Joe Brockington embraces career training, breeding dogs
Yogy Policia-Slovakia runs like a linebacker, with long strides that swallow turf, his eyes locked onto his target and saliva dangling from his open mouth. He is a force of nature, piercing the wind like an arrow, a product of impeccable breeding and hours of preparation.
He’s an athlete, and a winner.
He’s also a German Shepherd.
Yogy’s owner, Joe Brockington, is an athlete as well. Not so long ago, he was a starting linebacker at Notre Dame, where he made 179 tackles from 2003 to 2007. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Brockington overcame lingering back injuries and an undersized frame to make 19 starts in his final two seasons, finishing second on the Irish in tackles in 2007.
Back then, he was the hunter — tracking overmatched ball carriers, arms pumping, a lethal combination of strength and will.
Now, it’s the other way around.
Today, Brockington backpedals frantically, with Yogy hot in pursuit. The blazing brown blur leaps and bites down hard on the protective sleeve cushioning Brockington’s left arm, clamping down like a bear trap. The sheer force swings him sideways, and still, Yogy holds on. He snarls, and the crowd applauds.
This is Schutzund, a sport designed to test a dog’s obedience, tracking and protection skills.
Yogy is one of the best.
“I would compare it somewhat to running down on a kickoff, depending on how fast the dog is coming — and we have some pretty quick dogs,” Brockington said. “It’s definitely intense. That’s the part that intrigued me.”
It started with Medusa.
The summer before his fifth and final year at Notre Dame, Brockington bought a dog. It was a German Shepherd, named after the serpent-haired enchantress of Greek mythology — and just as fierce.
“That dog bit me in the thigh when we were hanging out one time,” Notre Dame teammate Tom Zbikowski recalled with a laugh. “It was just a little chomp, nothing crazy.
“I just thought he had a dog, to be honest with you. I didn’t know until my rookie year (in the NFL) about how much he was interested in shepherds and how much he had been learning about them and studying them, and that he had that much passion for it.”
That passion started small, as a hobby. Brockington remembers walking down the tunnel prior to a road game at Air Force in 2007, and being met by the academy’s dog team. Even then, he was enamored with their discipline, their training. Around the same time, he started volunteering with the K-9 unit at the South Bend Police Department.
After his professional football career fizzled, Brockington moved back home to Pennsylvania, where he began working as an administrator and football coach at Harrisburg High School. He continued to work with dogs on the side. It was a happy distraction, not a profession. For a while.
Surprisingly, the gradual transition from coaching — to coaching — wasn’t a radical shift.
“I’d say there’s a lot of things that cross into football,” Brockington said. “When I played football, we had a bunch of teammates. In the dog sport, you have your dog and the handler and the people that help you as well. That becomes your team.
“Instead of coaching people, you’re coaching dogs. You’re trying to communicate to a dog to do certain things you’re asking them to do, and looking for the response. It’s very similar to coaching football.”
In 2008, Brockington left Harrisburg High to found IBSO K9 LLC, a business that breeds, raises, trains and cares for German Shepherds. Today, they operate out of a 25-acre property in Millerstown, Pa.,, where Brockington and his wife Lindsay also live, featuring climate-controlled kennels and an indoor training facility. Their dogs have gone on to work for police departments around the country (including three near South Bend), serve as personal protection dogs and compete in regional and national competitions.
IBSO stands for Imagine, Believe, Seek, Obtain.
That process started in South Bend, with Medusa, who now serves as a personal protection dog for a new owner in California.
“She was my first dog,” he said. “I would say that’s pretty important because it’s the beginning of the journey. She was kind of the one that got me into it.”
Without Zbikowski, there might not be a Yogy and Joe.
In 2008, Brockington was looking to import a German Shepherd from Slovakia, but lacked the funding to complete the deal. To solve the problem, he turned to an old friend.
“I had a signing bonus and had come across some cash,” Zbikowski said. “That’s a friend of mine. I know what type of person he is. He’s someone that you trust around your family, you trust like another brother.
“To my parents, he’s like another son to them. When my dad dies, he wants Joe to be one of his pallbearers. That’s how he feels about Joe.”
The feeling is mutual. In the summer before his freshman year at Notre Dame, Brockington lived with the Zbikowskis, moving in with a family he barely knew to train with Tom and be closer to South Bend. For five years, they stuck together — Brockington the middle linebacker, Zbikowski the safety watching his back.
When Brockington got married last year, Zbikowski stood at his wedding — still watching his back.
And soon enough, things came full circle. Zbikowski now owns Sophie, one of Yogy’s pups.
Call it the circle of life.
“She’s the only living object that has more energy than me and needs more attention,” Zbikowski joked. “We get along great. I love her to death.
“She’s a sweetheart, but she’s also fiercely loyal and fiercely protective. I paint her toenails pink and (stuff) like that. I don’t care.”
Nearly a decade later, Brockington and his Notre Dame teammates are still close. Still brothers.
And in a weird way, the dogs have contributed to that.
In 2010, Brockington and former Irish defensive lineman Trevor Laws traveled to Belgium together — Joe to look at dogs, Trevor to tag along. During the baseball season, Brockington’s 25 acres also serve as the second home for Jeff Samardzija’s dog, Otis.
Their lives continue to interweave, even as Notre Dame Stadium shrinks in the rear view mirror.
“It just makes going to college worth it,” Zbikowski said. “For the majority of people that go to college, it’s to get in massive debt and get in terrible habits. Obviously that’s a crude way of looking at it, but that’s the (stuff) that really goes on in college.
“But to see people turn out to be the people that you originally met at a young, innocent age, and turn out to be even more than you were expecting them to be, it’s awesome to see.
“That’s why you have to love a place like Notre Dame. It can shape you and mold you into something that you never really thought you could become.”
Last summer, a slew of Irish alums reunited in Philadelphia for former defensive end Victor Abiamiri’s wedding. In a few months, Zbikowski will make the short trek from Chicago to Minnesota for an ice fishing expedition with Laws.
It’s a group that left Notre Dame with friendships, not to mention wins and degrees.
“I remember getting to school and being told, ‘All right, look around. These are the people that are going to be your best friends 20 years down the road,’” said Laws, who works in real estate and lives in Minneapolis with his wife and dog, Bowser. “It’s funny to see it come true.
“Everything’s the exact same when you get back together. The hairlines might go back a bit and the belly goes out a bit, but it’s still like Saturday night every time we get together. That’s a special thing.”
As for Brockington, he has his wife, eight dogs (at the moment) and a Notre Dame family.
He’s an athlete, surrounded by athletes.
That’s all Brockington needs.
“I would say that one of the things that makes it easier and why I don’t miss (football) as much is that the guys that I played with I still keep in touch with,” Brockington said.
“We’re not playing the same sport and doing the same things, but we’re still supporting each other in life. It’s like we’re all still playing, but the game has changed.”