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Found Chicago Sport.com


Knockout decision

One-time boxer Tom Zbikowski gives up his QB dream for Notre Dame, becomes an All-America safety


By Alvani Patel

Tribune staff reporter


December 25, 2005, 8:40 PM CST



SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- He may have been the first of them, the old coach whose eye for talent always had been unerring.


The first to notice the intensity, the first to peg the potential. The first to see that this young man, with eyes as piercing as a drill bit and a smile as sweet as autumn pie, would fit in perfectly at the school named for Our Lady.


George Kelly, a longtime Notre Dame assistant under coaches Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Gerry Faust, had made it his life's work to sand, stain and seal raw skill into measurable achievement. And he had made it his life's passion to perfect his craft at Notre Dame.


"When George met Tommy he said to me, 'This is a good kid who's going to be good at Notre Dame,'" said Pete Schivarelli, a former Irish player turned music manager.


Schivarelli was the kid's godfather, and for years he had hoped young Tommy would grow into a Notre Dame man. His former coach's approval convinced him more than ever that his godson belonged there.


George Kelly died in spring 2003. His funeral drew such Notre Dame luminaries as Parseghian, Joe Theismann and Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the distinguished former university president. Schivarelli, by then better known as manager of the rock group Chicago, also was on hand, along with his godson, a 17-year-old senior at Buffalo Grove High School named Tom Zbikowski, who would begin his freshman year at Notre Dame that fall.


Football roots


It would be easy, and obviously appealing to paint it as fate, to assume Zbikowski's remarkable success as a strong safety at Notre Dame was a foregone conclusion.


Zbikowski is a Catholic kid who during his earliest exploits in peewee football was known simply as "the little Polish kid" because his six-consonant, nine-letter last name was too long to fit across his then-narrow shoulders. Today he's a star at the most celebrated Catholic university in the country.


"It still amazes me," said E.J. Zbikowski, who is 3½ years older than baby brother Tom. "When I'm sitting at home watching the game, it's still kind of strange to step back and say that's my brother on TV. Everybody's talking about him."


Attention follows achievement. Zbikowski helped key Notre Dame's resurgence this season as a big-play defensive standout, finishing with 62 tackles, five interceptions and four touchdowns scored on punt or interception returns. His efforts helped the Irish (9-2) secure a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, where they will play Ohio State (9-2) on Jan. 2, and earned him recognition as a third-team All-American.


His most celebrated play may have come early in the second quarter of Notre Dame's Oct. 15 showdown with USC. Zbikowski fielded a punt at the Irish 40-yard line and brought it back 60 yards for a touchdown to break a 14-14 tie.


Watching in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, family friend Jim Caviezel—an actor best known for his role as Jesus in the movie "The Passion of the Christ"—saw his rosary beads break apart on the play.


"Nobody wanted me to stop praying, so they helped me collect the beads," said Caviezel, calling the play a confirmation of the powers of the rosary.


"It was for a great cause," he said of the scattered beads.


Focused on football


Zbikowski's success has come as a surprise to some of those closest to him.


"I never thought he would make it as a Division I football player," said his father, Ed Zbikowski. "I knew he was a good high school player. I knew he was fast. I thought he probably had a better future in boxing than in football.


"He was just determined to play Division I football."


An accomplished Golden Gloves boxer, Zbikowski was a quarterback in high school. But he has utilized his surprising speed (10.5 in the 100 meters as a high school junior) and stocky strength (he's 6 feet tall and 208 pounds) to make a seamless transition to safety. He's the anchor of an Irish secondary that has featured three new starters this season.


"I can't imagine what those guys would be doing without Tommy back there," defensive tackle Trevor Laws said. "Every play I hear him yelling out defenses and stuff."


Zbikowski also established himself as a dangerous punt returner, with an average of 14.58 yards per runback, 12th best in the nation.



Olympic potential?


And yet football may be his second-best sport. A competitive boxer since he was 9, Zbikowski owns a 65-13 record in 78 career bouts.


"Had he pursued boxing over football, I feel he would have made the Olympics in the heavyweight division," said John O'Brien, chief official for the Chicago Golden Gloves, who has known Zbikowski since he began boxing.


Zbikowski said the footwork he learned in boxing helped make him a shiftier runner in football. He also said he had no choice but to become an effective defensive fighter: His mother Sue told him he could say goodbye to boxing if he were ever knocked out.


