The Tao of Scott Zolak

Beers, balls, a Beetle, and Brady, baby: How Scott Zolak went from Pats backup to the best seat in the house.

Zolak didn’t start at QB until his senior season in college, but he played well enough—graduating with the university record for second–most passing yards in a single season—for the miserable 1–15 Patriots to select him with the 84th pick in the fourth round of the 1991 draft. “I was big, 6-foot-5, and I could wing it,” Zolak says, “but I wasn’t sure what to expect.”

What Zolak discovered surprised him. The locker room at the time wasn’t the luxurious atmosphere he’d imagined as a boy. Instead, he says, it was a bare-bones, bare-knuckle slab of concrete with four walls, just like in high school, and the table used for taping players’ ankles doubled as a Ping-Pong table. “They were a crappy franchise back then,” Zolak says. “I didn’t play much, but [in 1993] they brought Bill Parcells in. And I knew pretty early on that Parcells was the kind of guy you’d want to stick around for.”

As a rookie, Zolak competed for the QB spot against Hugh Millen and even started four games, giving him reason to hope he could win the job. Then Bledsoe arrived as the clear number one overall pick in the 1993 draft. Zolak instantly knew his fate: “Hello, wall,” he says, “meet writing.”

Realizing he was destined to play second fiddle, Zolak emerged as a utility player. He served as holder on field-goal attempts and offered his coach advice from the sidelines. He had to find a way to stick around. And he did, for another five years, until the Patriots released him in 1999. He played one game for the Miami Dolphins the following season before washing out of the league. For a nobody, it wasn’t all that bad: He was AFC Player of the Week in 1992 for throwing two touchdowns in a win over the -Indianapolis Colts, and landed a playoff start in 1999 when Bledsoe was injured. But it wasn’t like he had made a zillion dollars.

“I had no clue what I’d do,” Zolak says. “I had teammates who made boatloads of money, who lost it all, who had health problems, who didn’t know what to do with themselves with the majority of their lives in front of them still. And that terrified me. I didn’t want to be that guy.”

“Look at those people over there,” Zolak says several weeks after Patriots Day, as we sip beers at the Sunset Grill & Tap in Allston, pointing to a table of college-age kids who are staring down at their phones. “Everyone’s attention span is way down. So we have to come on [the radio] every day, competing against this”—he wiggles his cell in the air—“and that is easily the hardest part of the job.”

Zolak began his second act as an on-air personality shortly after retiring. In 2000, WBZ’s Channel 4 was shaking up its pregame panel show featuring host Bob Lobel, and brought on Zolak. From there, he broke into radio by working the morning slot on Rhode Island’s sports station, the Score, where he teamed up with sports host Andy Gresh and producer Jim Louth. Zolak never had any professional broadcast training, but he knew how to keep listeners engaged—and he had an uncanny knack for knowing just how far he could push his foul-mouthed locker-room shtick. Louth, who’s now Zolak’s producer on the Zolak & Bertrand show, has watched the backup refine his act over more than a decade. “This is the polished Zo, this Boston version,” he says. “Before, [Zolak would] get excited and that locker-room guy would come out, and I’d have to run to the dump button a bunch of times each month…. But now that hardly ever happens. He has it down. He brings the energy, and energy resonates with people, even if they’re not feeling it themselves just then. He has a way of getting you going. And that, in our business, is everything.”

Well, almost everything. Cash-strapped in 2008, the Score switched formats and replaced Zolak with oldies music. Out of a job, he once again found a way to stick around. He picked up work as a college football analyst for CBS’s sports cable channel and appeared on WEEI’s former ratings giant, The Big Show, with Glenn Ordway and a cast of shouters, ex-players, and passionate magpies. Zolak’s on-air personality—serving as an everyman who didn’t really play all that much more pro ball than you did—resonated with Boston fans. “I know people think I’m zany and all that,” says Zolak, who in person is surprisingly thoughtful, “but I’m honest. I tell you what I’m honestly seeing…. It’s kind of like when you’re out on the Cape, and you’re whipping around in the boat, and Creedence Clearwater Revival is cranking, and you know that’s just the best. You just know it. You can know a play like that, too, and if you’re just honest, and you know what you’re talking about, people respect that, they gravitate toward it.”

