DENVER (AP) -When John Elway finally hoisted a Super Bowl trophy in the twilight of his career, much of the credit went to running back Terrell Davis.
Yet the one protecting Elway's blind side and anchoring the stellar offensive line that opened all those holes for Davis was Gary Zimmerman, who will join Elway in the Pro Football Hall of Fame with his induction Saturday.
``Gary was the best left tackle I ever saw play the game,'' Elway told The Associated Press. ``His strength and athleticism were exceptional. He understood the game and was as tough as I have ever seen, also.
``He practically played his last year one-armed because of a bad shoulder. He was a classic left tackle and very deserving of his election to the Hall of Fame.''
Zimmerman will join Elway as the only Broncos enshrined in Canton, Ohio. Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Willie Brown played in Denver, too, but they had their best seasons elsewhere.
Zimmerman began his career with the L.A. Express of the USFL before reporting to the Minnesota Vikings, where he began a streak of 169 straight starts that lasted until 1996, when surgery sidelined him. He was traded to Denver in 1993 and retired after helping the Broncos win the Super Bowl following the 1997 season.
He was one of just a handful of players chosen for two NFL all-decade teams, the 1980s and 1990s; earned first- or second-team All-Pro honors eight times; and was selected to play in seven Pro Bowls.
At the team party following the Broncos' 31-24 Super Bowl win over heavily favored Green Bay, owner Pat Bowlen asked Zimmerman if he'd be back the next year to help defend the title.
``He said, 'No, Mr. B., I'd be stealing your money. I don't feel I can play anymore. I'm retiring,''' recounted Bowlen, who will present Zimmerman into the Hall.
``It was kind of a storybook ending there for me,'' Zimmerman said.
Going out on top, champagne and the Vince Lombardi trophy in hand.
``I thought I could change his mind,'' Bowlen said.
Nothing doing, Zimmerman retired to his land near Bend, Ore., to enjoy his family, the outdoors and all the memories of so many Sundays making sure his quarterback didn't get dirty.
``His man never touched the quarterback. That makes you a great player,'' Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. ``He just took great pride in not allowing his man to make plays. His man never did. He was just tough, he was hard-nosed, he loved to play the game.''
Shanahan said he remembers Zimmerman separating a shoulder against the Raiders one time and refusing to come out of the game.
``He said, 'When No. 7 comes out, I'll come out,''' Shanahan recounted. ``Old school, tough guy, never said anything to anybody, but just worked his rear end off.''
``Gary was the consummate pro,'' Bowlen said. ``He brought a discipline in here to the offensive line that we'd never seen before. He was the mainstay of that offensive line that won Super Bowl XXXII.''
Zimmerman was one of the original quiet men on Denver's offensive line who vowed to let their play on the field do the talking. Which makes it ironic that Zimmerman is having a hard time trimming his acceptance speech.
``For the first time in my life I have too much to say,'' he said.
Brian Habib, a former offensive lineman who played alongside Zimmerman in Minnesota and Denver, said Zimmerman had a rare combination of superb athleticism and an unrelenting work ethic.
``There are guys who try hard, like me, and I was relentless, but I wasn't a good athlete,'' Habib said. ``And there are guys who rely on their talents, but don't try hard to get better. Gary had more talent than anyone and also outworked everybody. That's what separates guys like Gary from the rest of us.''
Randall McDaniel, who played with Zimmerman on the Vikings' heralded lines of the late '80s and early '90s, called Zimmerman ``a technician. He did everything right. He wasn't the biggest tackle, but he did everything right.''
Not in Zimmerman's mind.
``I hear people who are bulimic, they see themselves as fat. When I was playing, I saw myself as not good enough, so I always tried to be better,'' Zimmerman said. ``I could watch people and think they did a good job but then watch myself, and I was like kind of embarrassed, so I tried to work harder.''
That's what paved his road to greatness.
``When you have that different mind-set that you've got to go out and prove yourself every day because you are such a perfectionist, it gives you a chance to get better,'' Shanahan said. ``You get an overachiever with great ability, and then you've got a Hall of a Fame player, and that's what we've got.''
Although Zimmerman played more seasons in Minnesota, he declared, ``my loyalty is to the Denver Broncos.''
He felt the Mile High City was a breath of fresh air after toiling for the Vikings' old 13-member ownership group, an awkward setup that fostered a less-than-friendly relationship with the hired help. Zimmerman thought it was that way everywhere until he landed in Denver with its frenzied football fan base and an owner who took the time to forge a friendship with his players.
``When I went to Denver it's like the dog who gets put to the pound and you get a new owner and the loyalty is to that new owner and the owner treats you good,'' Zimmerman said.
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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