of current Iowa radio legend Bob Brooks, who turned 89 on Dec. 12. I’ve always felt graced by Brookie’s presence, but even more now with so many of his fellow legends gone.
Brooks has covered the Hawkeyes for nearly 70 years, through peaks and valleys and too many head coaches to count.
He is sort of my connection to the past, him and Zabel’s note.