Zbikowski cast as tough guy

Whether it's football or boxing, Tom Zbikowski made a name for himself by being tough. "[He is] physical, fast and can run to the football," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome after selecting the safety in the third round of the NFL draft.

Zbikowski is not the biggest safety at 5'11 and 215 pounds, but what he lacks in physical skills, he makes up with intangibles and having a nose for the ball.

"I think physical toughness and also having a knack for being a playmaker, with fumble recoveries and forced fumbles and interceptions," said Zbikowski when asked at the NFL Combine about his strengths as a football player.

Zbikowski, born in Arlington Heights, Illinois, shined as a quarterback and safety at Buffalo Grove High School, while also competing as a nationally-ranked Golden Gloves boxer. As a senior, because of Zbikowski's football prowess, he was named a USA Today first-team prep All-American, the Chicago area player of the year by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Gatorade player of the year in the state of Illinois. This led him to a career in football at Notre Dame, though he did not stop boxing.

Zbikowski may have received many accolades in high school, but his transition to the next level was not as easy. He did not play a single down during his freshman year as a reserve safety. However, Zbikowski quickly burst onto the scene in his second year, starting at strong safety and finishing fourth on the team in tackles with 70.

Zbikowski continued to progress in his junior year when he started building his resume as a gamebreaker. He found the endzone four times, two on interception returns and two on punt returns. Also, he was one of four Notre Dame teammates to receive the Nick Pietrosante Award, given to the player who "best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and pride shown by the late Irish All-America fullback."

In Zbikowski's fourth season, he was named a captain and the team made it all the way to the Sugar Bowl. He was third on the team in tackles with 79 and a semi-finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, presented annually to the nation's top defensive back. Zbikowski was granted a fifth year of eligibility and, again, he was named team captain, though the team struggled during the season.

"It's always big, no matter where you are, when your teammates are the ones voting on it," said Zbikowski about being a two-time captain at one of college football's most historic programs. "When they vote on you, you know you have their trust to do what's best for the team."

While Zbikowski thrived on the field at Notre Dame, he also was successful off of it in boxing. On June 10, 2006, he made his professional boxing debut at Madison Square Garden in New York City and he knocked out his opponent, Robert Ball, in just 49 seconds.

"It was awesome," said Zbikowski about his first professional boxing match. "It was a good time. I trained so hard for it - six or seven weeks. Then having 40 teammates coming to support me and another 60 from home, it was definitely one of the better experiences of my life."

Despite his success in boxing, Zbikowski said he wanted to concentrate on football.

"No, not right now," said Zbikowski at the Combine about continuing his boxing career. "I'm solely focused on football and getting ready for this. And then once you get into mini camp and training camp, you've got to do everything… you can to make a team."

Though many pro scouts knocked him during his workouts because of poor timed speed and over-aggressiveness, the Ravens were thrilled to select the hard-hitting safety in the draft. "I think at safety we drafted two [including sixth round choice Haruki Nakamura] outstanding, smart, productive, tough safeties with a knack for making big plays," said director of college scouting Eric DeCosta.

Because of Zbikowski's background and passion for sports, he embodies new Ravens head coach John Harbaugh's fiery attitude about football. Harbaugh even jokingly called the former boxer his own personal bodyguard and called him a good fit.

Hank Nathan is a guest columnist for Ravens Insider and a journalism student at Washington & Lee.

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