While consuming a catfish dinner on a recent summer evening in his home on the South Side of Chicago, Notre Dame noseguard and cocaptain Chris Zorich pauses between bites to consider a question. His eyes take on a steely glint. "My dream?" he says. "It's to knock the quarterback's head off, then watch it go rolling down the field." His mother, Zora, looks horrified. "Oh, no, Chris," she says, and buries her head in her hands.
But Zorich is not deterred. He says, "Look, whatever you can do to an opponent is never too much. I will bite somebody's head off. I will tear his helmet off. All I do is give 100 percent. I'm sorry."
Then, this small storm having passed, he refocuses on the catfish. "Pass the salt, please," he says mildly.
Zorich is the toughest and most vicious player in college football. Period. John Potocki, who was Zorich's coach at Chicago Vocational High, says Chris is even more intense than Dick Butkus, another alumnus. "Chris is the meanest man in the meanest game," says Potocki. "He is as vicious as a player can be."
USC quarterback Todd Marinovich, who faced the 280-pound Zorich for the first time last season in a 28-24 Trojan loss, says, "Every time I walked up behind the center, Zorich was the guy my eyes went to. He's scary." Stanford fullback Tommy Vardell recalls a moment last year during the Irish's 27-17 defeat of the Cardinal when the whistle blew just as Zorich was about to level him. "You're lucky, number 44," Zorich snarled.
He wasn't kidding. Not since Hugh Green, a defensive end for Pitt who struck fear in offenses from 1977 to '80, has a defensive player been such a force in the college game. Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, who was Notre Dame's defensive coordinator for the past two seasons, says of Zorich, "He is soooooo intense. In years ahead he'll be the standard against which all noseguards will be measured."
Zorich should win the Heisman Trophy. He probably won't, of course, because the shortsighted voters will give the award to some pretty-boy back. That's what happened to Green in '80, when he was clearly the best candidate but lost out to South Carolina running back George Rogers. It doesn't matter. Those who know football, know.
"The most vicious man in football?" says Zorich. "O.K., I'll accept that as a nonofficial accolade. But I don't consider myself vicious." He falls silent. Then that steely glint returns, and he says, "Well, maybe. I definitely do not take any crap from anybody on the field."
None. He screams like a banshee, he intimidates. He is everywhere, a wreck waiting to happen. Zora can't believe it. "He's so shy," she says. "He cries at sad movies." Nevertheless, Potocki gave Chris a plaque that reads: YEA, THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I SHALL FEAR NO EVIL. CAUSE I'M THE MEANEST SON OF A BITCH IN THE VALLEY.
How mean? Three times last spring, coach Lou Holtz threw Zorich out of practice. The first time was when he gave a teammate a forearm under his chin after the whistle. Holtz saw that and went nuts. Two days later, Zorich recalls, "a lineman kept hitting me, so I decided to get in the last hit." Holtz saw that and went nuts. Afterward, Zorich apologized to his teammates for being too aggressive. But a few days later he felt the offensive line was coming off the ball too hard in a no-pads drill, so he gathered the defense to plot revenge. Holtz heard that and went nuts again. Still, Holtz has said, "Chris is fast and strong. Not a bad combination for a defensive lineman, huh?"
Off the field, Zorich is the gentlest soul imaginable. He loves Robert Frost's poetry. His favorite passage is:
The woods are lovely dark and deep.
Bid I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
With women, Zorich is the quintessential cream puff. Last year he gave his girlfriend, Notre Dame volleyball player Jessica Fiebelkorn, a red rose for love and a white rose for friendship. "You definitely need both," says Zorich. Sometimes he gives her flowers he has picked himself. When his roommate, offensive lineman Tim Ryan, gets the best of Zorich in practice, Ryan chides, "You? Vicious? Please. Go pick your little flowers."
Zorich regularly feeds the ducks at St. Mary's Lake on the Notre Dame campus, and he's taking a course in piano this fall. He's unfailingly polite and always addresses his coaches as "sir." Taped to a door in his mom's apartment are 14 cards he has sent her—for Easter, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day. He calls her almost every night to tell her he loves her and to remind her to bolt the locks on the front and back doors. Their one-bedroom apartment has been broken into five times in the last 10 years.
