By Matt Kane
Stand next to Tim Zabel on the sideline just before the start of any sporting event in Delano and you will hear something.
One won’t confuse Zabel’s vocal performance with that of Whitney Houston’s at Super Bowl XXV — he often apologizes for his performance — but, like Houston did, Zabel puts everything he can into his singing of the national anthem.
“We can definitely hear him,” said Delano High School senior Eric Sandberg, a defenseman on the hockey team. “At that last Hutchinson game, he was really belting it out.”
Zabel’s dedication to his country’s song coincides with his dedication to the Delano athletic teams he works with, immediately following The Star-Spangled Banner.
In the fall, it’s football. In the winter, it’s boys’ hockey. In the spring, it’s baseball. And, in the summer, it’s Delano Athletics baseball.
“It started with Pav in 1979,” the 41-year-old Zabel explained. “I was in seventh-grade, and I started as a ball boy.”
“Pav” is Delano Athletic Director Merrill Pavlovich, who was the Tigers’ head football coach when Zabel was busy bussing footballs to the on-field officials, and still is today, with Zabel patrolling the sideline next to him.
“He’s as much a part of Delano football as anything,” Pavlovich said. “When we meet the opposing coaches and refs at midfield, they always ask how long he has been here. Tim always says ‘too long.’”
Zabel doesn’t transport footballs anymore. He played in eighth and ninth grade, and as a sophomore in high school, he became the football team’s student manager, a position he held until his graduation in 1985.
Zabel moved from Delano to Cokato in 1987, and then lived in Buffalo for 10 years. He returned to Delano in 1999, reunited with Pavlovich, and took over his old position with the football team.
“I’m kind of like the manager, slash, coach,” Zabel said of his position.
His duties include everything from keeping statistics to filling up the water bottles. The responsibilities seem simple, but Zabel found out, as a sophomore, how important the position is. He remembers when the latter of the two responsibilities earned him a vintage tongue lashing from the head coach.
“He chewed me out my sophomore year,” Zabel recalled as if it were last Friday night’s game. “Against Waconia, I forgot to get water out there, and he let me have it.”
Pavlovich said he warned Zabel early to get his work done.
“When he was in fifth grade, he always hung around me,” Pavlovich explained. I told him, ‘If you don’t do your work, you can’t come around on Friday.’”
Zabel learned his lesson, and now has a plan when Pavlovich gets hot.
“When he’s mad, I will stand in the other corner,” Zabel said.
Pavlovich’s name comes up a lot when talking to Zabel. The football coach has been the one constant male figure in Zabel’s life since they first started working with each other.
“Pav is like my second dad, really,” Zabel said.
The praise for Pavlovich for taking Zabel under his wing doesn’t stop with Zabel.
“He has such an admiration for Merrill Pavlovich — I can’t tell you how much he admires him. As do I,” Zabel’s mother, Nancy Zabel, said. “Mr. Pavlovich has been with Tim since Tim was in fifth grade. He has always taken the attention for Tim, and always gone out of his way. To Tim, Mr. Pavlovich is ‘the man.’
“Tim has always felt he could go to Pav.”
Zabel’s parents, Nancy and Tom, divorced when he was a junior in high school, and he lived with his mother after the split until graduation. Zabel moved to Cokato to a group home to earn his independence, then went to Buffalo for 10 years, and has live at The Dells in Delano since 1999.
While his biological family broke apart, Zabel was never far from a Delano family.
“To our team, he is like family,” Pavlovich said. “Tim is always welcome in our house, and the kids (on the team) are accepting of that. That says a lot about the 17- and 18-year-old kids.”
Zabel’s fondness for Pavlovich began on the football field, but Zabel has never forgotten an incident that took place off the field.
“I have a bit of a learning disability, and teachers wanted to change how I looked and acted,” Zabel remembers. “Pav said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the kid.’ He liked the way I was. That has always stuck with me.”
Zabel was born with brain damage that has affected his learning and limited his physical ability. His condition is a disability by definition, but you can throw the dictionary out the window when it comes to Zabel.
He may not drive, but that rarely stops him from getting to the field, diamond, or rink, which are all within walking distance of his home on Elm Street. Zabel also works full time at Functional Industries in Buffalo.
Nancy Zabel said her son was frustrated at an early age because he couldn’t do everything his peers were doing.
“He would say to me, ‘Why do I have to be like this; why can’t I throw the ball or hit it?’
“I would say, ‘You were specially chosen to set an example to other children. Even if you have a handicap, you can contribute to community.’ He’s always held on to that, and I am extremely proud of him.”
Zabel has since lived by his mother’s words, and he has a direct influence on the teams he helps.
In the winter, Zabel’s influence on the hockey team on game days starts well before the puck is dropped or a single note of the national anthem is sung.
“Before each hockey game, he does the team prayer,” Sandberg explained. “He asks for everybody to be safe and to play to the best of their abilities. That’s what he highlights.”
Varsity hockey coach Steve Brown explained further.
“Tim does lead the team in pre-game prayer and has been doing so for many years. Like a lot of traditions, I have no idea how it started,” Brown said. “Tim has been a part of the hockey program for about eight or nine years. Tim would come to the rink, watch practice, and fill water bottles. One day we had Tim come out in boots for a showdown with one of our goaltenders. Tim scored, and the team celebrated around him. Ever since, he has been a big part of our Tiger hockey program.”
During football season, the fate of how the players will end each practice rests on the broad shoulders of Zabel.
