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Getting a chance

Justin Schuver | Tuesday, September 7, 2004

When Tom Zbikowski rushed onto the field with the rest of the starters during the first quarter of Notre Dame’s 20-17 loss to BYU Saturday, it was a surprise to nearly everyone, except Zbikowski.”They told me earlier in the week to get ready, and we started going over some plays and by Thursday I was getting all the reps in practice,” Zbikowski said.Zbikowski, who was recruited in 2003 as a quarterback out of Buffalo Grove (Ill.) High School and switched to defensive back upon his arrival with the Irish, was believed to be in competition with senior Quentin Burrell for the starting spot at free safety this season.Burrell started at free safety in the Brigham Young game, but Zbikowski still saw the field as the starter at strong safety.Zbikowski played well, finishing the game with five tackles.Stepping on the field as a Notre Dame starter was the end of a long journey for Zbikowski, who threw for 1,382 yards and 11 touchdowns and rushed for 1,287 yards and 23 touchdowns his senior year as Buffalo Grove’s starting quarterback. He was named the Chicago area player of the year as a senior by the Chicago Sun-Times, and named the Gatorade Player of the Year for the state of Illinois.However, Zbikowski’s awards weren’t just limited to local accolades. He was named 29th on an ESPN list of the 100 top recruits nationally in 2003, and named a USA Today first-team All-American.The national spotlight also focused on Zbikowski as he documented his recruiting experience in a daily diary he wrote for ESPN.com. In the end, Zbikowski selected Notre Dame over Nebraska and Iowa, primarily because the Irish were willing to let Zbikowski change positions from quarterback to defense.As an avid boxer, Zbikowski was also allured by a unique facility on the campus.”But nothing was more impressive than the boxing gym under coach Willingham’s office,” Zbikowski wrote in his Dec. 19, 2002 article for Blue Chip Diaries – the series he wrote for ESPN.com “I heard they had a gym somewhere around there, but nobody told me about it. So finally, before I left Sunday afternoon, I asked where the boxing gym was. Sure enough, it was right in the Joyce Center.”Although Zbikowski did not play as a reserve safety in 2003, he performed well during the 2004 Blue-Gold game, picking off a pass and was named the Defensive Player of the Game.He went into the summer expecting to compete with Burrell for the starting free safety spot. When an injury sidelined Burrell for most of the practice season, Zbikowski began receiving the majority of repetitions.Zbikowski caused some controversy and speculation when he did not show up for two-a-day workouts on Aug. 20-21, citing non-football-related personal issues. Rumors swirled that Zbikowski was planning to transfer, but the sophomore put an end to that speculation when he returned to practice Aug. 22.”I wasn’t making contacts with any others,” Zbikowski told Mike Frank of Irisheyes.com at the time. “I never left the team. I left the University, I never left the team.” After the game Saturday, Zbikowski said that the personal issues that caused him to miss the practices this summer were in the past and that he no longer wanted to discuss the situation. “It’s just left my mind,” he said. “I’ve been just trying to concentrate on the team. We’re going to be a good ball club. We didn’t show how good we are, but next week we’re going to show everyone how good we are.”