Larry Zimmer returns to broadcast booth for CU Buffs after ordeal
Longtime voice of Colorado football returns for 42nd and final year
Mark Johnson welcomed Colorado radio legend Larry Zimmer back to the Buffaloes radio network Saturday with some lighthearted radio banter, but then got more serious. Zimmer is lucky to be alive, after all, let alone broadcasting his 42nd year of CU football.
“He took ill, scared the daylights out of us, but here he is sitting once again and we’ve got him back in the broadcast booth,” Johnson said as the pregame show for Colorado’s home opener with Massachusetts began. “We kept a seat warm.”
Zimmer, 79, collapsed at his Lookout Mountain home last October, hours after calling CU’s 36-31 home loss to Oregon State. Enduring a variety of frightening medical problems that left him in critical condition on three separate occasions, he would not return home until February.
WATCH: Legendary CU Buffs announcer Larry Zimmer overcomes illness
“You know, it was sort of spooky,” Zimmer told Johnson, his words echoing from loudspeakers in Balch Fieldhouse. “Everything from that night when I took ill was still in my briefcase. I opened the briefcase to get the things out for this game and I said, ‘Goodness, there’s the Oregon State chart.’ There were the statistics from the Oregon State game, the play-by-play.
“It was like going back in a time capsule.”
Over the course of his long ordeal, Zimmer lost the ability to speak and walk. He regained both, but only after months of arduous therapy with numerous setbacks.
Finally on Saturday, he returned to the job he loves. Before going on the air, Zimmer confessed he was excited.
“I try to act not, and try to say not, but yes, I am,” Zimmer said. “I think back to the nights I that I lay in the hospital by myself in the dark and wondered if I’d ever get out of there, much less get back to where I am right now. So yeah, I’m pretty excited. I just don’t want to show it.”
“YOU DON’T SOUND FINE”
Zimmer stayed up late the night of Oct. 4 to watch the late game on the Pac-12 Network, California vs. Washington State. His wife, Brigitte, was sound asleep when Larry went upstairs to join her just past midnight.
The last thing he remembers was hanging up his shirt. Then he fell in the bedroom closet, and the noise awakened Brigitte.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“You don’t sound fine.”
Brigitte found her husband on the floor and told him to get up, but he couldn’t. She went to call 911, and when she got back to where he lay, he was unconscious.
“I was in total panic,” Brigitte said. She begged the 911 operator, “Please, please rush.”
The operator asked if Larry was breathing.
“I said, ‘I honestly can’t tell.’ ”
Paramedics arrived in minutes, and they rushed him to St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood. On the way, they inserted an air tube into his trachea so he could breathe.
It would be 139 days before he returned home.
Zimmer has only vague memories of his four days in intensive care. He was able to speak when he arrived, but soon there were complications.
“They determined that I was aspirating,” he said. “Every time I ate or drank, it was going into my lungs instead of going down the esophagus.”
Zimmer developed pneumonia and was moved back to ICU in critical condition Oct. 22. Brigitte was horrified when she saw an X-ray of his lungs. The areas that show black on the X-ray of a normal lung were solid white.
“That’s when I panicked,” she said. “I asked the doctor, ‘What are the chances?’ They didn’t give me much hope.”
Zimmer beat the pneumonia but would require supplemental oxygen well into the spring. After 33 days at St. Anthony, he was transferred to Select Specialty Hospital, a long-term acute care facility located at Porter Hospital in Denver. There he met the voice doctor who helped him regain his voice.
When David Opperman met him for the first time Nov. 7, Zimmer’s famous voice had been reduced a breathy whisper. Opperman had to lean in close to hear the sad plea of a broadcasting icon.
“He was in tears, and he only asked for one thing: He wanted to broadcast again for the Colorado Buffs,” Opperman said.
“Obviously,” Zimmer would say months later, “that had gotten to be of great concern to me, my voice.”
Not only had he lost his voice, Zimmer was unable to swallow. Opperman discovered one of his two vocal folds (vocal cords, in layman’s terms) was paralyzed.
“He developed an aspiration pneumonia that led to his lungs not functioning well enough for him to breathe on his own, leading to respiratory failure,” Opperman explained. “He was then intubated to allow his lungs to recover. When he recovered enough to remove the breathing tube, he presented with a loss of his voice — a loss of his identity.”
