With the recent addition of unofficial sacks to the Pro Football Reference, which we discussed this morning, John Zook gets his due on the franchise sack leaderboard. In seven years in Atlanta, Zook formed a fearsome defensive end duo with Claude Humphrey in the 1970s, with the duo accounting for well over 100 (unofficial) sacks from 1969-1975.
While Humphrey is justifiably in the Hall of Fame, though, Zook is a franchise great who rarely gets enough credit for the caliber of work he did. We’ll make some amends for that one today by remembering the long-armed pass rusher and his stellar seven years in Atlanta, as well as his post-Atlanta stint with the Cardinals.
Let’s take a fresh look at Zook.
Everything about Zook’s path to the Falcons is interesting. A Kansas native, he was a standout for the University of Kansas, where coach Pepper Rodgers said he was the “most full-speed player on every snap that you could imagine” and managed 202 tackles in his college career. That production for a school that was not a collegiate powerhouse got him enough notice to entice the Rams to pick him in the 4th round of the 1969 NFL Draft.
He would never suit up for the Rams, as they traded him to the Eagles alongside future star receiver Harold Jackson, who led the league twice in receiving yardage. The Eagles then turned around and flipped him to Atlanta for linebacker Jim Purnell, who never suited up for Atlanta. The Falcons had a need for an end to start opposite Claude Humphrey, who was coming off an impressive rookie season, and thus Zook found himself starting 13 of 14 games in his rookie season. The way he played likely made the Rams and Eagles immediately regret not keeping him.
Zook posted 9.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and a fumble recovery in 1969, with he and Humphrey terrorizing opposing quarterbacks as Atlanta won six games. The Zooker, as he was affectionately known, would never post fewer than 7 sacks in a season and was a frequent playmaker against the run for a Falcons defense that was let down over and over again by a weak offense. For his career, he’d earn 2nd Team All-NFC honors twice alongside a Pro Bowl nod and one stint on the 2nd Team All-Pro squad, turning a borderline insulting start to his career into a rock steady run.
That came in 1973, but that wasn’t even his statistically most impressive season. Zook would post 9 sacks, an interception and two fumble recoveries in 1970, a career-high 11 sacks and Atlanta’s first franchise safety in 1971, 7.5 sacks and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in 1972, 8 sacks and a fumble recovery in 1973, 7 sacks and a pick in 1974, and 9 sacks and two fumbles recoveries in his final season in Atlanta in 1975. He would finish his career second on the team’s (again, unofficial) sack leaderboard behind Humphrey, a player he forged a deep bond with over their shared seven seasons with the Falcons.
“The most fun I had the whole time I played football was the time John and I had that season when we were both selected to the Pro Bowl. We figured out we were better together than we were individually,” Humphrey told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
That 1973 2nd Team All-Pro nod is impressive considering Zook was overlapping with players like defensive end Bill Stanfill (18.5 sacks) and the legendary Carl Eller (13), not to mention Humphrey on his own team. He would earn a Pro Bowl nod for it, as well, but his production could have gotten him that nod virtually any year if the NFC hadn’t been loaded with great ends like Humphrey.
His stellar, consistent career would wrap after 1975, a year Humphrey missed due to a significant injury. The Falcons picked up a first round pick by swapping him to the St. Louis Cardinals, where he posted a combined 17 sacks over four seasons, three as a full-time starter. He didn’t miss a game during his entire time in Atlanta, proving to be one of the most durable and productive defensive ends in team history, and finishing with 61 career sacks for Atlanta.
He led a quiet post-playing career after hanging it up before the 1980 season, earning a spot in the Kansas football Ring of Honor and the Kansas Sports Hall of Fame and otherwise electing to spend time with family and work on the family’s farm. Zook died last June, with eulogies from the time remembering him as a kind man and Falcons great who lived up to Rodgers’ praise about being a full-speed player at all times. With the addition of the unofficial sack numbers to Pro Football Reference, I’m hopeful it’ll be easier to draw attention to the consistent work Zook did as one of the few true greats to play defensive end for the Falcons.