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Tom Zbikowski: The will to win

Chris Hine and Chris McGrady | Thursday, November 15, 2007

Irish safety Tom Zbikowski has had many memorable moments in his career: sporting the “Mohawk” in 2006, scoring on a punt return during Notre Dame’s 34-31 loss to USC in 2005 and the Michigan State “grab-and-go” fumble recovery in 2004 when Zbikowski pried the ball from the hands of Spartans running back Jason Teague and returned it for a touchdown.

When one thinks of Zbikowski’s legacy, these are the recollections that will come to mind. His career had both highs and lows, but one thing that never changed was his will to win.

Zbikowski was a star prep player at Buffalo Grove High School in the suburbs of Chicago as a quarterback and safety. He was named the Gatorade player of the year for Illinois and was a USA Today high school All-American. He entered Notre Dame as a highly regarded recruit, ready to break out as a contributor. That’s when things ground to a halt.

Zbikowski sat out his freshman season. As his first collegiate year wore on, he found himself struggling with his role on the team.

“When you’re not playing, even though you have a role on the team, whether it’s scout team or anything else, you just don’t feel like you are really part of the team,” Zbikowski said. “It’s because you can’t help out at all. That was the hardest thing.”

Zbikowski even thought about transferring during the summer but ultimately ended up back at the program.

Though his hopes were momentarily grounded by not playing, he never lost his drive to succeed.

“I was motivated. I would work out by myself or with other players who were red-shirted,” Zbikowski said. “I would do anything to get on the field any way I could.”

After a year of hard work, things quickly began to look up for the hard-hitting safety with a nose for big plays.

During his sophomore season, he found himself on the field for the first time and started all 12 games. Not one to settle for mediocrity, Zbikowski was unsatisfied simply being a role player that the coaches simply plugged into the defensive starting lineup. He hoped to stand out on the field – and that is just what he did.

After a few solid games, including a five-tackle performance against BYU in his first collegiate start, Zbikowski had the first of many game-changing performances on Sept. 18, 2004. Zbikowski broke onto the national stage with the force of a sledgehammer, creating a fumble and returning it 75 yards for a touchdown. He added a team-high nine tackles and intercepted a pass. Just as he did after ripping the ball from Teague, Zbikowski took his opportunity and ran with it, never pausing to look back.

In 2005, Zbikowski lived up to high expectations. He returned two interceptions and two punts for touchdowns and was fourth on the team in tackles. His biggest punt return was a 60-yard zig-zagging touchdown strike to go up 21-14 against then-No. 1 USC.

When asked to describe the adrenaline rush he gets from returning punts, Zbikowski is almost at a loss for words.

“When you go back to take a punt, you’re tired from the defensive series. You have 21 guys in front of you, and if you muff it or drop it, there’s 80,000 people watching you. They all have their eyes on you,” Zbikowski said, “But once you catch it, your mind just goes blank. You just react.”

His play on the field was as impressive as his performance off the field – as a professional boxer. Zbikowski, who had fought for years and was a Golden Gloves boxer, squared off against Robert Bell, a self-proclaimed Ohio State fan, in Madison Square Garden. Forty-nine seconds after the opening bell chimed, Zbikowski then chimed Bell, sending the portly boxer to the mat as a victim of a technical knockout. Zbikowski’s boxing career may seem like an outlet for his stress, but it’s anything but that.

“I’ve been [boxing] for so long, it’s just part of my life. It’s not going out there and hitting a bag and just having fun,” Zbikowski said. “There’s nothing like stepping in a ring and knowing you’re about to get in a fight.”

The attributes of a boxer – stamina, courage and strength – served Zbikowski well on the football field as he entered his senior year as a preseason third-team All-American on a team picked as a national championship contender. While the season didn’t end the way he hoped, Zbikowski came up with a solid year, finishing third on the team with 79 tackles and returning a punt for a touchdown.

But his weight was somewhat higher than it should have been – because of boxing – and he was looking for a return to form in 2007.

Zbikowski’s decision to come back for his fifth year has obviously not gone as he planned, with the Irish sporting a 1-9 record going into his final home game. Despite the record, Zbikowski is here to win, make no mistake about it.

“I hate losing. I’m still going be fighting through all the tough times and do whatever it takes to get on the winning sign,” Zbikowski said.

The only thing that tempers the losses is having the support of his teammates.

“It’s obviously not fun losing, but there is a great group of guys in there that makes it better,” Zbikowski said. “It helps to have guys like that.”

Zbikowski was famously roommates with former All-American wide receiver Jeff Samardzija. As one of the nine holdovers in the fifth-year class, Zbikowski has had to become close to the younger players, something that hasn’t been difficult.

“It is like a second generation of friends,” Zbikowski said.

From his humbling beginnings as a non-playing freshman to becoming a team captain and All-American candidate, Zbikowski’s career has traveled full-circle. Irish fans may remember him for different reasons – watching him streak up the field on the way to another punt return, laying a bone-crushing hit in the secondary or patrolling the sidelines as an oddly-haired enforcer – but one recurrent theme is his role as one of the most exciting and electric players in recent Notre Dame history. And how does he wants his legacy to be remembered?

“My legacy?” Zbikowski said. “A playmaker, that no matter what the circumstances were, was always playing hard and giving it 100 percent.”