“We leave it up to Zabel to make a field goal on whether we run Beckers or not,” Sandberg said, referring to end of practice conditioning. “He’s pretty good at kicking field goals.”
Zabel grew up playing sports as a kid, and his passion for baseball, football, and ice hockey have stayed with him through adulthood.
“It has been his life since he was a small boy — since he began watching football games on TV,” Nancy Zabel said.
The love for all things sports was passed on to Zabel through his genes.
“It was bred into me from the beginning,” Zabel said. “My dad was a basketball captain in 1960 and ‘61, and now, my nieces and nephews have it in their blood.”
When he’s not on the sidelines or in the dugout, Zabel still has his mind on sports.
Sitting on an end table next to the television in his living room is a pile of black VHS tapes with professional and college games recorded on the miles of tape. For a hobby, Zabel watches the recorded games, and records the statistics in a score book.
The oldest of three, Zabel was the typical kid, playing youth baseball and basketball in the Delano area. He said he never played hockey, but has always been a fan of the game.
“I always liked it. I couldn’t play because I couldn’t skate,” Zabel said. “Dad wanted me to play basketball in high school, so I never played hockey.”
In the spring, Zabel was an outfielder on the baseball team. One of his fondest moments is as a 9-year-old when his Mickey Mantle baseball team played in the 1982 state tournament in Delano.
“We rode in the Fourth of July parade to promote it, and Ray Christensen was the grand marshal,” explained Zabel. “The atmosphere (during the tournament) was great. We played under the lights.”
Wearing a Delano hat with the overlapping “D” and “T,” a football sweatshirt from the Tigers’ 2003 state tournament appearance, and a blue-ribboned medal from the baseball team’s 2004 section championship, Zabel recalled other events from the past.
He remembers when the 1988 Delano Athletics team he was on won the state amateur baseball championship, the football team upsetting Watertown-Mayer 27-20 in double overtime in 1984, and the football team’s second place finish at state in 2003.
“That’s a moment I won’t forget, playing in the Metrodome,” Zabel said of the football team at state. “In the semifinal game against Crookston, I nearly fainted when I walked onto the field. When we played Glencoe-Silver Lake (in the final), it was exciting for the whole team.
“I got on TV seven times.”
Memories like this are plentiful in Zabel’s head, and many of them are proven true by the collage of photos and newspaper clippings that decorate his bedroom walls, some from his own playing days and others from the teams he has helped coach.
In many of the photos, the players on the respective teams featured are celebrating victories. One photo shows the 2006 football team hoisting its Section 4AAA championship trophy this past Nov. 3 after defeating St. Anthony Village 6-3.
It was at that game that the players and coaches on the team showed Zabel how they really feel about him by presenting him the trophy.
“That was pretty emotional, he liked that a lot,” Sandberg said.
It was the second time Zabel’s emotions came out over a trophy. The first time was in 2003 when the football team returned to Delano from the state tournament run.
“I got the honor of bringing in the trophy to the gymnasium, with tears rolling down my eyes,” he explained. “It was the same year my Grandma Zabel died. I was close to her.”
Pavlovich explained the trophy presentation.
“The guys gave me the trophy, and I said, ‘That’s your trophy.’ I said, ‘Only one guy carries the trophy,’ and they gave it to Zabs,” the coach explained. “It is important to recognize people like Tim Zabel. I don’t think there is a better role model than Tim.
“We’ve always been there for Tim because he’s always been there for us.”
Zabel could probably recite everything that happened at the 2003 state tournament, as well as all the other events memorialized by his wall of newspaper clippings.
“It’s tough to stump him on anything athletic,” said Pavlovich. “He is Rain Man. He will tell you the score from 1982 and who scored the touchdowns.”
Zabel’s memory for sports and music is well-known.
“Tim is our connection to the past traditions of Delano. He loves to tell stories of his youth,” Delano varsity baseball coach Dan Paulson said. “He is great to have around because he has a passion for the community of Delano, the Delano schools, and Delano sports — especially football, baseball, and hockey. He has a tremendous amount of respect for the coaches, their staffs, and the games.”
And Zabel has a memory like a steel vault.
“He remembers everything,” Paulson said. “Kids love to quiz him on Delano players, stats, and games.”
Sandberg is one of those players. He is a member of all three teams Zabel helps — football, hockey, and baseball — and echoes Paulson’s take on Zabel’s ability to recall past games and statistics.
“His love for sports is like no other. Sports consumes a big part of his life, and his love for sports rubs off on other people,” Sandberg said. “We love having him around. His memory of Delano stats and Twins stats is amazing.”
Paulson and Zabel have worked together since 1999, but the baseball coach says their relationship dates back well before they became colleagues.
“I remember him from my playing years in St. Michael-Albertville, back in the ‘80s,” Paulson said.
It’s obvious the players and coaches love having Zabel around, and the reverse is true, as well.
“It’s great to be around, everybody jokes around,” he said of athletics. “We are serious, but we can have fun.”
Zabel is also serious about attending every game, and is apologetic when he can’t make a bus trip.
“He e-mails me when he can’t make a game, and one day, the e-mail was one continuous sentence. It was an apology to me and the team that he couldn’t be there,” said Pavlovich, who read the message to his football team, telling the players, “‘He doesn’t get paid to be here, but he loves to be here, and he loves you guys.’”
And the reverse is true, as well.
“It’s amazing what he does and how committed he is,” Sandberg said. “He’s just a legend in Delano.”