"I've never taken a standing eight count," Zbikowski said. "I've never been knocked down, let alone knocked out. I say it's my defensive skills, but it's probably my thick skull that's allowed me to do that."


Zbikowski said there's very little similarity between conditioning for the two sports, but O'Brien said he takes a boxer's approach to football.


"In boxing they teach you how to transfer weight, so if you weigh 200 pounds, when that punch lands it's going to land with the force of 400," he said. "That's how he tackles: through the target. And if he's running with the ball, he runs through the target. He's aiming 5 feet beyond him."


The one game Zbikowski didn't take to was baseball. It's too slow-paced.


"Tommy's personality is not a baseball personality—he can't sit still," his mother said.


Zbikowski agrees.


"I'm too hyper," he said. "And I'm always doing something. I'm a big-time nail-biter."


Zbikowski sounds like his father and looks so remarkably like him that the resemblance "is pretty darned frightening," Sue said.


"I was going through some boxes of pictures that came from [Ed's] folks. I pulled out one picture and put it on the table. Tommy walked in and said, 'I don't remember you taking that picture. Where did it come from?'"


The picture was not of him but his father.


"So I know what I'm going to look like when I'm, like, 60," Zbikowski said with a mock shudder.


Father and son don't just look alike.


"Our personalities are like two peas in a pod," Tom Zbikowski said. "It's real scary."


So it should come as no surprise that both men felt an instant rapport with first-year Irish coach Charlie Weis.



I knew I wanted to play for a coach of that caliber and that personality because that's what I was used to growing up," Zbikowski said. "That's kind of my personality."


Ed Zbikowski said: "I felt comfortable when I met him, like I'd known this guy my whole life."



The Zbikowskis made an impression on Weis as well.


"[Tom] was one of the few people I saw eye to eye with," Weis said. "I was looking for a certain temperament, and he had it already. He was one guy you didn't have to beat that into him. That's how he was already."


Early days


Zbikowski's love for football was evident early. When he was little, his mother recalls, the only thing that could keep him still was sitting him down in front of a football game on television.


He was born in 1985, the season of the Bears' only Super Bowl title, and although he's obviously too young to remember them, their legacy made an impression. He wears jersey No. 9 in honor of Super Bowl quarterback Jim McMahon.


Zbikowski came by his Notre Dame allegiance later in life.


"The way I got hooked was because my brother was a Florida State fan, and the '93 game [between the second-ranked Irish and No. 1 Florida State] was the first Notre Dame game I ever watched," Zbikowski said.


The Irish won 31-24, and a fan was born.


"I got hooked on them after that because I had to cheer against my brother," Zbikowski said.


Yet the decision to attend Notre Dame was anything but a no-brainer. One recruiting service rated him the No. 2 option quarterback in the country, and several schools recruited him to play quarterback. Going to Notre Dame would entail a position switch.


"It was tough," he said. "Having the ball on every play, I got used to that in high school. I played some safety, but I didn't go to summer camps or anything and try to learn defensive back. I kind of wanted to keep the ball in my hands."


His sister Kristen, a former college softball player, recalls it as a "very confusing" period for him. But she had a heart-to-heart talk with him while he was weighing his options and "that night was when he decided to go to Notre Dame."


Zbikowski didn't see the field in his freshman year but broke through in the third game of his sophomore year against Michigan State last season. He made a team-high nine tackles, had an interception to set up a touchdown and brought back a fumble 75 yards for another score in a 31-24 victory.


"When he had that Michigan State game last year we were thinking, 'Tommy will probably never have a game like that again,'" Kristen said.


He proved them wrong, over and over again. He was just getting started.


"For me it's such a vicarious thrill because I've never had children and it's the closest I've ever been to having somebody at Notre Dame," Schivarelli said.


He has only one regret.


"George Kelly pegged him right away," Schivarelli said. "I wish he could have made it to see the kid's success."



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Guest SirJohn
:D Irish4life I think we are incredibly blessed having so many players with just that. Awesome storys. :) Instead of just thinking he's pretty dar good one can think WOW! :)
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Guest SirJohn

:) One more year... I did read after a game ND played as he went off to the tunnel the student section started chanting Zibby, Zibby. The story (will try to re-find it) said it gave him chills.


I thought of the movie Rudy. "Rudy! Rudy!" :)

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