A Phyzical life: Former UB football player Phil Zickl has played semipro into his fifties but now he has a new goal
When Brian Goldsmith first saw Phil Zickl during warm-ups for the Buffalo Gladiators’ semipro football camp, he assumed Zickl was one of his new coaches.
Zickl had a six-pack and big biceps, but he was 51 years old. He played as a lineman for UB in the 1980s, almost a decade before Goldsmith was born.
Then Goldsmith saw Zickl put on pads.
He thinks he’s an actual player, Goldsmith thought. He’s going to hurt himself.
Goldsmith did not go easy on Zickl when, during a practice, he was called to lead block on a running back sweep and Zickl, playing outside linebacker, stood in the way.
Football is an unforgiving sport – even in the semipro world. Every play is an opportunity to grab the coaches’ attention and claim a spot on the field. And as Goldsmith puts it, “When you go in for a hit, it’s hard to let up.” Goldsmith delivered a blow to Zickl’s midsection and leveled him to the field.
“I thought I put him in the hospital,” Goldsmith said.
But the spry “old guy” popped back up off the field without needing an ambulance or so much as an examination by the team’s medical staff.
“Nice hit,” he told Goldsmith before running back to the defensive huddle.
Whoa, most people my age couldn’t take that hit, Goldsmith thought as he walked back to his own huddle.
For the next three seasons, from 2011-14, Goldsmith watched new players make wrong assumptions about Zickl. They’d ask, “Who’s the old guy?” and “Is this guy really playing?” only to later exclaim, “That old guy can hit.”
They call him ‘Phyzical’ – a play on words of his name and also homage to the miracle, banana peel-eating fitness regimen that allows Phil Zickl to play football in his mid-fifties.
Zickl’s been defying odds for his entire 55-year life. He’s an anomaly in every sense.
He’s played football into his fifth decade but he almost didn’t make it out of the womb alive. He grew up with coordination problems but says he’s most comfortable on the dance floor and on a football field. He was born dyslexic, but became an avid reader. He was a frat brother at UB but claims he’s never been drunk. He’s known for big hits on the field but his father can never once remember his son losing his temper. The only concussion Zickl ever sustained came during an old-timers wrestling match for his Batavia, New York high school.
And in an age where concussions and football are synonymous and NFL players in their twenties are leaving behind millions in fear of head trauma and other injuries, a 55 year old playing football for nothing seems even more odd.
The logical questions are how and why?
How does Phil Zickl still play football? And better yet, why does he still play?
His daughter Daneale thinks it’s the love of the game. His father Randolph thinks it’s a combination of enthusiasm and a lack of injuries. Bill Bruton, a Batavia sports reporter from The Daily News, thinks Zickl likes the camaraderie. American Football Association President Dave Burch said older men play semipro because they want to prove they can still do what they did at their peak.
Zickl can’t give just one answer. There may not be one.
As for as how he can still play, Zickl’s answer ranges from good genes to a bizarre and rigorous workout routine to a guardian angel. He says he’s not unique – it’s his life experiences that led him to where he is that’s special.
“I am not special – I am fortunate. The special part of it was the equation that led to my final result,” he said.
But Zickl’s football career is in limbo. Semipro football teams are now beginning workouts for the upcoming season but Zickl doesn’t have a team. What he does have, however, is a new goal: giving back. He wants to spread the wisdom he’s gained as a teacher, personal trainer, social worker, support counselor and camp director over the decades. He might even toss in an exercise tip or two.
Zickl idolized Father Nelson Baker, a deceased Buffalo priest who many are advocating for canonization because of his charitable work with children.
Now, Zickl dreams of meshing a business model with a charitable one. He wants to create a business that will educate people about fitness, longevity and how to keep doing what you love well past middle age. He hopes one day he’ll make enough money to start a scholarship fund for young people. It’s his way of honoring Father Baker.
It may be far-fetched. He’s been struggling to find work. He’s substitute teaching on the side. Zickl knows he has to get his professional business situated first before he can think about playing football this season.
He has a new dream. A new running back to tackle. He doesn’t have all the details figured out yet, but he does have a snappy name.
He calls it ‘Phyzical Phitness.’
The oldest person to ever play in the NFL was 48-year-old George Blanda. The semipro world is different – it’s not rare to see guys in their fifties still strapping on shoulder pads and helmets.
Zickl is far from the oldest semipro football player. An 81-year-old just kicked in the annual semipro football Casino Bowl in Las Vegas last month. But that’s the thing – most players taking the gridiron past their 40th birthday only kick or play on special teams. Even Burch only played on the kick return coverage team at age 50.
