Hall of Fame Personalities

Chris Zorich has come a long way. From the meanest streets of Chicago to the University of Notre Dame to the NFL to philanthropy to law school and now to the College Football Hall of Fame. Zorich was one of 12 Division-IA players and the 42nd from Notre Dame to be enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame on Saturday night.

The Enshrinement Class of 2008 also included former Boston College quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie, former USC linebacker Richard Wood, former Oregon wide receiver and TV personality Ahmad Rashad, former Texas A&M Kingsville and Minneosta Vikings star John Randle and Penn State head coach Joe Paterno.

"I'm ready to die and go to heaven right now. This is great," Zorich said before being enshrined on Saturday night. "I'm living the life, the dream of every rabid college football fan out there. This is the epitome of my athletic career."

Regarded as one of the meanest players on the field during his playing career, Zorich has dedicated his life after football to helping others.

From the day that Zorich enrolled at the University of Notre Dame, it was obvious that there were two Chris Zorich's: Chris Zorich the player and Chris Zorich the person. Chris Zorich the player was too intense in practice even for Lou Holtz, who kicked him out more than once. But Chris Zorich the person could be seen on the west end of campus feeding ducks at St. Mary's Lake.

Zorich would read the poetry of Robert Frost off the field, but his on-field demeanor caused his high school coach to present him with a plaque that read "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil cause I'm the meanest son of a bitch in the valley."

Zorich once admitted to a Sports Illustrated reporter that he would pick flowers for his girlfriend before saying that his goal as a player was "to knock the quarterback's head off, then watch it go rolling down the field."

In order to understand Zorich, you need to understand where he came from and the most influential figure in his life, his mother Zora. Growing up in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Chicago was rough for Zorich, but his mother kept him straight. Zorich grew up in a section of the city that was dominated by gangs like the Blackstone Rangers, but with his mother's urging he avoided that lifestyle.

"Growing up in a single-parent family we had a lot of challenges. I grew up in an area that really wasn't conducive to a white woman raising a biracial child," he said. "Often times she was mugged, people broke into our house."

Diabetes prevented Zora from working and although the family received public assistance money, many times it was not nearly enough.

"A lot of the time the money that we got for the month wouldn't last. So there were times when we had to go through the garbage for food," Zorich recalled. "Seeing her determination, her discipline of doing what she needed to do to allow her child to survive put life in perspective for me at a very young age.

"You're talking about being nine or ten and thinking about how to get your mom out of the neighborhood. 10-year-olds shouldn't be thinking about that."

Zorich knew that he was going to make his mother proud even before he knew how. He attended Chicago Vocational High School, the same high school as Dick Butkus, but Zorich did not know what an athletic scholarship even was when he got to high school.

"I went to a high school that was for vocations. Auto mechanics, metal welding those were the classes that I took because I thought that I was going to get a job to get my mom out of the neighborhood," he said.

Before high school, Zorich had never played sports because his mother did not want him to get hurt and refused to sign any permission slips. But when CVS football coach John Potocki saw the 250-pound freshman, he knew he had to get him to come out for football. Potocki became a father figure for Zorich and shaped him into one of the nation's finest high school linebackers.

"My idea was, ‘Hey if I can con a school to give me a scholarship then that might be even better,'" he said. "Then the University of Notre Dame was interested in me. I had no idea where the hell Notre Dame was, I thought it was in France. When I finally find out that it was 90 minutes away, I realized that this might be a place for me. When I found out that the graduation rate for athletes was 98.98%, I realized that if I went here I could get a better job coming out of college."

While Potocki was a big man with a large presence, Holtz was able to reach Zorich on a different level.

"Coach Holtz probably weighs 80 pounds soaking wet with 50-pound weights in his pocket," Zorich joked. "I had a chance to spend some time with him when I was a senior in high school and I came down for a visit. He got me excited about doing homework and I figured if an individual can get me excited about doing homework than I would love to play for the guy."

The academics did not come easy, but Zorich gave it all he had and was able to succeed in the classroom.

"It was very hard for me academically here my first year so I realized that I had to pay attention to school and my academics if I really wanted to have the opportunity that I had," he said.

As far as the football field, Zorich's accomplishments at Notre Dame were plenty.

He was moved to the defensive line and became the starting nose tackle on the 1988 National Championship team, recording 70 tackles and 3.5 sacks as a sophomore. He graduated with 219 tackles, including 21 for a loss. Zorich was an All-American in 1989 and 1990, a unanimous selection as a senior and was the 1990 Lombardi Award winner as the nation's top lineman.

Zorich said that for him playing with aggression was the only way to make it.

"I was trying to survive. There were guys out there twice my size," he said. "I knew that football was an opportunity to let out aggression, but when you walked away from the field you couldn't go out knocking heads and stuff."

Zorich's final game at Notre Dame was the 1991 Orange Bowl defeat to Colorado, the infamous "Clip Game." In the 10-9 loss, Zorich made 10 tackles and was named the game's Defensive Most Valuable Player.

With the NFL Draft a couple of months away, Zorich was on the verge of signing the contract that would finally allow him to move his mother out of the neighborhood. But unbeknownst to him, his life was about to change forever.

Zorich had spoken with his mother after the game, but when he returned home from Miami the following day, there was no answer at the door. He broke down the door and found his mother's body on the floor, dead at 59 from natural causes.

In 1993, the Christopher Zorich Foundation was established in Zora's memory. Chris established Zora Zorich Memorial Scholarships that provide financial assistance for Chicago-area students in need at the University of Notre Dame and Lewis University where he was a member of the Board of Trustees.

"The example that I saw that she faced and was able to overcome gave me the idea of being able to succeed, being able to overcome a lot of odds," he said. "So she is definitely my main focus."

The Foundation's purpose is to provide assistance and opportunities to disadvantaged people in Chicago. The Foundation sponsors activities for urban youths, a holiday gift giving program, Thanksgiving Day food deliveries and celebrates the recognition of women each Mother's Day by delivering flowers and cosmetics to women's shelters. Altogether, the Christopher Zorich Foundation has provided aid to over 150,000 individuals since its founding.

In 1991 he was selected by his hometown Chicago Bears in the second round of the NFL Draft. Zorich played six seasons for the Bears and one season for the Washington Redskins before retiring.

"I played seven years (in the NFL) and I loved it, but the best four years of my life were at the University of Notre Dame," Zorich said.

So Zorich returned to Notre Dame to pursue his law degree which he earned in 2002.

After graduating from Notre Dame Law School, he worked for the Chicago law firm of Schuyler Roche, P.C. as Community Outreach director and Marketing Consulant. Zorich has also served as a motivational speaker and hosted sports television programs about the Bears and high school athletics.

In June of this year Zorich returned to Notre Dame as manager of student welfare and development. He is in charge of programs designed to assist student-athletes in academics, athletics and personal development. He will also be helping athletes to get involved with the community and in preparation for their careers after sports.

For Chris Zorich, the distinction between on the field and off the field was a clear one and he has proven himself worthy of Hall of Fame honors in both arenas.


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