Notre Dame great Chris Zorich climbs out of 'bad place' and finds a new calling

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO HEIGHTS, Ill. — Chris Zorich can take a square apple and make a meal.

He was 5 years old when his mother, Zora Zorich, lifted him into the dumpster. They were a few blocks from home, on the corner of 79th Street and Manistee Avenue on the south side of Chicago, and they were hungry.

Zora was a severe diabetic who supported her son with $250 a month in federal aid. Chris’ father left after Zora got pregnant. They received food stamps that quickly ran out.

Zora couldn’t stand for long without enduring severe pain. She couldn’t work, but they had to eat.

So Chris went bobbing for apples.

The dumpster was located behind a grocery store, which routinely discarded food that could no longer be sold. The meat was spoiled. The fruit was brown. Chris and Zora cut off the sides of apples, removing the spots and distorting their shapes.

“Who’s ready for some square apples?” they joked.

She lifted him up and dropped him in.

“She needed to do everything she could in order for us to survive, and if that meant putting her kid in a garbage can, then it did,” Chris Zorich says. “She wasn’t proud of it. I never talked to her about it. But it’s just something that we did.”

They also read books, like the one sitting upright on the shelf in the corner of Zorich’s office.

Today, the former Notre Dame All-America nose tackle is the athletics director at Prairie State College, a community college located in Chicago Heights, 20 miles south of the dumpster behind the store. The walls are adorned with certificates and degrees, including the two he earned from Notre Dame.

There are rows of framed sports cards from his nearly seven seasons with the Chicago Bears. There are photographs of Zorich smiling with former President Bill Clinton and shaking hands with former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But what about the book?

It’s “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein, a children’s story about enduring love between a tree and a boy. The tree sacrifices everything for the boy, and in the end, they’re still together.

On the cover, there’s an illustration of a boy reaching for an apple.

Sports memorabilia and a copy of "The Giving Tree" on a cabinet inside Chris Zorich's office at Prairie State College Wednesday, May 30, 2017, in Chicago Heights, Ill. Zorich became the athletic director at Prairie State in 2015. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

Chris and Zora used to read it on days when the only things waiting outside the window were gangs and drugs. They read it at the library two miles from their one-bedroom apartment when Zora needed a break from the blistering heat.

“I thought it was an adventure going to the library, but my mother just wanted to be in the air conditioning,” Zorich says. “You don’t think about these things as a kid."

A few months ago, Zorich was asked to read to a class of grade school students.

“Can I bring my own book?” he asked.

So there he sat — a retired wrecking ball, a cautionary tale-turned comeback story, his goatee gradually fading from gray to a snowy white. He had survived poverty, probation, gang beatings and tax convictions — a half-century littered with square apples big and small.

Zorich looked, even at 48, like he could convincingly stuff the run.

Instead, he opened the book and read the opening line.

Once there was a tree ... and she loved a little boy

Zora loved Chris so much that when the 250-pound freshman brought home a permission slip to play football at Chicago Vocational School in 1983, she refused to sign it; she was too afraid.

When she finally saw him play, she covered her face with her hands and squinted through her fingers.

“Once, Zora told me Chris was maybe in fifth, sixth grade and he was going outside to hang with some gangbangers,” says John Potocki, Chris' high school football coach. “She pleaded with him not to. He was going out the door and she started crying, and he turned around and came back.

"I mean … that’s love.”

When Zorich finally left, he had his mother's blessing. He arrived at Notre Dame in 1987, filled with love, and hate.

“He lived on the south side of Chicago, and let me tell you something: he got his (butt) beat by gangbangers when he was in grammar school all the time,” Potocki says.

“You take all that and you put it into a weight room or you put it into a program, and boom — you’ve got a Chris Zorich coming out.”

Zorich’s coming-out party coincided with Notre Dame’s 11th and most recent national title. In 1988, the 6-foot-1, 266-pound nose tackle compiled 70 tackles and 3.5 sacks, anchoring an undefeated and undaunted defensive line.

In 1990, he won the Lombardi Award, presented to the nation’s top lineman or linebacker, and was named a unanimous first-team All-American.

In his four seasons at Notre Dame, Zora traveled 85 miles east for each of Chris’ home games.

And when Chris couldn’t see her, he called her. He never missed a day.

Of course, Jan. 1, 1991, was no different. Notre Dame fell 10-9 to Colorado in the Orange Bowl. Zorich — who collected 10 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack — was named the defensive MVP of his final collegiate game.

But when his plane landed at O’Hare airport in Chicago the following day, Zora wasn’t there. He rushed home and rang the doorbell. Nobody answered. He banged on the back door. Nothing.

He leaned over the balcony, raised the bathroom window and peered inside.

That’s when he saw her, in the hallway, lying motionless on the floor.

After busting open the back door, Chris leaned over her, kissed her, said he loved her and said goodbye. Zora Zorich was dead of a heart attack at 59.

The entire Notre Dame football team attended the funeral. Chris received roughly 5,000 cards and letters, including one from then-President George H.W. Bush.

