Notre Dame great Tom Zbikowski ascends from addiction to redemption
A survivor walked into Starbucks on the corner of Waukegan Road in Lake Forest, Ill., a few minutes after 11 a.m., on Aug. 14, a sunny Friday, and made a beeline for the front counter and his first cold brew coffee of the day.
He sat down at a table nestled in the back — a gray Lake Forest football hat pulled low over his bald head — and smiled.
Tom Zbikowski’s eyes were clear.
His perspective, too, was distinct — shaped by 22 years of competitive football, by nearly 100 amateur boxing matches, by countless Saturdays in South Bend and Sunday afternoons in Baltimore.
By alcoholism and rehabilitation. By redemption. By family and faith.
Engulfed by the conventional — a stock photo of grapes framed and hanging on the wall across from the register, rows of identical mugs presented for sale on a nearby bookshelf, the subtle staples that make every cookie cutter Starbucks look and feel alike — Zbikowski was the opposite. For better or worse, he’s one of a kind.
One of the most beloved Notre Dame football players in recent memory took a sip of coffee and leaned forward in his chair.
“To fully understand joy, you have to hit rock bottom. The bottom of the pit,” Zbikowski said, cloaked in a baggy white T-shirt and sweatpants that concealed his muscular frame, his words registering above a soundtrack of humming blenders and sleepy ballads.
“I like to, obviously, live in extremes. So my pit is going to be as extreme as you can get. But there’s strength in your ability to conquer that.”
In many ways, Zbikowski hasn’t changed.
Sure, he’s older now, and markedly wiser. His knuckles sport permanent bruises that tell you where he’s been, stained with the memory of heavy bags and vulnerable chins. Madison Square Garden main events and million dollar contracts are likely behind him; there’s no telling what’s ahead.
But now, same as ever, Zbikowski chases the rush.
Since he was 5, the undersized kid from the suburbs of Chicago has hopped from challenge to challenge, from sport to sport, an adrenaline addict in search of the next climbable mountain. He played on his brother’s peewee football team, despite being four years younger, regularly borrowing E.J.’s oversized pads to make the minimum weight.
And when it wasn’t football, it was baseball. Or wrestling. Or boxing. Or track.
“We told him, ‘You’ve got to slow down. You can’t play everything,’” recalled his father, Ed Zbikowski. “He would always quit the sport that he just finished up with. He would say, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’
“And then the next year, he’s doing it again.”
Tom Zbikowski needed to be challenged, to bask in the struggle of a long, difficult climb. He pined for the chase, not the catch. And he craved competition — in any form, however unlikely.
“I’ve seen this guy eat an uncooked steak with the blood dripping off of it,” Rhema McKnight, Zbikowski’s teammate at Notre Dame, said with a laugh. “It was just Zibby being tough, having that attitude. ‘I can do it.’ He’ll take on any challenge.”
That inner drive propelled Zbikowski to a starring role as a safety and return man at Notre Dame, then to the NFL. It carried him into the boxing ring, too, one of the few places where his insatiable hunger could be satisfied.
“A fighting high, it’s got to be close to the high of death,” said Zbikowski, who remains undefeated in four professional bouts. “That’s where you’re taking it. It’s fun to be in that mind-set … and it’s not. It gets ugly. You think about knocking someone’s face off. You try to keep it to boxing, though.
“It’s like in football. Anything combative, you have to teeter on chaotic disaster. You just have to try to balance that.”
For years, Zbikowski walked a perpetual tight rope, struggling to maintain the divide between athletics and everything else.
The same cravings that made him famous also threatened to rip him apart.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie, so the amount of alcohol it would take for me to do something I’d view as ‘crazy,’ it’s probably going to be a significant amount,’’ Zbikowski said.
“And for me, ‘crazy’ is probably going to be near death.”
If he closes his eyes, Zbikowski can feel that moment.
October 15, 2005. Second quarter, 10:38 until halftime.
Notre Dame 14, USC 14.
Zbikowski, surrounded by more than 80,000 Irish faithful, stood all alone at his 40-yard-line.
He took the punt and burst around the right edge, a blur of green and gold, chugging through a seam as the volume cranked with each purposeful stride. He shed his first tackle just inside the USC 25, then another at the 20, and another at the 10, obliterating Trojans like a monster truck crushing rows of broken cars.
Then, the goal line. The celebration.The rush.
“I don’t really see it. I just feel it,” Zbikowski said with a widening grin. “It didn’t matter how big, or fast, or strong you were. You weren’t tackling me. You weren’t tackling me. I had enough steam, I had enough momentum going forward, that it didn’t matter.
