The story hit in late August, just days before the Fighting Irish opened their 2015 football campaign. It was a sobering look – literally and figuratively – into a life of addiction mixed in with an incredible run of athletic prowess at Notre Dame and in the NFL.
Tom Zbikowski – star safety, punt returner and captain at Notre Dame a decade earlier – had hit, in his words, “rock bottom…the bottom of the pit.”
The South Bend Tribune’s Mike Vorel revealed Zbikowski’s maze-like run on the fringes of self-destruction while forging a football life that saw him land in Baltimore as a third-round draft choice of the Ravens.
A six-year NFL run went through Indianapolis and Chicago, the latter of which is home after emerging from Buffalo Grove High School as a prep quarterback-turned-safety with the Irish.
“It was the start of some rough work,” said Zbikowski when asked about July 12, 2014 – the day he says he took his last drink of alcohol.
“I had to do it. It was the start of some soul-searching for me, but it was the best thing for me. I wouldn’t be as passionate and happy as I am if I hadn’t made that decision.”
Passionate and happy? And then some. There simply are not enough hours in the day to quench Zbikowski’s thirst for life.
He is a third-generation Chicago firefighter. He’s coaching high school football. He continues to train for future boxing events, which, according to his father, Ed Zbikowski, has always been his passion. Just last weekend, he took the LSAT with an eye on law school.
Six months since the South Bend Tribune’s story was released, Zbikowski, 30, has added the next chapter to a successful yet challenging journey through the trials and tribulations of “an adrenaline junkie.”
His grandfather on his mother’s side was a Chicago firefighter. So, too, was her brother/Zbikowski’s uncle. A cousin fights fires in Gary, Ind.
Former Notre Dame linebacker Courtney Watson called the life of a firefighter “the closest thing to being in a football locker room” because of the camaraderie and teamwork necessary to succeed collectively.
Zbikowski, a former teammate of Watson’s at Notre Dame, understands the sentiment.
“It’s almost a mixture of a locker room and a fraternity house – without the parties,” Zbikowski laughed. “You’re living together, you’re cooking together, you’re going on runs together, you’re sharing intimate details of each other’s lives…You really deal with a lot of stuff.
“It’s all a bunch of adrenaline junkies getting together.”
Zbikowski feels fortunate to have landed within Chicago’s firefighting brotherhood. The cousin fighting fires in Gary has to deal with, as Zbikowski puts its, “cowboy stuff.”
“They have like four or five fires a day,” Zbikowski said. “You’re not getting paid well, but you’re seeing a lot of action.”
There’s nothing Zbikowski loves more than a piece of the action. The television is on all the time at home, but he doesn’t really watch it. That includes Notre Dame and NFL football. Zbikowski has never played the role of spectator comfortably.
“I don’t watch sports or football now,” Zbikowski said. “I really never did. I grew up playing four sports, so there were no TVs to be turned on.”
One of those sports was boxing, which led to nearly 100 amateur fights. About to turn 31 in late May, he knows his window of opportunity is closing rapidly. A fight in his family’s “native land” – Krakow, Poland – looked to be on the docket a few weeks back, but is now up in the air.
Zbikowski continues to train, working extensively with Andrezej Fonfara – the “Polish Prince” – who is a former IBO light heavyweight champ and the current No. 2 in the weight classification.
Fonfara lives in Chicago, which has the third largest Pole population in the world behind Warsaw and New York. His facility in Schiller Park is just a 15-minute drive from Zbikowski’s home.
“I’ve been in the gym getting back in shape,” Zbikowski said. “I’m just looking to lock down a date on an event.
“I’m in shape. It would only take me a week or two to spar and sharpen up a little bit. I’d just need to knock the rust off to get back into the swing of things. I hope to start getting fights regularly.”
One of Zbikowski’s goals is to tie in with Notre Dame’s Bengal Bouts, an event first organized by Irish football coach Knute Rockne in the 1920s, which eventually evolved into a massive fund-raising event for the Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh.
Zbikowski’s long-time boxing background prevented him from participating in the Bengal Bouts during his Notre Dame days.
“I would like to have an exhibition or a fight associated with the Bengal Bouts,” Zbikowski said. “I never got to fight there. I would have to find an opponent. I would love for (Notre Dame graduate) Mike Lee to do it. I would take it easy on him. It would be a huge crowd.”
In the meantime, Zbikowski has his eyes open for opportunities to fight professionally.
“It’s a small community,” said Zbikowski of the boxing fraternity. “It’s a lot of word of mouth. I’ve got a furlough (from work) coming up, which will allow me to get out and spar in some other cities and start getting into fight camps and stuff like that.”
It was like a scene from “The Waterboy” as Bobby Bouchet – when he wasn’t crushing people on the defensive side of the football – discarded people with the football tucked under his arm as he sprinted toward the goal line.
Back in October of 2005 – in the historic game against USC that featured the infamous “Bush Push” -- Zbikowski broke three tackles over the final 20 yards of a 60-yard punt return for a score, epitomizing the toughness and determination that earmarked his Notre Dame career.
For Zbikowski, returning punts at Notre Dame – three of which went for scores – was his way of reliving his days as a quarterback at Buffalo Grove High School. So, too, were his interception returns. He had eight interceptions for the Irish, four of which went for touchdowns.
“Growing up in Chicago, I watched Jim McMahon and Walter Payton,” Zbikowski said. “As a quarterback, that’s the way I always wanted to play.