She was gone, but he couldn’t feel it. It wasn’t real. Not yet.

“It didn’t hit me until I got back to school and I couldn’t call her anymore,” Zorich says. “Now you go to the phone, and it’s like, ‘(Shoot), she’s not going to be on the other end.’”

Former Notre Dame nose tackle Chris Zorich (50) was a unanimous All-American in 1990 (SBT File Photo).

And then one day … the boy came back

Zorich — who starred at the same high school as Dick Butkus and wore No. 50 in honor of undersized, bulging-eyed linebacker Mike Singletary — was picked by the Chicago Bears in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft.

In nearly seven seasons with his hometown team, he collected 284 tackles with 16.5 sacks and four forced fumbles.

But while the game was the same, the rest had changed.

“It was almost a letdown,” Zorich says. “Coming from Notre Dame — with the fans, the success, the family, the people on campus — it’s so large that even on the professional level, it doesn’t compare.”

Still, Zorich found joy on the streets that shaped him.

He launched the Chris Zorich Foundation in 1993, as a way to honor his mother. Each year, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Zorich coordinated his famous turkey drive, enlisting an army of Bears to deliver food throughout Chicago’s impoverished neighborhoods. On Mother’s Day, he hosted brunches and sent gift baskets to women across the city.

Chris Zorich played for nearly seven seasons with his hometown Chicago Bears (SBT File Photo).

For years, Zorich bought 15 tickets for local children to attend each of his football games — whether at home or on the road.

His foundation, not football, began to define the generous giant.

“The idea of an athlete that’s got a lot of visibility in the community and is trying to give back as much as he can … he’s the quintessential story right there,” says Tim Ryan, Zorich’s teammate and roommate at Notre Dame.

“He came from the neighborhoods he was turning around and helping out.”

“I am too old and sad to play,” said the boy

So, how did a Golden Domer and a Chicago Bear sink from the top to the very bottom?

Zorich and his wife, Camille Henderson, got divorced in 2005. Around the same time, Barbara Singer — Zorich’s cousin, who handled his finances and served as the executive director of his foundation — began a battle with cervical cancer.

While Singer fought the disease, Zorich neglected his and the foundation’s finances.

“In hindsight, I should have brought somebody else in and allowed (Singer) to make that transition,” Zorich says. “But I felt like if I would have brought someone else in, she would have felt like, ‘Hey, you’re giving up on me,’ or, ‘You think I’m going to die.’ I never would want to do that.

“So she was going to chemo, and that was around the time I got divorced, and my mind was crazy. I’m not blaming her at all.”

Singer, 51, passed away in 2008. Instead of seeking help, Zorich retreated. He set sail for South Bend, for a fresh start in his second home.

“I was like, ‘I’ll just leave Chicago and forget it,’ ” Zorich says. “I literally packed up my whole foundation and put it in a storage unit. I didn’t think about filing taxes. I didn’t think about bills that were due. I just put everything in a storage unit and started working at Notre Dame.”

In 2008, Zorich joined Notre Dame's athletics department as manager for student welfare and development. Less than two and a half years later, after the Illinois attorney general’s office launched an investigation into his foundation’s finances, he resigned.

“I could have stayed at Notre Dame longer, but I didn’t know how serious this was going to be,” Zorich says. “They were talking about lawyers and jail time, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Hold on. Can I do a full-time job and still take care of this? And on top of everything else, do I want reporters coming to my job?’ "

In August of 2012, Zorich agreed to pay back $348,447 in unaccounted funds from his shuttered foundation, via ongoing monthly payments that would stretch over seven years.

In July 2013 — after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges for failing to file (not failing to pay) federal income tax returns for four years, from 2006 to 2009 — Zorich was sentenced to three years of probation and community service, and ordered to pay a $70,000 fine.

“I took full blame. But we weren’t trying to steal anything,” Zorich says.

“If I had to do it again, would I have done things differently? Absolutely. But I didn’t, so I had to pay the consequences.”

Zorich’s probation was dropped after a year, when he completed the required community service and paid his fine.

But how do you start over when a Google search reads like a condemnation? How do you lift yourself out of the dumpster, take a breath and try again?

“I felt terrible, because I would always think, ‘What would my mom think?’ " Zorich says. "There was article after article, saying, ‘He should be going to jail.’

“It was a bad, bad, bad place.”

Or, as Ryan puts it: "It was the bottom."

“I don’t need very much now,” said the boy

Zorich already had a house in Bridgeport, a neighborhood on Chicago's south side. He had a national championship and a seat in the College Football Hall of Fame.

He didn't have a job.

“You find out who your friends are when things aren’t going well, when adversity hits,” Zorich says. “There were three or four guys that hung tight with me, and a lot of folks didn’t. I’ve known these people for years, and they’re patting me on the back when I’m with the Bears. ‘Oh, you’re feeding kids? That’s great! You’re a wonderful guy.’

“Things go south, and phone calls don’t get returned.”

For Zorich, disappointment never turned to despondence. He kept looking, kept applying, kept clawing out of the mud.

