Goodbye John Zook, a classic Falcon

John Zook (right) strikes a pose with fellow Falcons defensive end Claude Humphrey in 1972.  (AJC Archive/Charles R. Pugh/staff)

Credit: Charles R. Pugh

Credit: Charles R. Pugh

John Zook (right) strikes a pose with fellow Falcons defensive end Claude Humphrey in 1972. (AJC Archive/Charles R. Pugh/staff)

Another of those classic players from the Falcons’ past – another name that can’t help but summon a smile from those pioneer fans who rallied around guys who played hard without the reward of glory – is gone. Former defensive end John Zook died early Saturday morning in Kansas at the age of 72.

Zook may not have been among the greatest generation of Falcons players – in his seven seasons with the team (1969-75), the Falcons averaged a little less than six wins a season. When he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he played four more seasons, the Falcons were still three years removed from their first playoff appearance. None of the Falcons’ struggles, though, were Zook’s doing.

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In an arbitrary AJC ranking of the top 50 players in Falcons history a couple of years back, Zook just made that list. No. 71 in your program, he was No. 47 among that all-time 50.

“The Zooker” as he was popularly known, combined with Hall of Fame end Claude Humphrey to provide the Falcons a fearsome pass-rush combination from both sides of the line. During the nine-win 1973 season, the best the team had known since its 1966 founding, the two of them were Pro Bowl teammates.

Humphrey’s remembrances Sunday contained a message that is particularly poignant now in these divisive times.

“The most fun I had the whole time I played football was the time John and I had that (’73) season when we were both selected to the Pro Bowl,” Humphrey told the AJC Sunday. “We had it down pat, man, I tell you. We figured out we were better together than we were individually.”

“He and I got along better than I’ve been able to get along with anybody,” Humphrey added. “I guess because we both had to work hard to get where we were going.”

Both Zook and Humphrey played in an era before the sack stat was a thing. Tackles weren’t as carefully chronicled as now. It was a time when you just knew a player was good by watching him, you didn’t require numerical confirmation.

Falcons defensive end John Zook chases Chicago Bears quarterback Gary Huff. 

Credit: Charles Jackson / AJC

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Credit: Charles Jackson / AJC

Falcons fans and his teammates appreciated the way Zook was always there – he missed zero games in seven seasons regardless of the pains he suffered – and played with the determination and singular purpose of a combine at harvest time.

Growing up on a farm in Kansas, that was natural enough. His playing attitude was clear from his college days at Kansas, where his coach, Pepper Rogers, declared that Zook "was the most full-speed player on every snap that you could imagine."

The Falcons’ former long-time athletic trainer Jerry Rhea, from 1969-94, remembered: “In the day before we had year-round training in the league, he would always go back in June and help harvest on his dad’s farm. And he came in (to training camp) in better shape than most.”

“He was an old farm boy who went to work. He showed up every day,” Rhea said.

“Back when they were bringing in all the new Nautilus equipment that was supposed to make everyone big and tough,” said former Falcons running back Harmon Wages, “I remember the Zooker saying, ‘You guys should get behind a plow sometime.”

“He was just a fun-loving, quiet guy,” said Falcons Ring of Honor center Jeff Van Note, who came to the Falcons the same year as Zook (who was drafted in the fourth round in 1969 by the L.A. Rams but then traded to Philadelphia and then to the Falcons before he ever played a game). “He and Claude were a great combination. We had a very good defense; it was a surprise we weren’t a better football team.”

After his football days, Zook spent his retirement back home in Wichita, and remained close to his three brothers and a big collection of nieces and nephews. His younger brother Dean Zook testified to John’s love of hunting and of working around the family farm.

After a long battle with cancer, Zook opted to cease treatment at the start of the year. At a family gathering in late January, Dean Zook remembered, he passed out old game balls and other memorabilia from his time with the Falcons and the Cardinals to his nieces and nephews. “It was a great party,” Dean said. As late as Friday, just hours before his death, a small group of Falcons teammates connected with Zook on a Zoom conference call to say their good-byes.

“We’ll always remember that wonderful, happy-go-lucky attitude of his,” said old friend and a quarterback for the Falcons in 1971, Leo Hart.

“He was more than a friend. He was a teammate,” Wages said.

Zook died early Saturday morning, Dean said, and will be buried in a family plot outside Larned, Kan.

Zook’s Falcons career contains one asterisk, having recorded the first safety in franchise history in 1971. The defensive end also had four interceptions, three in his first two seasons.

Perhaps the greatest tribute lives in the words of the Hall of Famer Humphrey, who all these years later is still a little miffed about the Falcons trading away Zook.

“After John left, I had a good year (with the Falcons), but it wasn’t as much fun as when we played together,” Humphrey said. “I hate they sent John away. I don’t know where they could have found anyone better.”