In 2010, the Sports Hub called Zolak off the bench; he and Gresh joined the station to host the midday show. (Bertrand replaced Gresh in February.) Two years later, Zolak became the color analyst for Patriots games.

No one will accuse Zolak of not being an inveterate homer. He maintains a close relationship with Bill Belichick, with whom he appears on TV every week during the season. And in a town that worships Tom Brady like Ganesh, Zolak has a long history as the king of Brady worshipers. (When Brady moved to town in 2000, he moved into Zolak’s former two-bedroom apartment in Franklin—Zolak had sold it to Ty Law, who then sold it to Brady.) Zolak celebrates No. 12 in a cool, salt-of-the-earth sort of way that, cheesy as it sounds, kind of bonds you to the guy. Most recently, his staunch defense of Brady on the heels of Deflategate lifted Zolak into the hearts of Boston sports fans: “If Tom was a bad guy, I wouldn’t have a problem with this,” Zolak told a local news station. “You can’t find a guy who does anything better or more by the book than that guy. I feel bad that he’s been drug through this, and I wouldn’t blame him if he sued.”
It’s near the end of spring, and Zolak is making another live appearance. He understands not all of them can be as electric as a sports bar near Fenway Park on Marathon Monday, but he also knows that lasting in this business means getting out and mixing with people wherever he can—even if it’s the Bertucci’s at the Emerald Square Mall in North Attleboro on a stormy afternoon. Today’s gimmick: Listeners can show up and eat a custom pizza cooked by Zolak himself.

In full chef garb—which makes him look as comical as the Swedish Chef—Zolak cuts pies and poses for pictures. Two of his three kids are here: Brody, six, and Samantha, 11, who has type 1 diabetes. “You go through what your kids go through,” Zolak says, “and me and my wife, Amy, have watched Samantha go through stuff no kid should have to go through. Our other girl, Hadley, who is 15, knows how to give the shots if anything happened to us, but Samantha is more mature at her age than I was at 20. She’s like a little genius.”

This is a part of Zolak’s life far removed from the whole bromance-and-jocks routine. But even as he speaks eloquently about his daughter’s challenges and successes, Zolak’s two worlds are about to collide: Jungle-O just showed up.

Jungle-O, by way of explanation, is a middle­-aged white guy with long gray hair and a Hulk Hogan-esque handlebar mustache who has become a weekly caller and favorite character on Zolak’s show. Described by Zolak as “an insane 70-year-old white rapper,” he also attends every Zolak public appearance. Jungle-O, it is safe to say, is Zolak’s number one fan.

With Zolak looking on, Jungle-O whips out his phone to show off a homemade music video of several burly men in Patriots jerseys staging a mock game with dudes in Jets jerseys. He also explains why he’s such a fan of Zolak, telling me about the time he bonded with his idol one night over burgers at Foxwoods Casino. “He won’t tell you this,” Jungle-O says, “but the man is as nice as they come. When we were at Fuddruckers eating at 3 in the morning, I offered him wood.”

You did what now?

“I sell cords of wood. And I offered to sell him each cord for $175. And he said to me, ‘That’s really nice, but I have a guy I pay $300, and he needs the money, so I should keep buying from him.’ That’s the kind of guy he is. He’s generous. And he’s regular. That’s why he is where he’s at now.”

Moments later, a woman blitzes like a linebacker toward Zolak and wraps her arms around him. “Oh my God!” she shrieks. “This is the closest I will ever get to Tom Brady!”

Jungle-O looks at me and clarifies, “By ‘getting to where he’s at now,’ I don’t mean random women coming over and babbling about Tom Brady.”

“What are you saying over there, Jungle-O?” Zolak asks. “You taking off, Jungle-O?”

“I’ll give you a call,” Jungle-O says, heading toward the door.

“You’re only allowed to call on Fridays.”

“I know.”

Zolak pauses and smiles as his biggest fan disappears. “My people, baby. Didn’t used to have people. It’s nice to have people.”