“He never gave up on the fact that he wanted to be an athletic director. He was very patient,” says Ryan, his best friend. “There were many nights when I was like, ‘Hey, man. Sooner or later you’re going to have to figure out what the deal is here.’

"He would just politely say, ‘I’m going to stick to it. I think things are turning around.’ ”

And in time, his faith was rewarded. Zorich’s first opportunity came as the athletics director at St. Sabina Academy, a grade school in Chicago. In 2014, he was hired as a supervisor for the Chicago Park District.

On May 28, 2015, he interviewed for the athletics director position at Prairie State.

“Honestly, I don’t remember the other candidates, because Chris just stood out," says Dr. Terri Winfree, the president at Prairie State. "How often do you get a candidate like Chris Zorich?"

This particular candidate arrived with a document, "A Vision for Prairie State Athletics." He had a strategic plan, a 100-day plan, a first year plan, a long-term plan. When it came to his past, he had zero excuses.

When it came to his future, he had a vigor — and a vision for Prairie State.

“As Chris walked away (my colleagues) looked at me and said, ‘If you let him get away, you’re in trouble,’ " Winfree says with a laugh. "I would have taken some heat had I made a different decision.”

And the tree was happy

Take a right turn past the Pepsi machine inside the athletic offices at Prairie State, and there's a smiling Zorich, reaching out his massive hand.

Granted, he doesn't have a Super Bowl trophy or a mansion on Lake Michigan.

But now, same as ever, he has an opportunity to impact the community he cares for most.

“Some of our kids come from really rough, tough economic circumstances,” Zorich says, leaning back on the chair in his office. “Some of our kids take buses from Chicago to get here. Some of our kids have kids. That’s a challenge. And if they play a sport, it’s even more of a challenge.

“It’s about trying to keep them focused, because I’ve been there. I’ve been in a rough situation financially. I’ve dug through the garbage for food. As a kid sitting across from me, you can’t tell me anything that I haven’t done.”

Across from Zorich's office, there is a basketball gym, which the Pioneers share with the park district and a fitness club. When the men's soccer coach quit shortly after Chris was hired, Zorich drove the bus to games, then stuffed himself in a suit and paced the sidelines as the interim coach.

Chris Zorich shows the gymnasium at Prairie State College Wednesday, May 30, 2017, in Chicago Heights, Ill. Zorich became the athletic director at Prairie State in 2015. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

He has eight programs to run and minimal funds with which to run them.

But who knows more about taking square apples and making meals?

“Instead of using four bags of chalk to chalk a baseball field, we use one,” Zorich says. “They can still see the lines, but they may not be as noticeable. But the lines are there.”

So are the results. These days, Zorich doesn’t celebrate national awards and bowl wins. He’s eager to tell you about Ricardo Vega, a former Prairie State soccer player who earned a full ride to the University of Illinois-Chicago. He gushes about a baseball player that earned straight A’s after previously failing.

In his nearly two years on the job, Zorich has raised academic requirements and instituted a community service program for Prairie State's athletes. He hasn’t made it to Notre Dame football games of late, he says, because they conflict with Pioneer soccer.

“I feel like we’re saving lives,” he says, and that may be true of more than the students.

Like Zorich, Carlos Reyes grew up poor. And like Zorich, sports were his way out. He played professional soccer for the Chicago Mustangs of the Major Arena Soccer League. Now, as an academic advisor and the head men’s soccer coach at Prairie State, he mails part of each paycheck to Mexico to support his mother.

“Sometimes, you’re looking for angels,” Reyes says of Zorich, who hired him in 2015. “He was the person that helped me to achieve this goal I’ve had for a long time.”

Zorich knows a thing or two about angels. He wears a national championship ring on his left hand and a tattoo with the word “Mom” printed across a heart on the inside of his right arm. Over his shoulder, “The Giving Tree” is prominently displayed, leaning against a wall.

To Chris’ right, Zora Zorich stands outside Notre Dame Stadium’s gates, smiling, as she signs an autograph for an Irish fan. From her hair, to her shirt, to her coat, she’s draped in white, just like an angel.

Even 26 and a half years later, Chris sees his mother every day. In a white frame, her photo is hanging — just above the phone.

A photo of Chris Zorich's mother with a Notre Dame fan on the wall inside his office at Prairie State College Wednesday, May 30, 2017, in Chicago Heights, Ill. Zorich became the athletic director at Prairie State in 2015. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Chris Zorich tattoo honors his mother inside his office at Prairie State College Wednesday, May 30, 2017, in Chicago Heights, Ill. Zorich became the athletic director at Prairie State in 2015. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

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Chris Zorich's at Prairie State College Wednesday, May 30, 2017, in Chicago Heights, Ill. Zorich became the athletic director at Prairie State in 2015. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Former Notre Dame nose tackle Chris Zorich reads "The Giving Tree" to a class of grade school students (photo courtesy Chris Zorich).
A photo of Chris Zorich with former President Bill Clinton on the wall inside his office at Prairie State College Wednesday, May 30, 2017, in Chicago Heights, Ill. Zorich became the athletic director at Prairie State in 2015. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN