Zbikowski ready to square off

WESTMINSTER -- The din of bagpipes is in the background as a hooded Tom Zbikowski strides into the boxing ring looking like a stone-faced executioner. In mere seconds, Zbikowski's gloved fist hits the face of journeyman heavyweight Robert Bell like a sledgehammer at Madison Square Garden.

The violent right hook sends Bell careening toward the ropes before Zbikowski pummels him into submission with a series of rights and lefts. His opponent drops to one knee, and the referee ends the fight in under a minute.

The June 10, 2006 bout was immortalized on YouTube along with a lengthy highlight tape of touchdowns and devastating tackles during a prolific Notre Dame career.

For the Baltimore Ravens' rookie safety, the knockout victory in his professional debut marked the realization of a lifelong dream after a decorated Golden Gloves amateur career.

Yet, the former Fighting Irish star has hung up his boxing gloves.

Now, he's intent on winning another battle in his bid to make the Ravens' roster as he competes with Haruki Nakamura and Jim Leonhard for the third safety job behind starters Ed Reed and Dawan Landry.

"I'm done with boxing," said Zbikowski, who had a 60-13 amateur record. "I'm playing football. It's kind of hard to split time with that in the NFL."

When the Ravens drafted Zbikowski in the third round, coach John Harbaugh joked that the Chicago native could be his bodyguard.

Zbikowski has a reputation as a tough guy, and is regarded as a potential future enforcer in the secondary.

"I think that he's our kind of guy," Harbaugh said. "He's a Ravens' kind of guy. I would put Nakamura20in that same kind of category.

"We wanted two safeties that could run around and hit people and make plays on the back end. Hopefully, we got two guys like that."

The son of a former bar owner, Zbikowski began boxing at age 9 with as many as five bouts a week. He even boxed during a Florida vacation, working with legendary trainer Angelo Dundee.

Not surprisingly, his favorite movie is "Raging Bull," the Robert DeNiro boxing film.

"Boxing is a one-on-one sport and football is pretty much just a series of one-on-one battles," Zbikowski said. "It shows a mental toughness that you're not going to let them beat you."

Zbikowski is the youngest member of a family that experienced a near tragedy when the oldest son, E.J., underwent a pair of life-saving brain tumor surgeries.

"My brother was my biggest role model," Zbikowski said. "They told him never to play sports again. He ended up being an all-area baseball and football player and MVP of both of those teams. He overcame all of that."

As the youngest and the smallest of a blue-collar, Catholic family, Zbikowsk took his share of lumps from his older siblings, but he kept scrapping in an unending series of pickup football and basketball games and household wrestling matches.

"I was the youngest, so I was getting beat up all the time and always lost," Zbikowski said. "Having an older brother, that's the way it is when you're youngest, I guess. My whole family is involved in athletics, so everybody is pretty competitive."

An All-American high school quarterback who rushed for 2,013 yards with 45 touchdowns, Zbikowski grew up a huge Chicago Bears fan. His favorite players were Jim McMahon and Walter Payton.

"McMahon wasn't your typical quarterback," Zbikowski said. "He was more of the Bad Boy quarterback."

At Notre Dame, Zbikowski emerged as the emotional leader of Charlie Weis teams that nosedived to 3-9 in his senior year after going 9-3 and 10-2 the previous two seasons.

He started all 48 games, averaging 11.5 yards per punt return with20three touchdowns.

Twice named a team captain, he set the defensive backs record with 300 career tackles. He intercepted eight passes with two touchdowns, forcing seven fumbles and recovering four with two returned for scores.

Zbikowski was reluctant to make bold predictions about immediately delivering intimidating tackles in the NFL.

"We'll see when we put pads on," he said. "It's definitely at a different level now, but that's definitely one of the strong parts of my game so I'm looking to continue that."

At the NFL scouting combine, Zbikowski ran a respectable 4.44 in the 40-yard dash and bench pressed 225 pounds 24 times.

However, when he wasn't breaking as quickly on the football and changing directions as defensive coordinator Rex Ryan wanted at minicamps, Zbikowski altered his exercise regimen and diet to report at 5-foot-11, 205 pounds after weighing 215 this spring.

"I definitely felt faster," Zbikowski said. "I felt like I'm around balls more and closer to plays."

Over the first few practices, Zbikowski has been aggressive, diving for an interception in the end zone and flying around in pursuit with improved agility.

"It's been noticeable," Harbaugh said. "He's changing direction better and he's covering more ground. He looks more athletic than he did. He looks like we knew he would."

Zbikowski is slated for a big special-teams role as a backup punt returner as well as kick coverage. In college, he gained 757 yards on 66 punt returns.

"You want to be a core special-teams player as a rookie," Zbikowski said.

A sixth-round draft pick from Cincinnati, Nakamura took better angles and looked more natural than Zbikowski during minicamps, but the gap seems to be closing now.

The Ravens traditionally keep four safeties, which could eliminate either Leonhard, Zbikowski or Nakamura from the final 53-man roster.

"It's just going to help me become a better player," Zbikowski said. "You have to stay on top of your game every single day. If you don't like competition, you're in the wrong sport."

NOTE: The Ravens cut fullback Jake Nordin.

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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