Opperman believes one of the nerves that control the larynx was damaged, possibly from intubation, but it could have had other causes, such as a virus or advanced age.
Paralyzed nerves can regain function, but it can take up to a year. Opperman wanted to restore function to the paralyzed vocal fold before that, not only to help Zimmer recover the ability to swallow and relieve shortness of breath but give him back his voice.
He wanted Zimmer back in the radio booth by September.
To create sound, the vocal folds must move toward each other and vibrate. Opperman injected the paralyzed vocal fold with a gel that would push it toward the healthy one while the nerve healed on its own, a temporary fix. If the nerve didn’t come back, surgery would be required, but Opperman wanted to avoid that.
“We inject it to the side of the vocal fold, and just like putting a spacer in, we move the fold over like shimming a door,” Opperman said. “You’re placing the fold into the middle position in the voice box to allow the other vocal fold to function properly.”
Opperman injected the vocal fold a second time Jan. 8, and a week later Zimmer passed a barium “swallow test” after failing two previous tests.
For three months he had gotten his nutritional sustenance through a feeding tube inserted into his stomach. His first meal after all that time? A pulled pork sandwich — “It tasted like sirloin steak,” he said — and tater tots.
“The thing that was more important to me was that first sip of water,” Zimmer said. “I got used to not having food, but I never could get used to not being able to drink. That first swallow of water was sure good.”
But regaining the ability to swallow and speak weren’t the only monumental challenges Zimmer was facing.
The pivotal moment in Zimmer’s bid to return to the broadcast booth came April 8 in Opperman’s office. It had been six weeks since the third injection, which was wearing off, and Zimmer’s voice was holding up.
“I’m hoping I’m about to see something that will make me very happy,” Opperman told Zimmer.
“I hope you do, too,” Zimmer said. “If you’re happy, I’m happy.”
Opperman inserted a scope down Zimmer’s throat to look at his vocal folds. Everyone in the room could see them on a monitor. The fold that had been paralyzed was moving.
“Oh, my God, I’m seeing it,” Brigitte said. “Oh, my God. You are a miracle doctor.”
“You’re gaining mobility,” Opperman told Zimmer. “Your fold is starting to move, which is what we want, so there is a possibility we won’t have to do the surgery.”
Opperman looked at Brigitte. “He may get his function back.” Brigitte looked as if she was going to cry.
Brigitte: “Wow, this is good news.”
Opperman: “It’s very good.”
The damaged nerve controlling the once-paralyzed vocal fold was coming to life. The fold had recovered about 10 percent of its functionality, marking a huge turning point in the long road back to the Buffaloes Radio Network.
“The first time I came in here, I was in a wheelchair and I had a blanket up to here,” Zimmer said, indicating his neck.
“And you are walking on your own power with the assistance of a walker down my hallway,” Opperman said. “It’s fantastic.”
The question wasn’t whether Zimmer would return to the broadcast booth. The only question was when.
“We are so lucky,” Brigitte said. “God has had a hand in all of this, truly.”
A month later, Opperman found the functionality of the damaged vocal fold had increased to 90 percent.
He began weekly therapy sessions with speech language pathologist Kathe Perez in May. One day in June, Perez sat at an electric piano, playing notes and asking Zimmer to hit them making various sounds: He-eee-eee. Ha-aaa-aa.
“Pretty soon I’m going to be singing ‘Daughter of the Regiment,’ ” cracked Zimmer, referring to a 19th-century opera.
Perez asked Zimmer to try singing in a falsetto. Brigitte couldn’t help but giggle at his feeble squeaks.
“What is so funny?” Zimmer said, pretending to be perturbed.
“You’re doing great, Larry,” Perez interjected. “See, I’m not laughing. I’m pleased with your effort here.”
“Which is great. You’re the one who counts,” Brigitte said. “I’m just a dumb spectator.”
Perez asked Zimmer to sustain a H-a-a-a-h sound for as long as his breath held out. Sixteen seconds. Then O-o-o-o-o. Eighteen seconds.