“I was attacking each individual. That’s how I return, though. You have to make those first couple miss, but then you have to attack people that are trying to tackle you. That time, I was attacking them pretty violently, with bad intentions.”
That’s how Zbikowski attacked his entire college career. The 5-foot-11, 200-pound All-America safety squeezed every drop of ability out of his frame, racking up 300 tackles, eight interceptions and seven touchdowns in five memorable years. He earned his degree in sociology and computer applications, becoming the first Zbikowski to graduate from college.
But most notably, he was the face of Notre Dame’s defense during the program’s modern renaissance, attacking ball carriers and tacklers alike.
“He added a toughness to our group,” former Irish quarterback Brady Quinn said. “When their backs were against the wall, our defense looked to guys like Tommy to make a play and respond.”
And game after game, year after year, Tommy responded.
“It was almost like rigor mortis for a second,” Zbikowski said of his return in the now-iconic “Bush Push” game against USC, a 34-31 Irish last-second loss to the top-ranked Trojans, who barely extended their winning streak to 28 games.
“You have all that go through you and then you get a sip of water, sit down on the bench. And when I went out for the next series, I was dead for the next three plays.
“That’s when everyone knew it was a party … a good one, too,” he added with a laugh nearly 10 years later. “Probably the best one they’d seen there in a long time.”
Zbikowski took a sip from his second cold brew coffee of the day, stirred fruit into a bowl of yogurt, leaned back and considered the question.
When did alcohol first become a problem?
“Indianapolis started it, right around when I got injured. Maybe even a little before.”
“It actually started in 2011, when I got benched in Baltimore.”
Another pause, this time longer. He shook his head, took a deep breath and conceded.
“It started in 2005. Need I say more?”
The drinking may have started in South Bend, but Zbikowski’s vices caught up with him in Indianapolis, on the back end of a professional career that spanned five seasons, two teams, 11 playoff games and countless high-speed collisions. After playing his first four seasons and making 14 starts with the Baltimore Ravens, Zbikowski signed with the Colts in 2012, following defensive backs coach Chuck Pagano from Baltimore to his first head coaching gig in the NFL.
Soon enough, though, sunshine gave way to a relentless storm. A shin injury forced Zbikowski to miss the final five games of what he now calls the worst season of his career. And Pagano, a mentor and role model from the very beginning in Baltimore, was diagnosed with leukemia in October of 2012. He took a leave of absence to battle for his life.
Zbikowski, meanwhile, had nothing worth chasing. No structure. No discipline. No drive.
“Me and my father hadn’t talked for maybe two years,” said Zbikowski, who declined to elaborate on their rift. “Chuck was like a father figure, too, and I was at his bedside. To get emotionally tied up with him and maybe have him pass away and not be on good terms with my own father, that was something I couldn’t do.”
Without football, or family, Zbikowski lost his balance. His passion quickly evaporated, replaced by a sinking depression. He drowned his problems in liquor and pills.
“I was a full blown alcoholic and addict at that point,” Zbikowski admitted. “Just sleeping pills, pain pills and eight fingers of scotch every day.”
When the season ended, he didn’t wait to be released. Zbikowski flew to the Caribbean, to a faraway paradise, to a place with no memory of his pain and disappointment.
“I wasn’t coming back. Honestly, that was a thought,” Zbikowski said. “You can imagine, under the circumstances, what a Caribbean trip was like for me.”
But what he found wasn’t comfort, a clean slate or a second chance.
“I was drinking way too much,” Zbikowski said. “It was trying to catch up with what you missed, doing in your late 20s what you thought you should have been doing at 23, 24, 25.
“I was there for probably like two and a half weeks, two weeks. I don’t know. A lifetime?”
Zbikowski can’t point to a specific moment that convinced him to change his life.
A pit that size, after all, requires a significant amount of digging.
“When you’re collecting your thoughts and you’re thinking about (what comes with drinking), you stack it all up and realize, nothing is good on this list,’’ he said.
“It’s time for a change.”
For Zbikowski, that meant a four-week program at a rehabilitation facility in Arizona in summer 2014. It also meant making amends with his father, mending old wounds and laying the foundation for a stable future.
The entire Zbikowski family, which knew little of the depths of Tom’s addiction, flew in to support him. There was his brother, E.J.; his sister, Kristen; his mother, Susan; and his father, Ed.
At one point, Tom and Ed sat across from each other, face to face, surrounded by 20 or more counselors lining the walls of a barren room.
For 30 minutes, they stared at each other, locked in a silent standoff.
“Then, that was that,” Tom said. “You get everything off your chest as you sit there and just look him in the eye. And you just let it go.”
