Wrestling matches across the region haven’t been quite the same this season.
That’s because one of the sport’s biggest and most recognizable personalities in our area hasn’t been able to make it to any events.
Ed Zimmerman, the longtime Richland wrestling coach and District 6 Wrestling Hall of Fame member, has been hospitalized for the past two months. But he isn’t down for the count.
“Zimmie is down and out, but I’m not done,” he said, referring to himself in the third person by using the nickname by which so many know him. “I’ll be back, as the Terminator said.”
I spoke with him by phone from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Presbyterian Hospital. His booming voice, which has echoed across so many gymnasiums since he first started coaching in 1969, is a little weaker these days, but it seems to be growing stronger every day.
The 66-year-old Zimmerman has had heart problems since he was a boy. He underwent surgery for a congenital heart defect when he was 11 years old, and he had a valve replaced in 1999.
But those were nothing compared to his latest health problems.
It started in October. Zimmerman, who worked as a reporter during radio broadcasts of Richland football games, was struggling to walk the sidelines.
“I couldn’t even move,” he said. “I couldn’t get up the steps, I couldn’t get down the steps. I went to Conemaugh (Memorial Medical Center) and they rushed me down here in an ambulance.”
The new wasn’t good.
“My heart was almost done,” Zimmerman said. “It was almost gone from disease.”
Zimmerman said that he was a candidate for a heart transplant, but that fell through when doctors found a cancerous polyp in his colon. That took him out of the running for a new heart.
Instead, he ended up getting a left ventricle assisted device, or LVAD, which pumps blood into his aorta, inserted on Dec. 22. The device, which is made of titanium and is about the size of a golf ball, uses cutting-edge technology.
“I’ll be the first to come home with a LVAD, ever, from the Johnstown area,” he said. “They haven’t been doing these very long.”
Zimmerman is hoping to return home next week, but the road to recovery is a long one.
He’ll need to carry a small external computer, called a controller, with him to run the device.
And when he’s strong enough, he’ll have surgery remove the cancerous material. After he is cancer-free for six months, he’ll be able to get on the waiting list for a heart transplant.
For now, he’s got plenty left to do, including finding a way to pay his mounting medical bills. Even with his insurance, there will be plenty of expenses involved.
“I’m going to have to raise some money and get some things together,” Zimmerman said.
His wife, Minnie, and daughters Melissa Lux, Jennifer Horner, Marci Walker, Julie Zimmerman have stood by him and created a Facebook page, “Prayers for Zimmie” (http://goo.gl/m3Dpb) that features updates on his condition and offers friends a chance to send him messages.
Zimmerman has already set a target date for when he hopes to attend his first wrestling tournament: Jan. 25. That’s when the Thomas Automotive tournament will be held at Bedford High School. It’s a regular stop on Zimmerman’s wrestling calendar and one he hopes to make again this season.
“If not, then it’s definitely districts and regionals,” he said of the local postseason tournaments. “I don’t know if I’ll make states this year. That’s my life.”
Wrestling is and has been such a big part of Zimmerman’s life, that he can’t imagine living without it.
“When I come home, I want to be able to do things,” he said. “I’m not going to just sit at home. They don’t like that. They want you to move and go to wrestling meets and stuff like that.”
Zimmerman didn’t have to look far for a source of inspiration. He saw what another Hall of Fame wrestling coach from the East Hills has been through in the past year, noting that he has the same attitude that Pitt-Johnstown coach Pat Pecora took into his battle with lung cancer earlier this year.
“I’ve been strong,” he said. “Like Pat says, it’s nothing to keep a wrestling coach down.”
Eric Knopsnyder is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat.