MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For the first time in his 23-year NFL coaching career, Mike Zimmer wasn't at the stadium with his team.
When the Minnesota Vikings hosted Dallas on Thursday night, Zimmer was at home resting after emergency surgery to repair a detached retina while special teams coordinator Mike Priefer took over as the interim head coach.
Offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur (Cleveland, 2011-12) and offensive line coach Tony Sparano (Miami, 2008-11) each have prior experience as an NFL head coach, but they remained in their roles to minimize the disruption. Zimmer is the play-caller for the defense, considered one of the savviest in the league, and that duty fell to defensive coordinator George Edwards.
Zimmer visited the team hotel to speak to the players before the game, an emotional address during which he expressed his disappointment in not being able to join them, a message they already knew.
"It was a little bit hard for me, because he's such a competitor," said Priefer, his voice cracking slightly. "That's why I love working for him."
The Vikings played a video clip of Zimmer encouraging the team during training camp with a get-well-soon message on the scoreboard prior to kickoff. General manager Rick Spielman declined to speculate on whether Zimmer would have to miss multiple games during the recovery, but with the Dec. 11 game at Jacksonville the coach is unlikely to be cleared in time for air travel with his condition.
"We have to see how his eye responds to the surgery," Spielman said. "I do know how intense coach Zimmer is. Talking with him today and with the doctors, as much as he wants to be out there coaching tonight, it's in his best interest that we get this taken care of. Coach Zimmer has never missed a game. I know how hard this is on him. I can't express how hard on him it is that he won't be able to coach. But we have to look after his health."
Left untreated, retina damage can lead to permanent vision loss . The retina is a thin layer of tissue at the back of the eye. When it's detached, the cells are separated from the layer of blood vessels that provide oxygen and nourishment. This was the third procedure the 60-year-old Zimmer has had over the past month.
"As hard-headed as he is and as tough-minded as he is, we had some pretty significant talks one-on-one, heart-to-heart, on what is important in life and what isn't," Spielman said. "I think after we met, I expressed to him specifically that potentially going blind in one eye is not worth one game in the NFL."
Zimmer, who got his start in the NFL as an assistant with the Cowboys in 1994 and spent 13 years with the organization, has yet to face Dallas in the regular season as a head coach . The Vikings and Cowboys played last year in the preseason.
Zimmer first experienced trouble with his right eye a couple of days before the Oct. 31 game at Chicago and scratched the eye inadvertently during that game. That prompted team doctors to send him for further examination, which revealed a torn retina. He had surgery Nov. 1 and another one Nov. 8, which left his eye noticeably red. It had cleared up significantly in recent weeks, though, and Spielman said Zimmer wasn't expected to need further treatment.
But the coach suddenly complained of vision problems during a walk-through practice with the team Wednesday afternoon, and head athletic trainer Eric Sugarman drove Zimmer to seek medical attention. Spielman said the latest diagnosis was a detached retina.
After first revealing the issue at his Nov. 2 news conference, Zimmer said he'd been watching film with his good eye and using reading glasses to write down notes in preparation for that week's game. With the Vikings mired in a slump with five losses in the last six games, the hard-nosed Zimmer sure hasn't appeared to back off his approach in the desire to help the team get back on track and catch up in the NFC playoff chase. Zimmer mentioned recently he's been arriving at his office even earlier than usual, around 4:15 a.m.
Spielman dismissed the theory that Zimmer's setback this week was related to pushing too hard after the first two procedures.
Whether the situation was the sudden death of his wife, Vikki, when he was the defensive coordinator for Cincinnati in 2009, the kidney stones he had removed in 2014 or the death of his father, Bill, during the 2015 preseason, Zimmer had never missed a game until now.
"It's not worth the risk," Spielman said. "And we're looking out for the long-term of his health."
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