FOXBORO — Scott Zolak was driving home after another long day at the office — if you consider a four-hour (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) radio gig on FM 98.5 the Sports Hub and his “Patriots Today” TV/Website segment with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick work — when he was reminded about an anniversary coming up tomorrow.
Tomorrow is the 21st anniversary of the day that Zolak became the New England icon known as “Zo.”
“I’ll never forget it,” said Zolak, who is married with three children, Hadley (14), Samantha (9) and Brodie (4). “Tommy Hodson broke his wrist and I was starting against the Colts. We were 0-9. I had nothing to lose.
“I remember talking to my dad, who was my coach in high school and always there for help, the week leading up to the game,” said Zolak. “He said ‘You have Irving Fryar to throw to downfield, but if you are in trouble, you got a big tight end and (running back) Jon Vaughn to throw to. Be smart.”
The other interesting element to the game was that then-head coach Dick MacPherson was hospitalized with a stress-related issue and Dante Scarnecchia — still with the Patriots as their longtime offensive line coach — was head coach for a day.
“Scar was great,” recalled Zolak, who was drafted in the fourth round, 84th overall, in 1991 by the Patriots. “He said, ‘Let if fly ... Just go out there and compete.’”
Compete Zolak did. The Colts, 4-5 heading into the game, had never trailed in regulation, taking the lead five times before the Zolak-led Patriots tied the score each time, heading into overtime 34-34.
While there were many memorable moments this day, Zolak picked out his 65-yard touchdown hook-up with Greg McMurtry, with Colts ahead 21-14, as one of his all-time great plays as a Patriot.
“They were playing a cover-2 with two high safties,” said Zolak, of the Colts formation. “That means somebody, either the tight end or slot receiver has to get to the middle, which should be open. On that play, we kept (Ben) Coates in to block, because they had been getting pressure on me.
“I remember going back to pass, knowing McMurtry would be the guy going across the middle downfield,” said Zolak. “I closed my eyes and threw the ball as hard as I could, about 25 yards down field. McMurtry caught it on stride and both safeties collided and fell down, and he scored. I was going crazy afterward, running to the sidelines, jumping up and down, and I remember Freddie Smerlas was there saying, ‘Stop it, Zo! They’re going to call a penalty!’”
The Patriots eventually got the lead in overtime, thanks to back-to-back passes to Vaughn, as Zolak’s dad had requested, when Charlie Baumann hit an 18-yard field for the 37-34 win. You’d have thought the Patriots won the Super Bowl.
“After the game we went partying in Boston at Houlihans and Clarke’s,” said Zolak.
The cherry on top of that game was that Zolak, who completed 20 of 29 passes for 261 yards, two TDs and one interception, was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
“The thing I remember most was the speed of the game, which was nothing like college,” said Zolak. “I remember saying, ‘Holy bleep! Everybody is whizzing by!’”
While Zolak had a few more memorable performances, including the week after when the Patriots beat the Jets, 3-8 at the time, 24-3, he soon went back to the bench as a full-time backup.
The irony is that in his second-to-last NFL regular season start, which came in December of 1998 after Drew Bledsoe went down with his brutal finger injury, Zolak led the Patriots in a thrilling win over the Steve Young and Jerry Rice-led 49ers, 24-21.
He was named AFC Offensive Player of the Week for that one, too.
“I have two letters from ‘The Commish’ hanging in my basement,” said Zolak. “I didn’t get a lot of time, but when I did, they were special.”
So special, especially the first one 21 years ago, that it probably changed the course of his life. That game put him on the map here in New England.
“If that game doesn’t happen, I probably wouldn’t have stayed that long with the Patriots,” said Zolak. “Then I don’t meet my wife at Daisy Buchanan’s and I don’t have my family. It’s amazing how things work out. Would I be on the radio? Would I be the color analyst for Patriots games? Probably not.”
The lesson, said Zolak, “is always be ready for that moment. You never know when you’re going to get that chance. And if you come through, a lot of great things might happen to you, like they did me.”
You can email Bill Burt at email@example.com.
Zolak: Parcells was the best While former Patriots backup quarterback Scott Zolak is indebted to the coach who was there when he was drafted, Dick MacPherson, the best coach he had in the NFL was Bill Parcells. Parcells was hired in 1993, two years after Zolak was drafted. And while Zolak was never the starter under Parcells, it doesn't change the way he feels about the recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee. "Parcells was the best," said Zolak, who also played for three seasons under Pete Carroll after Parcells left for the New York Jets. "You may not have liked him for three or four days during the week, but come Sunday you'd lay it on the line for the guy. He really was an amazing motivator." Zolak said Parcells tested him often in his four seasons as the Patriots head coach and GM, oftentimes bringing in quarterbacks as potential backups to Drew Bledsoe. "I always took it as a challenge," said Zolak. "Guys like Jay Walker, Jay Barker ... I was probably making too much as a backup, but it made me work harder. I learned so much playing for him."