Zickl started at linebacker for the Buffalo Knights last summer.
He didn’t set out to redefine old age. He did it by accident.
After playing his last season at UB in 1981, he played semipro for 15 years and retired from the sport in 2000. In the ’80s, he was a two-time semipro national champion with the Syracuse Express and had even made the front page of a local Syracuse newspaper’s sports section.
What more do I need? he thought.
In 2000, he retired at age 40. He figured it was time to be a fan of his five-year-old daughter, whether she was playing youth soccer or was in the school play.
After spending almost all of the first 50 years of his life in Genesee County, Zickl moved to Erie County in the fall of 2010 for better employment opportunity. He was divorced and his daughter was in the 10th grade. She was going to want to spend more time with her friends than her dad anyway.
“That’s when I really thought I should be involved in something I’m passionate about,” Zickl said.
He made a call to Buffalo Gladiators’ offensive captain John Augustineabout taking a coaching position in early 2011. He would even just keep stats if that was what it took to get back in the sport.
But when he called Augustine to see if the Gladiators had any room on the staff, Augustine, who’d seen Zickl at a fitness center, said, “Phil, you’re in way too good of shape to be on the sidelines. Come play for us.”
Zickl was taken aback. Sure, he had worked out religiously in his 10 years of retirement and still had six-pack abs, but to play football with players as much as 30 years younger?
Augustine told Zickl he was in better shape than half of the team.
“Turns out he was right,” Zickl said.
There is no such thing as a short conversation with Phil Zickl.
“If you get into a conversation with Phil, you better be in for the long haul,” Randolph said.
A comment about the weather will turn into a story about him playing with the Batavia Bandits in the ’90s or his philosophy on life. Start to tell him about yourself, and Zickl will probably discover a mutual friend or place of work. It once took Randolph and Zickl’s brothers an hour to get through the Syracuse airport because Zickl kept running into people he knew.
“We rolled our eyes and said, ‘We’re never going to get out of here,’” Randolph said.
But don’t get Zickl wrong. For as much as he likes to talk – and he sure can talk – he believes everything he says.
“We are just all one unit of humanity. I don’t care how old you are, young you are, physical difficulties, emotional difficulties, mental difficulties. Everyone is equal across the board,” Zickl says. “I don’t just say stuff for show.”
Zickl was a socialite at UB as a fraternity brother in Tau Kappa Epsilon, but he never needed alcohol. He says he was a designated driver before the phrase existed. He didn’t like the taste. He thinks it may be a blessing from God that he doesn’t. No matter how good of an athlete you are, you’re going to be better if you don’t use drugs, according to Zickl.
He’s a dancer too. People have always told him he has good rhythm.
But Zickl was not always the outgoing athlete, dancer and fraternity brother. He used to be a kid with learning and physical disabilities.
As Zickl puts it, he was “kind of born dead.”
His mother, Anne, passed away in March of 2014 – her birthday is Sept. 1 so Zickl wore No. 91 for the Knights in honor of her. Although his mother is not around to tell it anymore, Zickl’s “certainly heard the story enough times.”
On a March night in 1960, almost three weeks before her due date with her second son, Anne felt she had to use the bathroom. Upon entering the bathroom, she found blood everywhere. The family was living in Amherst as Randolph attended UB’s law school, but Anne’s obstetrician was in Batavia.
“We grabbed a bunch of towels and wrapped her up and in the car we went for a very hazardous ride to Batavia,” Randolph said.
The couple took an hour drive in “snowy, blowy” weather, Randolph said, to a hospital in Batavia. After finally arriving at the hospital, doctors discovered that the unborn child’s shoulder had pinched off his umbilical cord between his mother’s hipbone.
At one point, doctors thought there was no way the unborn Zickl was going to survive, and there was concern his mother wasn’t going to either because she had lost so much blood. In Erie County in 1960, doctors didn’t do caesarean sections, according to Zickl.
“What they did [in Erie County] was they allowed the fetus to die and delivered the fetus stillborn and figured, ‘Young mother, she’ll have a chance to have another child,’” Zickl said. “So thank goodness my mother’s obstetrician was in Genesee County.”
Zickl was delivered through a caesarean section, but the doctors thought he might be dead.
“I was purple head to toe – no pulse,” Zickl said. “I was pretty much not living for a short amount of time.”
The doctor instructed the nursing staff to pour a bath of hot water and a bath of cold water. He then dipped the near lifeless infant Zickl from the hot water to the cold water.
