Jim Zenner has been on the go all week, feverishly preparing for his first game as PBL High School football coach. Still, he's heard that deep and familiar voice at times, guiding him from the heavens.
He's heard it in regard to the ceremony prior to tonight's home game against rival Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley: "We're not here for the pomp and circumstance stuff. We're here to play football."
He's heard it every time emotion and reflection threatened to override preparation:
"A lot of things can happen, and sometimes the things are not so good. But you have to be able to fight through that stuff, because this is what we do. Our job is to get the kids ready."
Jerry Zimmerman died last November. His words live on in Zenner, PBL's offensive coordinator under Zimmerman for 10 highly productive seasons.
They have reminded Zenner to put the team above all else, that no one - even a man you loved like a father - is more important than "the kids."
So Zenner has tried, more than we could know. He has tried to prepare his players the way Zimmerman did during homecoming week, or for a hyped-up playoff game:
"It's important, and you know these things are going on. But our part of the deal is to win the game."
There's that voice again.
A lot of people will hear it tonight. When "Gerald Zimmerman Field at I-57 Stadium" is dedicated in a 6:45 ceremony, the stands will be packed with those touched by Zimmerman in nearly 40 years as a teacher, coach and athletic director at Paxton/PBL.
Zenner will be on the field, his stomach churning and mind racing. Zenner hasn't coached a game since 1998, having walked away when Zimmerman retired. He's never coached one without "Zim" at the helm.
"To tell you the truth - and I'm hoping it stays this way - I think it will be more at the end of the game that it hits me," Zenner said. "I've always found that you do your worrying beforehand, and once the game starts, it's about the fastest two hours you'll ever have.
"I'm thinking that during the game, I won't be thinking too much about Zim. But I know I will be beforehand, and after, too."
Zenner is back on the sideline, in part, because of a conversation with Zimmerman last fall. Shortly before he died, Zimmerman told Zenner he'd like to see him get involved in the football program again. A few days later, Zimmerman's wife, Barb, encouraged him to do so as well.
Zenner initially offered to help out in any capacity he could. But when Jeff Graham resigned as head coach to become principal at PBL Junior High, Zenner applied and was hired in April.
While he seeks to focus on Xs, Os and GCMS, this is largely a labor of love, especially tonight.
"I think Barb (Zimmerman) would consider Jim family," said John Overstreet, PBL's athletic director. "It will be emotional for him. It will be emotional for a lot of people.
"Basically, if you went somewhere in Illinois and they knew you were from Paxton, they would ask you how Zim was doing. He set the standard that I'm trying to follow, and I think all of us are … to make PBL the best and have people respect it."
Zimmerman's teams commanded respect. The Panthers were 88-38 in his 12 seasons as head coach, making the playoffs 10 straight years. He was an assistant coach for 22 seasons before that, helping then-Paxton to second place in Class 2A in 1984.
He nearly reached the 2A championship game twice as a head coach. PBL lost to Carlinville, 20-18, in the 1993 playoff semifinals and to Hampshire, 7-6, in the 1995 semis.
Kenny Lee was a star offensive lineman on the 1993 squad. He'll be in Paxton tonight, remembering a coach as much for what he was off the field as on.
"He was so positive in the hallways and always giving out high fives and pumping his fist," said Lee, now an assistant principal at Kingsley Junior High in Normal. "He was a great teacher. He taught science and was A.D. and I had him for P.E., too. He just always showed class.
"He wore a shirt and tie most of the time and he relayed that to us … that it was all about showing class. There was never any individuality. He got on you if you had long hair, and there were no bandanas. It was always a team effort."
Zimmerman preached it, with words that hit home, made sense.
He is gone now, but they remain.
Clear as ever.