|Thursday, August 29
Updated: September 4, 10:44 AM ET
Zbikowski's a gridiron great with Olympic dreams
By Wayne Drehs
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. -- The envelope sitting on the front seat of his car, Northwestern football coach Randy Walker said, was worth $150,000. But the Zbikowski family didn't quite understand what he meant.
Skepticism reigned. Ed Zbikowski, who grew up on Chicago's West Side with a cast of undesirables, wondered if this was some sort of under-the-table payment. His son, Tom, the talented high school quarterback, thought back to the movie "Blue Chips," in which prep standout Ricky Roe is given a duffel bag filled with cash to play for fictional Western University.
Estimated five-year value: $150,000.
"We must have looked like a bunch of idiots, but never in our wildest dreams did we expect to see that," Ed said. "We're just a bunch of blue-collar Polacks. This kind of stuff doesn't happen to us."
Welcome to the world of big-time college football recruiting, a place the unassuming Zbikowski's never expected to find themselves. Since that snowy February afternoon, when Northwestern became the first big-time school to offer Tom a football scholarship, the phone hasn't stopped ringing, the mail hasn't stopped arriving and the pressure hasn't stopped building.
Frank Solich has called. So has Tyrone Willingham. The University of Iowa has sent a letter nearly everyday. A package from the Naval Academy arrived with 10 hand-written letters inside -- one from each coach. And Arizona State has passed along a list of boxing gyms in the Phoenix area, just in case Zbikowski dabbles in his other sports love during college.
"It almost seems like once one school offers you, everybody else jumps on. They don't want to miss out," said Zbikowski, who wears No. 9 in honor of former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon. "I guess I can understand that, but, man, is it crazy. I never expected any of this."
Now his mom sorts through the 60 to 70 letters he receives each week. His Dad schedules media interviews. And his big brother E.J. screens the many calls each day, often jarring Tom out of bed with endearing words like, "Hey, Dad, get the f----- out of bed. There's another coach on the phone."
Notre Dame wants Zbikowski, blessed with 4.35 speed in the 40 and a 305-pound bench press, to anchor its defensive backfield for the next four years. Nebraska has told him he can be the next Eric Crouch, the former Huskers quarterback who won the Heisman Trophy a year ago.
"When you have a kid back there who can run and pass, it turns into a game of tag on the playground," Rich Roberts, Zbikowski's high school coach, said. "And we have the fastest kid on the playground."
Not to mention a kid who never stops playing. Last fall, Zbikowski rushed for 1,049 yards and passed for 1,247 yards. In the winter, he was a regular at Chicago's famed Windy City Gym where over the years he has become one of the state's top amateur boxers. And in the spring, he clocked a 10.5 in the 100-meter dash to finish sixth in the state track finals.
Nebraska coaches have told Zbikowski that he is further developed than Crouch was when he entered his senior year of high school.
"People never think a white kid can run," Ed said. "They never think a white kid can box. And when they realize that he can do both, you should see the look on their faces."
A love for the ring
The gym is a musty, grime-filled shrine to boxing's heyday, with pictures, posters and autographs doubling as wallpaper and timeline of the sport's rich history.
There are pencil drawings of Ali and Frazier. Pictures of Sugar Ray Leonard. A moldy poster touting former heavyweight contender Andrew Golota on an undercard at a suburban Ramada Inn. The texture of the room is so raw and real that scenes from two movies, "Ali" and "U.S. Marshals" were filmed here. So were Air Jordan commercials. And photo shoots for Roy Jones Jr.
It is here, next to men who come from the nearby Cabrini Green housing projects and as far away as Costa Rica, that Zbikowski lets out his mean streak. He's been doing that here since he was 9. Now with his chiseled shoulders and ripped biceps, he fits right in.
Zbikowski got into the sport in 1994 when E.J. was being treated for a brain tumor at the Mayo Clinic. The father of E.J.'s roommate at the hospital was a surgeon who boxed for recreation. Soon, Tom became fascinated with tales of the sport. When the Zbikowski's visited the surgeon's family a few months later in Miami, Tom went with the doctor to the gym. He was sold.
Reluctantly, his mom agreed to let him box in matches. But there was one rule: If he ever was knocked down or suffered a standing eight count, he'd have to quit.
Eight years and 73 fights later, his butt still hasn't hit the canvas. Blending in as the suburban kid hasn't always been easy, though. In 1997, at a tournament in Michigan, Zbikowski looked around and suddenly felt conspicuous because of his skin color. Of the 43 other boxers and four ringside doctors, Tom realized he was the only white guy in the gym.
"It took some adjusting, but it became what I grew up with," Zbikowski said. "Now I've done it for so long, I don't even notice color when I'm in the gym."
Zbikowski has a 60-13 record as a boxer. He's competed in the Junior Olympics, fought overseas and was a Silver Gloves national finalist in 1998, 1999 and 2000. He has dreams of reaching the Olympics in 2004. And Colonna even believes a lucrative professional career could be on the horizon.
There's only one problem.
"It's not like baseball or basketball," Colonna said. "This is a year round job. Tommy has all the potential in the world, but he needs to spend more time in the gym. I don't want to take football away from him, but at the levels he's starting to reach, it's going to be nearly impossible to do both."
'The best I've ever seen'
When E.J. was in high school, Tom used to tag along to practice and run up and down the field, usually pulling a tire around his waist.
"We'd be in two-a-days and I'm like, 'Who in the world is this little kid running up and down the field, back and forth, up and down, with this tire,'" Roberts said. "And they'd go, 'Oh, that's Tommy. And I'm like, 'Tommy who?' "
A few years later, after switching from a wide-open passing attack to the option, Roberts handpicked the athletic freshman as Buffalo Grove's multi-faceted quarterback of the future. Though there were struggles during his 3-6 sophomore season, last year's 10-2 record and quarterfinal appearance in the playoffs erased all doubts.
The highlight was a 22-21 playoff victory over favored Glenbrook North. Not only did Zbikowski throw a touchdown with 1:16 left to pull Buffalo Grove within one, he also threw a pair of two-point conversions (one was called back due to a penalty) to give his team the lead. Then, on defense, he intercepted a desperation heave as time expired.
The game is a frequent repeat on Chicago-area cable channels.
"Every time I watch it, it still gives me goose bumps," he said.
This year, coaches have told Zbikowski he will start at quarterback, defensive back, kick returner and punt returner. The more often that the ball touches his hands, coaches figure, the better the team's chances to win.
"He's probably the best I've ever seen here," said Grant Blaney, Buffalo Grove's longtime head football coach who recently returned to the school as Roberts' special assistant. "He's incredibly athletic, extremely fast, has strength, agility, and is intelligent. As a coach, you hope to get a kid who possesses one or two of those qualities. He has them all."
The final decision
Then there's boxing. Should Zbikowski win the national Golden Gloves this spring, he'll qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials. But is it worth sacrificing his football future to train for the 2004 Olympics in Athens? Is it worth picking a school solely because there is a gym nearby -- or is he better of quitting boxing all together?
Questions, questions. None of the answers will come easy. Zbikowski has said he will take each of the five allowed official recruiting visits, likely to Notre Dame, Nebraska, Iowa, Arizona State and either Boston College or Virginia, plus a host of unofficial visits. A final decision isn't expected until signing day nears.
In the meantime, he has a senior year to enjoy. And a state championship to chase.
"You have to take it day by day. If you look at everything at once and you think about choosing a college, trying to win a state championship, dealing with recruiting and then trying to box, it can be overwhelming," he said. "So I just worry about what I have to get done today. And let my parents worry about everything else."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org