Zickl described the method as similar to “in the summer time when it’s really hot and someone comes up from behind you and squirts you with a hose – the reaction is, ‘Ahhhh!’”
The shock of the temperature transition from the hot water to the cold water caused Zickl to take his first breath.
And although he had survived, the effects of his oxygen deprivation would linger. He had lost brain cells.
Zickl experienced reading disabilities and coordination problems growing up because of his difficult birth. He’s dyslexic. He could form the thoughts in his head, but “couldn’t get it down the neck, shoulder, down the arm and hand to the pencil to present it.”
He watched his brothers and other classmates understand things he could not. He thought to himself, How come I don’t get this? He came home from school one day in tears because he couldn’t understand the things others could.
“My mother explained to me that I would be able to do the exact same thing my brothers could do and other kids could do,” Zickl said. “But I was just going to have to work harder at getting it. I was going to have to make more of an effort to succeed at these things.”
His mother made sure he was assigned to the teacher in the district who was most welcoming toward children who had educational difficulties. Kids would get 30 minutes to finish a test. Zickl got 45. He started seeing a Special Education teacher who served as his tutor and coordination coach. She delivered physical therapy before it was even formally offered in the school district, according to Zickl.
And so the kid that “avoided reading like the plague” was then reading everything from Sports Illustrated to books about animals, nature and mysteries. The kid that had coordination difficulties and needed a physical therapist became the best dancer in his second grade class.
This philosophy of extra effort hasn’t left him.
Zickl knows most people probably think he’s crazy.
He’s putting himself at risk for injury by playing the most physical sport he can for no compensation. While the Syracuse Express supplied some health insurance coverage for him in the ’80s, most semipro teams do not.
And Zickl doesn’t take it easy on the field, either.
He may not have the speed he once did, but that hasn’t affected his knowledge of the game or prevented him from making big hits. In one of the Knights’ first drills last season, Knights’ defensive captain Chuck Weston said Zickl came “running out like a bat out of hell” and made a tackle a 20 year old would have made.
“He smacks the kid, like Ray Lewis – out of his mind,” Weston said.
Zickl laughs that there was a lot of support for his football career from friends and family when he was between the ages of 24-40, but not as much now that he’s in his fifties. After he tore some cartilage in his knee playing with kids while working as an elementary school counselor in the ’90s, his ex-wife asked the doctor, “So you mean you’re not going to tell him to stop playing football?”
The doctor told Zickl he could continue playing.
When Zickl told his father he was going to play football again at the age of 51, Randolph asked him, “Doesn’t that seem a little unhealthy?”
“You can get injured and all kinds of stuff can happen,” Randolph said. “He didn’t think it would happen to him.”
Zickl says he was blessed with good genetics. He thinks God is looking out for him.
“God has blessed me with being physically capable to do it, so I’m going to use this gift,” Zickl said.
He puts God and genetics above his extensive diet and workout routine – which he follows religiously – as the reasons he is still able to play.
He always puts two clamps on the bar when lifting to “protect the integrity of the weight.” What if a 45-pound weight actually only weighs 44.9 pounds? he worries.
He always does one extra rep in case his form wasn’t good on one of them. A friend recently counted that Zickl did 78 pushups but he only gave himself credit for 77 because his chin did not hit the floor one of the times. He laments the fact he did not work out one day in 2014 – April 21, to be exact. He remembers the date.
Zickl can list off a plethora of the most up-to-date nutrition knowledge. He eats blueberries every day because he read a study that said it’s the healthiest fruit. He carries a water bottle with him wherever he goes and drinks 60-70 ounces of water per day. He also drinks juice – but only if it’s 100 percent pure.
Once during a team meeting after Goldsmith finished eating a banana, Zickl leaned over and asked him, “Are you done with that?”
“I’m like, ‘Uh, yeah.’ And I’m just holding the peel and he goes, ‘Awesome, can I have that?’ And he just ate the banana peel,” Goldsmith said. “Then he went on this tangent about how all the nutrients are in the rinds and you should never throw it away.”
Zickl said protesting was almost a major at UB before he enrolled in classes in 1978.
He had heard stories about buildings being taken over, sit-ins and tear gas coming through windows. Students were not shy about expressing their disappointment with the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, Zickl said.
UB dropped varsity football and most other sports in 1971 due to the protests and adverse political climate. When Zickl joined the UB football team in 1979 as a sophomore after sitting out his freshman year because of an ankle injury, the Bulls were only in their third season as a reinstated Division III program.
Zickl describes the UB football team of that age as “second-wave pioneers.” The team had to prove that college athletics could be a constructive activity beneficial for universities. The players made sure they went to practice and class.
