Saturday, December 25, 2010

Chris Zorich – timeless inspiration

In the Christmas holiday season, stories that inspire the soul and are borne from accounts of personal generosity regularly abound – usually without exception.

In 2010, America is a land in exceptional need of inspiration.

A growing effort to find it in the stories of our Founding Fathers has served as a welcome development this year. Other, more recent such features also have been spotlighted.

Not long ago, one of my all-time favorite athletes’ personal story came to mind. While in recent years I have focused my mental energies on spurning celebrity and athlete glorification, the chronicle of Chris Zorich is simultaneously uplifting, heart-breaking, and amazing.

Most of the details contained below are written from memory. My family for years had a subscription to Blue & Gold Illustrated, a periodical dedicated wholly to University of Notre Dame athletics – especially the football program. The staff at BGI published regular personal interest stories about the school’s players – particularly in the off-season issues. After rapidly establishing himself as one of Notre Dame’s top players of his day, Zorich would become a frequent focus of these articles.

He was born and raised in Chicago’s South Side, the only child of single mother Zora Zorich. They were abandoned by his father while Zora was still pregnant.

His childhood was one of constant adversity and struggle. Being mulatto, he dealt with rejection from both whites and blacks in his neighborhood. While he desired an education, he had to overcome a learning disability. And, the Zorich’s lived in the most impoverished of conditions.

Their situation in life forged a mother-son bond that was beyond comparison. It was in large part because of their relationship the younger Zorich managed to avoid gang entanglements as a child, despite the nature of their surroundings.

For many youth in an area such as the South Side, high achievement in sports or education were the only means of ascent from it. Zorich dedicated himself to both his education and athletics with equal zeal.

He was a standout football player at Chicago Vocational High School and in his senior year, 1986-87, was heavily recruited by numerous college programs. At Zora’s urging, he ultimately accepted the football scholarship at Notre Dame offered to him by then-Head Coach Lou Holtz.

Complying with his mother’s wish also was not an easy endeavor, as Zorich faced the inevitable commentary of naysayers. He was told repeatedly to go elsewhere, that he lacked the scholastic aptitude to maintain his eligibility to play football at Notre Dame, and he could never weather the school’s stringent academic standards.

Others advised Zorich – who stood just under 6-1 and weighed roughly 220 lbs. at the time – during his senior year of high school that he was too undersized to effectively compete for playing time with the Fighting Irish.

But, Zora was able to get Chris to promise her that his first priority was to graduate. She believed Notre Dame was the only school recruiting him that would hold his feet to the fire when it came to his studies and that if he finished his degree, no matter what became of his football career, his future would be secure.

He was sidelined by an injury his freshman year. But, he used the recovery time to dedicate himself to strengthening and conditioning as well as his course work. Not long after the start of August drills for his sophomore season, Zorich quickly established himself as the Fighting Irish’s first-string nose guard for the 1988 season.

Zorich would prove to be a dominant force on Notre Dame’s defense from the opening game against the University of Michigan Wolverines to the final regular season match against the USC Trojans and then the Fiesta Bowl versus the West Virginia Mountaineers en route to the first (and so far only) 12-0 record in Fighting Irish history.

In his junior and senior seasons, he would earn consensus All-American honors as a defensive lineman and be awarded the Lombardi Trophy his senior year as the NCAA’s top-ranked defensive player.

By the end of his final season in a Notre Dame uniform, Zorich had bulked-up to almost 290 lbs. and built a nationwide reputation as one of the most physically dominating and technically proficient football players in the college ranks.

With the scrutiny faced by collegiate athletic programs in the NCAA to maintain compliance with its rules, living conditions at the Zorich home remained unchanged, despite the enormous success Chris Zorich built for himself as a student athlete. This was chronicled, in part, in a BGI article centering on a trip home he took with teammate and fellow defensive lineman Troy Ridgley.

The piece focused on the friendship the two had formed, which in and of itself was interesting as they came from such divergent backgrounds: Zorich, a biracial young man raised in poverty in inner-city Chicago; Ridgley, a white teenager who grew up in privilege in the affluent town of Ambridge in western Pennsylvania.

If there was one key development for the Zorich family during Chris’ time at Notre Dame, it was Zora’s steadily declining health. A longtime diabetic, she was unable to afford insulin and other basic medical care.

Toward the close of the 1989 season, a number of analysts deemed the younger Zorich primed and ready for an illustrious pro football career if he were to pursue it a year ahead of time. Nevertheless, even with all the pressure to follow the growing trend of stellar college athletes bypassing their senior years to enter the NFL draft, Zora never stopped holding Chris to his word to see his education all the way to graduation day.

The end of his Hall of Fame-worthy college football playing days came on January 1, 1991, as Notre Dame faced the University of Colorado Buffaloes in a return to the Fiesta Bowl and a second-consecutive bowl match-up with Colorado. The Fighting Irish would lose that game 10-9 on a controversial clipping penalty that negated what would have been a potential game-winning kick-off return by Raghib Ismail with less than a minute remaining in the 4th quarter.

On the same night Notre Dame lost that bowl game, Chris Zorich would lose much more.

According to the article that ran in the ensuing issue of BGI, after the team’s return flight landed and he was able to find a ride to his home in Chicago for a brief spell of R&R before the start of the next semester, Chris entered their apartment the next day – bags still in hand – and found his mother lying dead in their kitchen with the television set still on.

The coroner’s office determined Zora Zorich had died on New Year’s Day shortly after falling into a diabetic coma. Her time of death was estimated to have happened roughly around or after the end of the game: she likely spent her last waking moments alive watching her son play his final game on national TV.

Zorich told BGI that after he found her unresponsive and came to the realization she had already passed, he sat on the kitchen floor, picked her up in his arms, kissed her, and told her, “I love you, Mom.”

He would be drafted that spring by his hometown Chicago Bears in the second round of the NFL draft. More importantly, Zorich kept his promise and saw his final semester through to the end, earning his bachelor of arts in American Studies. He would confess to BGI that he finished college with the minimum allowable 2.0 grade point average and did so with the help of extensive tutoring the entire time. But, he always successfully maintained his academic eligibility and truly earned his four-year degree.

Let us not forget: he did so after being repeatedly warned and cautioned as a high school recruit that he would never able to hack it at Notre Dame.

While Zorich would enjoy a successful NFL career – even earning All Pro honors after the ’93 season, injury would prevent him from playing beyond the fall of 1997 (his knee, if memory serves me correct). Shortly after his retirement from football, he re-enrolled at Notre Dame to begin working on his law degree, which he earned in 2002.

His professional life outside of football also has been filled with successes, including a position with the Chicago law firm of Schuyler Roche, P.C., where he distinguished himself through his work counseling clients on starting and growing their careers and improving their businesses. He also has established himself as an acclaimed motivational speaker.

Over the years, Zorich has received a multitude of civic, community service, and humanitarian awards and honors.

In 1993, he founded the Chris Zorich Foundation (which he originally titled the Zora Zorich Foundation in honor of his mother) to help low-income and poverty-level individuals and families through various community programs, particularly in and around Chicago. Among the foundation’s programs is the Zora Zorich Scholarship at the University of Notre Dame – distinguishing Chris Zorich as the university’s first student-athlete alumnus to ever establish a scholarship fund at his alma mater.

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