Added Ed: “It was probably the best thing that ever happened in our lives.”
The following day, Tom and Ed went golfing together, washing away years of hostility in a few hours and 18 holes.
“We just had to have that sort of good experience,” Tom said. “‘Oh, yeah. That’s why we love each other.’ Whatever was, was. We don’t have to talk about it.”
A week later, Tom was released from rehab. Not long after, he entered the training academy to become a Chicago firefighter.
He says he hasn’t had a drink since July 12, 2014.
“Every thought is important,” said Zbikowski, who has reportedly replaced drugs and alcohol with a healthy lifestyle — and the occasional cold brew coffee. “Now, to have a clear mind and a whole different thought process, it’s life-changing.”
The new Tom Zbikowski finds his rush in different places.
Instead of a 16-game season, Zbikowski’s chase included six months of intensive training to become a third-generation firefighter, of long days studying with his new team in the anonymity of a Chicago warehouse.
He has been active in the field for three months — shifts of 24 hours on, 48 hours off. And in helping others, he’s helping himself.
“More than anything, (I wanted) to be around guys like that, that are doing it, to be a civil servant, to see the type of men that sign up to do it, and that do it every day,” Zbikowski said. “They’re good dudes. They’re salt of the earth, what you need as a friend.’’
Finally, it appears, Zbikowski has found his balance — at work, and at home. When Notre Dame teammate Trevor Laws got married, Tom stood in his wedding. And when former Irish wide receiver and current Chicago White Sox pitcher Jeff Samardzija has his first child, whenever that may be, Tom’s the go-to godfather.
“He gets off his shift at the fire department, he knows I go to 8 o’clock Mass, and he sits next to me,” Ed Zbikowski said. “That is one of a father’s greatest dreams in the world.”
On the surface, Zbikowski’s latest career move may seem unusual, given that he saved the vast majority of his NFL and boxing salaries and could easily opt for a life void of imminent danger.
But for those who know him best, it wasn’t a radical departure, but the next logical step.
“That seems pretty typical of Tommy, because that’s Tommy’s personality,” said former Notre Dame linebacker Joe Brockington, one of Zbikowski’s closest friends. “He needs that adrenaline rush, or something that he’s chasing. Running into a burning building, to me, it’s like, ‘OK, that would be something Tommy would do.’’’
There’s one thing, of course, that separates his current occupation from the ones that came before.
Leave the fame and notoriety.
Instead, try saving a life.
“Now, he doesn’t have 80,000 people cheering for him and 30 million people watching him,” Ed Zbikowski said. “It’s easy to be a hero when people are watching you, but to be a hero when nobody’s watching you and it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and you get a call?
“If you took his greatest knockout or the greatest game he has ever played, none of that will save a person’s life. You can score 100 touchdowns, and that won’t compare to saving someone’s life.’’
The chase, however, never ends.
And firefighting may not be Zbikowski’s final challenge.
In early August, the Notre Dame alum began working as an assistant football coach at Lake Forest High School in his hours away from the fire department, taking frequent trips to the northwest suburbs to teach a familiar game to a new generation of players.
In his first interaction with football since he retired in 2013, something happened that Zbikowski didn’t expect:
He liked it.
“I see it as a good challenge,” Zbikowski said. “It’s fun to teach somebody something. It’s awesome. It’s better than playing.”
And though he doesn’t have much experience as a coach, Zbikowski doesn’t expect a drastic learning curve, either.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life,” Zbikowski said. “There’s a reason why you’re chosen as a captain by players. There’s a reason why you stick around in the NFL. Even if I couldn’t play, they’d still keep me because of how I can teach others how to play.”
Now, Zbikowski’s rush comes in seeing others succeed. Between firefighting and coaching, he won’t have a day off until November, and you won’t see him complain.
You also won’t see him tailgating on fall Saturdays in South Bend.
The next time Zbikowski sets foot inside Notre Dame Stadium, he wants to do it as a coach.
“I’m getting all these experiences to hopefully win a national championship for Notre Dame, and be the head coach for that moment,” Zbikowski said. “Twenty years, 30 years, 10 years, however long it takes ... this is how I’m planning for that.”
From the corner of the end zone, to the bottom of the pit, to the back of a suburban Starbucks, Zbikowski has survived it all. And winning a national championship at his alma mater?
Now, that would be a rush.
“I’m about as confident (that I’ll coach at Notre Dame) as I was that I’d be a pro boxer or I’d play professional football,” Zbikowski said. “It’s just something that you know deep in your bones.
“I want to have a plan, and do it better than my first go-round. And my first go-round was pretty damn good.”