“Nobody ever verbalized it to us, but we were certainly made aware of the fact that athletics were taken away once and could be taken away again,” Zickl said.
Zickl didn’t receive a full ride to UB because of his status as a football player. There were no scholarships for D-III, just grants and financial aid. He didn’t play under the bright lights of a 30,000-seat arena like UB football players do now, either. The team played on the Rotary Field on South Campus. You could have watched the football games driving down Winspear Avenue. The locker room was Clark Hall.
After playing offensive guard his first two seasons, a graduate assistant convinced Zickl to switch to defensive end for his senior season. But a transfer from a community college started over him.
He graduated feeling he hadn’t done everything he wanted to do in football.
Zickl didn’t know semipro football existed when he graduated, but he found himself making the two-hour drive from Batavia to Syracuse to practice with the Express – the team he’d eventually win championships with. The owner reimbursed him for his gas and tolls – the only compensation Zickl ever received from semipro football.
Zickl never made it close to a professional league. He once had a tryout for an Albany Arena League team and keeps a cutout from a Daily News article about him and his Bandits and Batavia High School teammate Robert Thurston trying out for a minor league combine in Ohio.
But Zickl is content with his career in semipro football. He’s found a lifelong home in it. For him, it’s always been more about teaching and helping. He helped start the Batavia Bandits in 1992 so he could give others the same experience he once got with the Express.
It’s all part of the reason Zickl is content with not playing this year – he’ll sacrifice his playing career if it means getting his dream business started.
Phil Zickl wants to be Father Nelson Baker – sort of.
When Zickl made his original business cards for Phyzical Phitness, he listed the ages for the children he would assist as 1-21. He then discovered that Baker Hall School, a school for young adults with disabilities and emotional disturbances modeled after the priest’s charitable work, took in children until the age of 21.
Zickl knows it may just be a coincidence – but maybe not.
His infatuation with Father Baker started when he worked as a substitute teacher at Baker Hall in the summer of 2011 and read Baker’s biography, Father of the Fatherless.
“When I read that, I just really got into what he was about and just really wanted to do something and Phyzical Phitness is what that effort is,” Zickl said.
He said he was inspired by Baker to take his interest in children and in starting his own business and put them together.
He’s been working to turn his teaching, coaching and training skills into his Phyzical Phitness business since 2012. He’s recently partnered with friend and former personal trainer client Francesco Sylvester, who can handle the businesses end, in the hopes of revitalizing his dream.
His dream is one day he’ll make enough money that the business can fund a scholarship program – whether it be paying for a toddler to participate in a swim program or funding babysitter costs and league fees so a single, young parent can participate in a bowling league.
It’s his way of honoring Father Baker.
Phil Zickl walks down into the basement of the Steel Mill Gym in Lackawanna, New York.
The gym is lined with yellow walls and red equipment. An American flag hangs on the wall across the room. There is a familiarity here for Zickl. Several workers and other gym-goers greet him by his first name as he walks through and signs in at the front desk.
“There are some places where you just feel comfortable,” he says. “This is an area of comfort.”
Zickl goes through his workout, lifting weights and doing agility exercises. He knows that at his age, he has to listen to his body. But the regimen is still rather intense. He can still do bench reps of over 100 pounds. All of the muscles in his back are still visible when he does pull-ups.
For one of his exercises, Zickl heads toward the back of gym into the men’s locker room. He reaches his hand out for the wall on his right, lifts his right foot up and closes his eyes.
It sounds simple. But it’s not.
He often shows younger athletes this exercise. They’re able to stand on their foot all day with their eyes open, he said.
“OK, what are we doing next, Mr. Zickl?” they’ll ask him.
Once they close their eyes, they last a few seconds before wobbling over.
Zickl says it’s because human beings have a tendency to rely on their vision. The exercise takes away the most important sense people use to understand their surrounding environment.
“The majority of human beings are used to be being on two feet,” Zickl said. “To take the most important sense away that helps you understand your environment is a big reason why it makes it remarkably different and more difficult … It’s just asking your body to do something it’s not used to doing.”
Zickl knows all about asking his body to do things it wouldn’t normally be asked to do.
He also knows that when he loses his balance during the exercise, he can always grab the wall.
The secret is, he never does. He hops, focuses and wills the balance to come from within.
Football has always been there for him to lean on. Now he’s letting go. He’s closing his eyes and standing on one foot as he tries to make his dream of Phyzical Phitness a reality.
But if the first 55 years of his life are any indication, Zickl will certainly keep his balance.
Tom Dinki is the acting editor in chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org