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Bryce Miller: High note defined deeply caring Jim Zabel

[ 0 ] June 21, 2013 |

The wobbly pass fluttered through the November air as Iowa tight end Marv Cook navigated the Ohio State sideline, racing to the place where he and a football soon were destined to meet.

Sixteen seconds to play. Fourth-and-23. Ohio Stadium.

It was the kind of moment when all hope in shoulder pads was sure to become lost in ways no modern-day GPS could fix. But, Cook caught the ball … the defender slipped … a lane to the goal line opened… and …

“It’s and Iowa touchdown!” WHO radio broadcaster Jim Zabel yelled. “It’s … AN IOWA TOUCHDOWN!”

The shriek defined a man as much or more than a Nov. 14, 1987, football game when Iowa stunned the mighty Buckeyes 29-27. The second lap of Zabel’s famous call cracked mid-sentence at an unstable pitch more suited for a pimply-faced, coming-of-age teen.

Those who gathered Friday at the Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines during a memorial service for Zabel know that the sound created in that moment, the sheer joy that rose out of the most famous throat in Iowa, is available only to someone who cares DNA-deep.

24 photos from the service

There was Zabel, revealing himself with as much clarity and glass-splitting yelp as any time during a career that spanned an almost unfathomable 69 years.

Heart, mind and voice box aligned to produce an eruption that defined a man.

Zabel, who died May 23 at his Scottsdale, Ariz., home at age 91, once ran an exhibition race with Olympic legend Jesse Owens. He interviewed President Ronald Reagan, his WHO Radio predecessor, in the White House. He hosted the longest running bowling show in history (“Let’s Go Bowling,” for 33 years) and wrote three cookbooks.

At his essence, though, the man known to almost all as simply “Z” was the unabashed, optimistic fan of the University of Iowa whose voice climbed to the clouds as the Hawkeyes won in Columbus for the first time since 1959.

Roger Maxwell, who worked for Iowa’s state board of regents for more than quarter century, remembers hearing the call as he worked on a report in the office.

“I thought, he didn’t really go that high, did he?” Maxwell said.

Maxwell, who also taught music in Iowa schools, had never heard anything like it during a sports event. He raced to his car, continually blurting out the sound in the way Zabel had as he drove five miles to his waiting piano.

“I didn’t want to forget it, so I kept making that noise over and over,” said Maxwell, who attended Friday’s services, in a moment that led to sheet music he wrote for the song “It’s an Iowa Touchdown” that weaved in Zabel’s call of the play. “At the piano, I hit an F (note) — no, it’s higher. Then I hit a G — no, it’s higher. Finally, I found it. It was an A-flat.”

Enthusiasm and pierced ear drums were far from the only was, however, that the state defined Zabel.

The man who painted the mental pictures for thousands at five Rose Bowls, more than 20 NCAA men’s basketball tournaments and scores of high school championships possessed as much wit as warble.

A video tribute included an eastern Iowa television station interviewing Zabel about his career, asking how he dealt with people who didn’t like him. He pulled a sheet of paper from his coat that showed a group of fans from rival Iowa State had invited him to a roast in Waterloo.

“They’ve even got a fan group on Iowa State’s campus,” said Zabel, building steam for the punchline to come. “I think they meet in a telephone booth.”

Mark Jennings, a representative of the University of Iowa, smiled broadly behind the podium as he explained how Zabel charmed fans on the rubber-chicken, offseason banquet circuit.

“He’d say, I arrived in America on the good ship Cutty Sark,” he said.

Jennings said Zabel would explain Iowa’s athletic struggles in the 1960s and ’70s with a straight-faced, “Hell, we only had two bad decades.”

Ed Podolak, the former NFL star and former Hawkeye who returned to Iowa in 1981 at Zabel’s urging to join him as a broadcaster, laughed as he recalled the advice he received from his partner: “When that mic is live, start talking until you think of something.”

Zabel, too, was a loyal and caring friend who helped Podolak through personal issues that caused the former running back’s voice to quake as he peeled back the curtain on the depth of their relationship.

Jill Zabel, Jim’s wife, understood in many of the same ways as Iowans how a broadcaster felt like something bigger and more.

The family has heard from hundreds since Jim’s passing, Jill said — the memories pouring in from all directions.

“My daughter said the other day, ‘I knew you were really falling for him when you came home one day and you were watching a basketball game and you had earphones on listening to Jim do play-by-play,’ ” she said. “Because you didn’t even watch sports until you met Jim.”

Years after the Ohio State win, Maxwell ran into Zabel and the two talked about the play — and that unbelievable sound.

“Wasn’t that a High-C?” Zabel told Maxwell, wanting the difficulty of the note and zing and zest of the story to rise in the re-telling. Maxwell politely replied, “No, Jim. That would be the kind of note Luciano Pavarotti would hit.’ ”

Zabel refused to surrender the debate without ensuring its full potential — sprinkle of fiction or not — had a chance to surface.

“Jim said, ‘I think it’s a High-C,’ ” said Maxwell, beginning to smile. “I’d like you to check that again.”


Category: Hawkeye news

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