MINNEAPOLIS -- The little boy who used to dress up in a suit and scamper around the house pretending to be a coach wanted to be just like his father.
But from the very beginning, Adam Zimmer also strove to do things his way. Veteran coach Mike Zimmer's connections may have helped son Adam get his foot in the coaching door, but Adam never wanted his last name to carry more weight than the work he put in.
Before joining his father on the Cincinnati Bengals coaching staff in 2013, Adam found his footing during seven years with the New Orleans Saints and Kansas City Chiefs. His style was different from his father's, but it took guidance from Dad to learn how to become his own coach.
"There was one time when he was with me in Cincinnati and he was kind of getting after a player," Mike Zimmer recalled. "He was a young coach, and I pulled him over to the side and said, 'Hey, you coach them. You let me be the bad guy, and you just coach them, and I'll be the one to get after 'em. Once you get a little more skins on the wall, then you can do that.'"
Adam's journey to the NFL looks different. He rode on the bus to the Pro Bowl as a wide-eyed 10-year-old sandwiched between coaches from the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers. He was put through defensive back drills as a preteen by Bill Bates, the Super Bowl-champion safety who played for his father. He spent hours after school roaming in and out of coaches meetings at the Cowboys' facility.
Adam, now a 36-year-old co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach on his father's staff with the Minnesota Vikings, grew up in this lifestyle. Becoming an NFL coach felt more like a predetermined destiny than an off chance. But the reason he has made it this far is by doing things his way.
"He's not trying to be Mike," Vikings co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Andre Patterson said. "I think that was the biggest thing from the beginning when we came here. He had to learn that he had to be Adam and he had to treat players or whoever through his personality and not through Zim's personality."
Adam faced one of his greatest challenges early in his career.
On the morning of Dec. 1, 2012, a 28-year-old Adam, in his third year as an assistant linebackers coach with the Chiefs, was in meetings in preparation for their game against the Carolina Panthers. A security guard alerted defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs and head coach Romeo Crennel about something taking place outside the facility.
Soon Gibbs returned with devastating news. After murdering the mother of his child earlier that morning, linebacker Jovan Belcher drove to the Chiefs' practice facility and killed himself in the parking lot in front of his coaches and then-general manager Scott Pioli.
The Chiefs canceled meetings and went to sit in the locker room at Arrowhead Stadium "until it was time to go home," Adam said. They went forward with their game the next afternoon and beat Carolina.
The situation wore on Adam as he helped pull his position group together after an unthinkable tragedy. He got through it by pulling back on his own grief to help his players make sense of theirs.
"I kind of leaned on 2009 when my mom passed away and how all the [Saints] linebackers in that group brought me together," Adam said. "They had me over for dinner and helped me through it as best as they could. They were there for me. So that's what I was trying to do with the other linebackers in the room. Just be there as an ear or a shoulder to cry on."
His rapport with players came naturally. It's one of the first things former Bengals coach Marvin Lewis noticed upon hiring Adam as assistant defensive backs coach in 2013.
"With young coaches, the ones that grow up being around it all the time, they're able to communicate with the players very early on," Lewis said. "They can make a bond with the player so that the players trust them. Sometimes guys come into these positions when they haven't been around it like that and they get intimidated by the players. That's the difference, I think."
Adam spent the first week of quarantine holed up in his Minneapolis apartment watching college film.
"The only human interaction I had was when I'd go to Dunkin' Donuts to get coffee," he said. "So I had to get out of here."
He loaded his Peloton into his truck and drove south to Mike's ranch in Walton, Kentucky. During the day, Adam took on the role as his father's IT person, helping him set up Microsoft Teams for virtual meetings with players. At night, Adam cooked dinner on the smoker he had recently purchased and the two enjoyed the still of the Kentucky country.
The balance between father-son and head coach-assistant is a dynamic that feels seamless.
"Adam gets his butt chewed just like everybody else -- so do I," Patterson said. "I'm close to Zim, and he'll chew my behind just like anybody else. I don't think anybody in the room would think he's getting special treatment. He's held accountable just like the other coaches."
Adam was never concerned about fighting the notion of nepotism as the reason he has his job. For seven years before he joined his dad in Cincinnati, Adam worked with coaches who had little connection to Mike, although he got his first NFL shot from the Saints' Sean Payton, who had worked with Mike in Dallas.
"I wanted to have the reputation where I could do it on my own," Adam said.
Upon joining his father's Vikings staff in 2014, Adam was given his first opportunity to lead a position group. His linebacker room was led by Chad Greenway, who was entering his ninth NFL season.
After their first meeting, Greenway stayed after to talk with his coach. He may have been a year older than Adam, who was 30 at the time, but Greenway let his new coach know he understood who was in charge.
"He told me when he first hired me in Cincinnati: 'I'm going to treat you harder than everybody else, not because I'm trying to prove anything but because I want you to be the best you can be.' And that's exactly what I wanted." Adam Zimmer on his father, Mike
"If you want the respect of this room, it's going to come from me, in a sense that I'm going to respect you," Greenway said, recalling the conversation. "And just because I'm older than you and I've been in the NFL, I'm not going to act like I know it all. I don't think he necessarily needed me to say that, but I think it probably made him feel a little bit better that I wasn't going be a thorn in his side and make his job harder."
The cerebral approach Adam brought to the linebacking corps was different from what Greenway was used to, and he believes it helped him extend his career another three seasons.
"In a way, I needed him just as much as he needed me," said Greenway, who retired after the 2016 season. "I was trying to reinvent myself as a player. And I needed him. I relied on him to be able to teach me the ins and outs of new positions and new techniques."
Adam got his chance to help lead a defense this offseason. Months after losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional playoffs, Mike made widespread changes to his defensive staff for the 2020 season.
He promoted Patterson, his right-hand man for more than 20 years of coaching, and Adam, to handle defensive coordinator duties together.
Mike was well into his 40s when he got his first shot to become a defensive coordinator. So what made him feel his son, at 36, was ready for the opportunity?
"He felt like, rather than bringing somebody else new in and training them to do it, the best way was to go ahead and promote the extension of himself," Lewis said.
The lessons Adam has learned away from and under his father's guidance have helped him reach this level. Adam feels prepared for the challenge in front of him -- turning around a defensive unit trying to buck an 0-3 start -- given the steps he took to get here, and the guidance by the man who was there all along.
"He told me when he first hired me in Cincinnati: ‘I'm going to treat you harder than everybody else, not because I'm trying to prove anything but because I want you to be the best you can be,'" Adam said. "And that's exactly what I wanted. I don't want to be the guy who just has a job; I want him to make me the best I can be."