Perez had him make more sounds, then read from a list of sentences, which he delivered with gravity appropriate for Shakespearean soliloquies:
Turn off the radio. … Please turn on the TV … Right around the corner. …
“He hasn’t lost his distinctive resonance,” Perez noted, wondering if he’d ever had formal voice training.
“I never did,” said Zimmer, who grew up in Louisiana. “But at age 10, I knew I wanted to do this. I used to broadcast games just on my own. I used to listen to the radio. I grew up during the war; there was no television. My grandfather and I used to listen to baseball games and football games together. The guy I used to listen a lot to was the LSU announcer, John Ferguson, who I got to know quite well in later years.”
At a subsequent voice session, Perez assured Zimmer he “absolutely” would be ready to broadcast when the Buffs returned to the field and that “people that know you will know it’s your voice.”
But he’d had a “bad voice day” the day before, Zimmer said with some concern. He nodded toward Brigitte, saying: “She described it as pitiful. I don’t think it was quite pitiful.”
Perez asked Zimmer to practice calling plays. What about a memorable play? What about the Broncos’ most recent Super Bowl?
“I don’t want to describe that,” Zimmer said with disdain, but then he gave it his best shot, his voice rising with the call.
“Here’s the snap. It’s over Manning’s head! It’s into the end zone, and, it’s going to be a safety!!!”
“You want to pull up some of your plays that you remember,” Perez said. “Do you have a memorable game in your head?”
“Oh, yeah, sure, a lot of them.”
“Tell me one of them.”
They talked about the Hail Mary that lifted CU to victory at Michigan in 1994. They talked about the “Fifth Down” play at Missouri that kept CU alive in its bid for the 1990 national championship.
“See?” Zimmer said. “When you got me talking about football, my voice was suddenly OK.”
Two weeks later, Zimmer and CU announced he would return to the booth this fall for home games, his 50th season of college football and 42nd at CU. He would call his last game when Southern Cal visits Boulder on Nov. 13, his 80th birthday.
And when CU held its annual football media day in August, Zimmer was in the front row at Dal Ward Athletic Center for coach Mike Mac Intyre’s news conference, Brigitte by his side as always. It was Zimmer’s first time on campus since the incident Oct. 4.
“It’s awesome to see Larry and Brigitte,” MacIntyre said after Zimmer was given a round of applause. “It’s a lot better seeing you sitting right there than when I saw you in the hospital. The prayers were answered, and I’m really glad you’re here.”
CU FAMILY REJOICES
Snapping a nine-game losing streak by manhandling Massachusetts 48-14, the Buffs passed their test Saturday. So did Zimmer.
“In a way, I’m happy it’s over,” Zimmer said. “I never really doubted that this day would come, that I would do this game and I would do it very well. Now that it’s over and I’ve done the game, I think I did it very well. I was very comfortable doing the thing that I love to do.
“The physical part of it was, can my voice hold up? It did. After the game, I’m still talking well. I’m extremely pleased. I thank God that this day occurred.”
Zimmer’s 479th broadcast of a CU game was history. In the postgame show, Zimmer talked about how encouraged he was that the Buffs rushed for 390 yards on the ground, and he looked forward to next weekend’s showdown with Colorado State.
But for Johnson and the rest of the CU family that loves Zimmer for what he has meant to the program, there was a lot more to celebrate on this day — the beginning of a broadcasting legend’s final season on the air.
“There were times very early, after he got sick, where it was touch and go,” Johnson said before the game. “I didn’t think, not only was he not going to get back in the booth, he wasn’t going to be with us, period. So just the fact that we could sit here all these months later and have a chance to sit beside an iconic figure like Larry Zimmer, and have him do what he loves to do, and has been so good at for so many years, that’s a great ending to this story.
“Now we can celebrate this season what he has meant over the course of 42 years, we can enjoy him being on the air, he can enjoy being on the air and we can send him off in the proper fashion instead of — and thank the good Lord it didn’t turn out this way — doing it posthumously.”
John Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/johnmeyer
Voice of the Buffs
Larry Zimmer began his 50th season of radio commentary Saturday and his 42nd at CU, when the Buffs played their home opener in football against UMass. Here are some remarkable numbers from his broadcasting career: