Despite 3-9 senior season, Zibby leaves his mark on Irish

NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- The 8½ X 11 inch sheet of paper is nothing more than a calendar, a blue- and yellow-shaded day-by-day guide to the next two months of former Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski's life.

While the majority of the college football elite are heading off to destinations like San Diego, Miami and New Orleans for the 2007 bowl season, Zbikowski is stuck here, in this cushy Chicago suburb, shedding sweat every single day in a quest to save his reputation.

Four months ago, he entered his senior season as a preseason All-American -- a physical, hard-hitting safety whose work ethic and determination personified the Notre Dame spirit. But after a 3-9 season that included back-to-back home losses to Navy and Air Force, Zbikowski now finds himself fighting to overcome a new label: Captain of arguably the worst team in Fighting Irish history.

"It was just terrible," Zbikowski said of his senior season. "I lived by myself and when we'd lose, I'd go home and sink deeper and deeper. It just sucked. Practice sucked. Going to class sucked. Lifting sucked. Life sucked.

"When you're winning, you're happy to get up and go around campus. When you're losing like that, you're miserable. And I was miserable. I was wound so tight I was ready to explode."

It's that bottomless pit of misery, that feeling of desperation that is motivating the 6-foot, 205-pound safety as he prepares for the next chapter of his life: the National Football League. Which is where the blue and yellow sheet comes in.

Typed onto the paper is Zbikowski's training regimen for every single day from Dec. 3 to February 22. Put together by trainer John Alder, blue days signify strength workouts, yellow days signify football workouts and white days are yoga. December 31, a yellow day, for example, includes work on the 40-yard dash and on-field drills. But Jan. 4, a blue day, includes cardio conditioning and a maximum-effort upper body workout.

For the entire 81-day stretch, including the Senior Bowl in Mobile, there is one off day: Christmas.

"If that's what it's going to take, then that's what I'm going to do," said Zbikowski. "I just want to get on a team and do what I've been doing. They said I couldn't play in high school, I couldn't play in college and I certainly have no shot in the NFL -- we'll see."

It was five years ago when Zbikowski, then a little-known option quarterback from Chicago's northern suburbs, invited ESPN.com readers to follow his college recruiting process as part of ESPN.com's, "Blue Chip Diaries." Despite tantalizing overtures from Iowa and Nebraska, Zbikowski, who grew up a Polish Catholic Notre Dame fan, finally settled on the Fighting Irish and then-coach Tyrone Willingham.

Despite nearly transferring to Iowa after his freshman season -- a phone call from former Notre Dame and Chicago Bears defensive lineman Chris Zorich saved the day -- Zbikowski made almost an immediate impact when he finally stepped on the field his sophomore year, forcing and recovering a pair of fumbles at Michigan State in the third game of his career.

Four years later, his name is all over the school record book. Zbikowski leaves Notre Dame with 300 tackles, the eighth-most in school history and the most ever for an Irish defensive back. He's also tied with Tim Brown and Ricky Watters, among others, for the most punt returns for a touchdown in school history with three.

"He reminds me of all the kids that I grew up with," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "You know, I just look at him and smirk a lot of times because I've seen a hundred Zibbies that I grew up with. They might have different names, but they were all him."

Regardless of what the safety accomplishes on the next level, for many Notre Dame fans it is the 2007 season for which Zbikowski will unfortunately be remembered most, leading the Irish out of the tunnel every Saturday, more often than not to lose.

Zbikowski blames much of the team's struggles this year on the relative youth of the roster. He said he did everything he could to encourage the team's younger players by having individual conversations with many of them, but never addressed the team as a whole.

"I've been on teams where the leader won't shut up," Zbikowski said. "I didn't want to be that guy. I don't want to walk through the locker room and have my teammates go, 'there goes that [jerk].' That's not me. So I would just talk to the guys about staying positive, about continuing to fight. So that's what I did. And nobody quit."

It wasn't easy. After Notre Dame lost to Navy for the first time in 44 years, Zbikowski walked to his parents' customary postgame tailgate, went up to his mother and told her he was going home.

"I couldn't speak. I couldn't talk to anybody," Zbikowski said. "I went back to my condo and did whatever I could to try and not remember that night."

I just want to get on a team and do what I've been doing. They said I couldn't play in high school, I couldn't play in college and I certainly have no shot in the NFL -- we'll see.

--Tom Zbikowski

Ed Zbikowski said it was difficult to know the pain his son was going through. He, too, struggled to sleep and was bothered about what was happening on the field. But each morning, when he was drinking his customary cup of coffee, he'd look on the table and see his son's degree from the University of Notre Dame. Zbikowski graduated last December.

"It still gives me chills -- my son, with a degree from Notre Dame," Ed said. "I've told him many times -- if this is the worst thing he has to go through in life, he's going to live one heck of a life."

On Senior Day against Duke on Nov. 17, Notre Dame was up 28-0 when Weis revealed his appreciation for his captain by inserting Zbikowski into the game at quarterback, his high school position. With over 100 family and friends in attendance, Zbikowski lived a lifelong dream -- standing under center in Notre Dame Stadium behind the Irish offense.

Zbikowski ran for two yards on the first play and lost four on the second but picked up a first down when the Blue Devils were called for a personal foul. After another two-yard Zbikowski run, tailback Travis Thomas fumbled the ball back to Duke.

"I've thanked [Coach Weis] and I'll keep thanking him," Zbikowski said. "That's a memory that I and my family will always have."

Now that the regular season is over and the bowl season is upon us, Zbikowski's depression is gone. Two days after Zbikowski's Notre Dame career ended with a 21-14 victory at Stanford, he and a group of friends, including former Irish receiver Jeff Samardzija, headed to St. Maarten for a weeklong vacation. It was a trip that helped reorganize Zbikowski's emotions.

"It was like another world down there," Zbikowski said. "Nobody knew anything about Notre Dame, nobody gives a crap if you're not in a bowl game or whatever. And that carried over. We were gone only a week but I came back with my mind completely clear. I haven't seen a game or watched any football since we left. To me, the college football season is over. And it's time to get ready for the next level."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com. Learn more about Wayne at his ESPN Fan page: http://myespn.go.com/wdrehs.