“I would never fair catch a punt and very rarely did you see one person tackle me. I don’t think that ever happened. Charlie (Weis) talked about how every 10 yards of a punt return was one less first down the offense needed. If you understand football, you understand how much each yard matters.
“Just to have the ball in my hands was like playing quarterback again.”
Since retiring from the NFL in 2013, the coaching bug has bitten Zbikowski. Last season, he worked as an assistant coach at Lake Forest (Ill.) High School. He’s looking into working with the young men at Solorio Academy in Chicago this fall.
While most would assume Zbikowski’s passion for coaching would be on the defensive side of the ball, the former prep quarterback’s heart is on offense.
“Defensively, I know the X’s and O’s and I played it on the highest level,” Zbikowski said. “But I was always an offensive player. I understand that type of game on the high school level and the importance of having a good athlete back there at the quarterback position. Slice and dice with your best athlete and try to put up points.”
Zbikowski said Solorio has a promising, young quarterback that could benefit from his tutelage.
“I’d really like to work with him,” he said.
Once he arrived at Notre Dame in 2003, Zbikowski’s days on offense were over. Tyrone Willingham recruited him for defense, a move that never thrilled him.
“I should have been an offensive player, but that’s how it goes,” Zbikowski said.
The quarterback pangs hit Zbikowski so hard during his freshman year at Notre Dame that he strongly considered leaving. In fact, he did leave the campus for a couple of days to contemplate his future.
Not only was Zbikowski frustrated to be on the defensive side of the football as a freshman, he simply couldn’t understand why the staff had chosen to preserve a year of eligibility.
“I know I was new to (safety), but I could have been playing corner, I could have been playing nickel…there’s no way I shouldn’t have been on the field somewhere,” Zbikowski said.
“I really missed playing quarterback more than anything. Northwestern and the schools that wanted me to play quarterback seemed extremely appealing. I took a step away, took a couple days, and decided to just stay positive and hope that the cream would rise to the top.”
Zbikowski also had a gravitational pull coming from the University in the form of linebacker Mike Goolsby and roommates Jeff Samardzija and Trevor Laws.
“Goolsby must have called me like 12 times,” Zbikowski chuckled. “I was very close with Samardzija and Trev. We’d gone through the first year together. You’re really starting to build relationships and friendships that are more important than your playing time or your football career. We considered ourselves family. That was why I came back more than anything.”
Zbikowski also credited then-Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti – now Urban Meyer’s man at Ohio State – as a big reason his hiatus from Notre Dame proved brief.
“He was the most underrated guy at Notre Dame,” said Zbikowski of Marotti.
It was influences like Marotti and Weis, as well as NFL coaches John Harbaugh, Chuck Pagano, Rex Ryan and Mark Carrier who have helped shape Zbikowski’s attitude toward coaching.
“As much as I loved playing football, it’s just a thrill to coach,” Zbikowski said. “I would like to be a head coach one day and work on the offensive side of the ball and develop that mindset.”
Whereas Zbikowski’s window of opportunity as a professional boxer is closing rapidly, there’s considerably more leeway with regard to coaching football. Not that he’s ready to walk away from the life of a firefighter.
All things being equal, however, he’d love to spend the rest of his working life coaching football with the ultimate goal above and beyond his current high school work.
“However long it takes,” said Zbikowski of achieving his goal of coaching at Notre Dame.
His familiarity with the Public and Catholic Leagues in Chicago ultimately could help punch the ticket back to his alma mater.
“Recruiting is a big part of it, and I think Notre Dame -- for the years they were successful under Lou Holtz – really understood the importance the Catholic League in Chicago,” Zbikowski said. “Now you’re starting to see some good players in the Public League.
“It would be nice to have a pipeline of some good athletes and players that can help out, but more importantly, guys that can appreciate to the full extent what it means to have the opportunity to play at Notre Dame.”
In addition to his desire to work on the offensive side, Zbikowski believes he has the characteristics – as well as the experiences – of a top-notch special teams coach.
“Special teams are the personality of the team,” Zbikowski said. “If you have a team that really cares, you’re going to have a special teams that are making plays and fighting for every yard because that is how important this part of the game is.”
Zbikowski credits his background in boxing and wrestling for his instincts on special teams.
“When you box and wrestle and participate in individual sports like that, you really have to learn the details, and when you pay attention to those things, the big picture is clearer,” Zbikowski said.
“If you understand the nuances of your position, you almost understand every position on the field because every position matters in the details of football.”
There is joy and enthusiasm in Zbikowski’s voice. Whereas phone calls were ignored in the past, he is quick to respond to familiar names and voices from the past.
The things he may have taken for granted when he was a young football player and before he realized the toll of addiction are no longer just brushed under the carpet.
Zbikowski is living his life with energy and enthusiasm. He approaches every day with eyes wide open, taking each moment and endeavor as another opportunity.
He awaits the results of the LSAT, looks forward to his next training session in the gym, continues to build a career as a firefighter, and anticipates the next chapter in his fledgling coaching career.
He doesn’t know what’s coming next, but the prospects motivate him. He’s thankful for all the people – coaches, family and friends – who have touched his life and cared enough to point out the error of his ways and shined a light on the proper path.
It’s as if Tom Zbikowski has just fielded a punt at his own 40-yard line against USC, weaving his way through traffic, finding daylight, and then running over the remaining obstacles between him and the goal line.
Zbikowski is running free again. The end zone is just up ahead, and like before, he’s determined to let nothing stop him from reaching paydirt.