Nov. 2, 2006
By Katie Stuhldreher
Tom Zbikowski is a tough guy. Just ask the 2004 Michigan State offense. In that game, the 213-pound senior safety recorded a 22-yard interception return for a touchdown, a strip and 75-yard run for another touchdown, a tackle for loss, and a fumble recovery. Or last year’s Tennessee offense, which saw him make nine tackles, including a quarterback sack and two touchdowns via a 33-yard interception return and a 78-yard punt return to Zbikowski.
Or you could ask Robert Bell, the 32-year-old, 6-2, 227-pound professional boxer who faced Zbikowski in the young football star’s first pro boxing match last June at Madison Square Garden. It only took Zbikowski 49 seconds to record a sensational knockout victory amidst chants of “Tommy Z” throughout the Garden.
If you’re still not convinced, you can ask Zbikowski’s parents, who saw their son through numerous childhood injuries. Before Zbikowski reached age six, he had severed part of his pinkie finger, fallen from the garage rafters and smashed his face on a lamppost while riding his bike. But none of that discouraged the young, aspiring athlete. In fact, it only made him hungry for more.
“I started playing football when I was five-years old,” says Zbikowski, who explains that he fibbed about his age in order to play organized football with older boys. “My brother played, so I pretty much had to. I always played with older boys. I was the youngest so I think growing up that’s how I got so tough.”
Just a few years later, Zbikowski was not only learning to tackle in football practice, but also learning to thrown punches in the boxing ring.
“I picked up boxing a few months before I turned nine. My first fight came when I was 10 years old,” Zbikowski says.
Zbikowski took up boxing as a result of his older brother, E.J., too. E.J. was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor when the boys were still young. When E.J. recovered from his stint in the hospital, his doctors advised him to take up sports and the brothers learned to box together.
In his hometown of Arlington Heights, Ill., Zbikowski racked up an impressive amateur boxing record, winning 75 of his 90 amateur fights. Earlier this year, he competed in a charity bout to raise money for cystic fibrosis in Merrionette Park. Zbikowski’s impressive win that night attracted attention, and soon after that fight Bob Arum, the CEO of Top Rank Boxing, began courting the Irish safety.
Zbikowski’s father, Ed, told the Chicago Daily Herald, “There was somebody from pay-per-view and they said, ‘This would be great to get this kid on.’ Next thing you know, Bob Arum wanted to get Tommy on his card. It was boom, boom, boom. Things just fell into place.”
Zbikowski discussed the opportunity to fight in Madison Square Garden last June 10th with Irish head coach Charlie Weis, who gave his support and blessing for the pro boxing match. Zbikowski said the encouragement of his teammates and coaches gave him the confidence he needed to succeed in his pro debut.
That night, Zbikowski also had the full support of his family. E.J. acts as his manager and his older sister, Kristen, served as his public relations director during his amateur years. Kristen, along with Zbikowski’s mother, Sue, and his father, respond to the massive volume of fan mail that he receives.
“It was really exciting. All the guys came out to watch me, I mean everybody. There were too many to name. I was so grateful for that support,” says Zbikowski.
Although Bell, Zbikowski’s opponent, was more experienced, taller, and heavier, Zbikowski’s training as a defensive back and strong safety on the football field gave him the advantage of quicker footwork. In fact, during training for his pro boxing debut, he also spent three weeks at Cris Carter’s FAST Program last spring to improve his speed on the field – and subsequently, in the ring. In front of a near-sellout crowd in Madison Square Garden, Zbikowski recorded a knockout in a mere 49 seconds.
“It was my pro debut and it was really exciting,” says Zbikowski of the experience.
Although excited about his first pro boxing performance, Zbikowski explains that football is his first priority right now.
Balancing the two sports is nothing new for the young, but seasoned athlete. While attending Buffalo Grove High School in the Chicago suburbs, Zbikowski trained as an amateur boxer while excelling as the quarterback of his football team. He threw for 1,382 yards and 11 touchdowns and ran for 1,287 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior.
With this impressive record, Zbikowski received numerous, tempting recruiting offers, including an invitation from Nebraska to come in as a quarterback. However, Zbikowski decided that Notre Dame was the place for him, even if it meant giving up his role as a quarterback.
“I knew this place was right for me. I really liked the guys on the team and the other incoming freshman recruits that I met. I connected well with the coaches and wanted a school with a good academic program. So, this was a good fit,” says Zbikowski, who also enjoys attending a university so close to his hometown.
As a freshman, the hard-hitting defensive back red-shirted in order to take time to learn his new position on the defensive side of the ball. Zbikowski trained as a defensive back and free safety under the guidance of former Irish defensive back Vontez Duff.
“Duff and [Mike] Goolsby really helped me out a lot, especially when I was learning a new position. They really led by example and I want to be able to pass that onto the younger guys as a senior. It’s nice to have that help from the more experienced guys on the team,” says Zbikowski.
Despite the difficulty of the transition, Zbikowski proved a quick study. He became a leader on the Irish defense by the 2004 season and earned third team All-American honors in 2005, when he helped lead the Irish to a 9-3 season and the Fiesta Bowl.
This year, Zbikowski is working hard on the field to get his team to a major bowl game and equally hard in the classroom to complete his degree in the College of Arts and Letters. He is set to finish his double major in sociology and computer applications in May.
Zbikowski says, “Playing football and dealing with the course load here isn’t easy. I’ll say that much. But I think it really builds character and helps me keep working hard.”
When asked if he might put these degrees to use after graduation, he says, “I haven’t really put much thought that far ahead yet. We’ll see.”
Zbikowski has also become somewhat of a minor celebrity on campus, sporting his new Mohawk hairstyle this year. Many students and Irish fans have also asked the barber for a Mohawk to emulate the Irish senior.
“I really didn’t know it was going to be this big of a deal. I’ve done it before. There was no real reason for doing it. I just wanted to change things up, I guess,” explains Zbikowski, who first tried the Mohawk hairstyle in the third grade.
In what little free time he has, Zbikowski enjoys hanging out with his teammates. He is especially close with senior wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, who says that the two of them enjoy playing video games.
Samardzija remarks, “We are two of the most competitive guys on the team, so sometimes that comes out. There are times when we can’t finish a game because a controller gets thrown or broken.”
Zbikowski agrees with his friend saying, “Yeah, it gets pretty emotional sometimes. But we’re very close and I’m grateful for that.”
As a senior, Zbikowski is still deciding if he will use his last year of eligibility and don the famed Irish blue and gold for a fifth year. He said he is weighing all his options, including a possible chance to play in the NFL or focus on his professional boxing career.
Zbikowski admits that with his numerous post-graduate options, the final decision of which path to take will be a difficult one. Yet, rated by his teammates as one of the toughest guys on the team, he knows he is equipped to deal with anything, no matter how tough.
“I’m not sure yet what I’m going to do. The NFL is definitely an option, but I still have a year of eligibility left. I’m talking with Coach Weis and respect his advice and guidance. We’re talking about what we think is the best thing for me. It’s something we’ll have to discuss more at the end of this season, but I’m not sure yet where I’ll end up,”