Those locks begin to tell the story of how Zorich got to be so mean—and so loving. The apartment is on the second floor of a housing project near 81st Street and Burnham Avenue, in the heart of one of Chicago's toughest neighborhoods. There's a lot happening there, almost all bad. Drug deals are going down, vandalized cars litter the streets, and there are hookers and winos everywhere. The sound of a gunshot rings out a few streets over, and Zorich says, "You learn three lessons living here: Watch your back; don't trust anybody; and when you hear a gunshot, hide behind a car. I'm frightened to death of this neighborhood."
The wail of a siren sounds in the distance, but
the police don't come around much. The gangs are in control: the Blackstone Rangers, the Latin Kings, the Disciples. A young man wearing a beeper on his belt rides by on a bike and waves. "He's selling drugs," says Zorich. "That's why he has the beeper."
This neighborhood reflects the U.S. at its worst. How tough is it? When he was a youngster, Zorich saw a man bludgeoned with a golf club, and he once had a gun turned on him in a corner store. "We played tackle football on the street," Zorich recalls, "and Butkus's bronzed shoes were stolen from the school."
Zorich is the son of a black man who was only briefly present. His mother is white and of Yugoslavian descent. (Her brother, Louis, is an actor who is married to Olympia Dukakis.) Chris estimates he was mugged "around 100 times, give or take one or two." Mostly he was whipped by older boys making fun of his mixed blood; "honkie," they used to call him. He laughs and then turns serious, saying, "Getting your butt kicked means you aren't making it."
Also, gang members, frustrated by his refusal to join them, made him pay for his obstinacy. "Lots of times I'd just be walking along and they would commence to kick my butt for no reason," says Zorich. The nadir, he says, "was when I got beat up by a girl." He was only seven at the time and she was 16, but still, he adds, "it was awful."
Potocki says, "There's a little bit of hate in Chris from people picking on him. Actually, there's a lot." Zorich agrees with that assessment and theorizes that "football is my way of fighting back against all the guys who beat me up." Now, with a huge upper body sculpted by long hours spent lifting weights—and not, he says vehemently, by using steroids—nobody bothers him. The other night a young woman passed him on the sidewalk and blurted, "God, there ought to be a law against having a body like that." Zorich didn't react. He has heard comments like that a thousand times.
Later, Potocki is driving through the area. "Bad corner," he points out. Then, "This is a really bad corner." And, "This is really, really bad." Asked to point out a good corner, he shrugs and says, "Aren't any. Around here you better know what you're doing, because you are dealing with guys who'd rather fight than eat." He waves amiably to a drug lookout and says, "You've got to be an animal to live here. In this neighborhood there's nothing but wrong."
Except in Zora's apartment, where there is, and always has been, nothing but right. Zora is disabled by diabetes, and her monthly income is about $200. Of that, $140 goes for rent. "She has an incredible attitude." says Louis. "She read all the time to Chris, things like Raggedy Ann and all the Dr. Seuss books." There are books everywhere in her apartment. One of her favorites is Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving.
"There were times when the refrigerator was bare," says Chris. "And sometimes we had macaroni and cheese for lunch and dinner three days in a row. But I am lucky for everything I've had. I believe hard times build character."
Zora agrees. "When you're poor, you can be yourself, relax," she says. "If you have money, you also have to have an image. People expect nothing of poor people. And we don't ever have to worry about which fork to use."
When Zorich enrolled at Notre Dame, one of the forms he had to fill out asked about his family. He wrote, "Well, it's only my mom and she is the best thing that ever happened." Athletes from poor backgrounds often celebrate their mothers, but the underpinnings of sincerity and respect are sometimes missing. Zorich has both. "My goal in life is to be a great person—like my mother," he says. "She has nothing, but she has everything. I don't want people to remember me as a good noseguard. I want them to remember me, eventually, as a wonderful husband, a wonderful father, and as somebody who would always help. I think the main thing is, if you can't be honest with yourself, then you can't be a decent human being." Zora claps her hands and says, "My hero."
That Zorich ended up in South Bend is one of life's little miracles. Notre Dame is only an hour and 45 minutes from his Chicago doorstep, but in his early high school years, he confesses, "I thought it was some place in France." In addition, he had never heard of athletic scholarships. As he started to blossom as a player in high school, he discovered that he was woefully short of core credits. So, in his senior year, he signed up for extra classes, in trigonometry, history and English.
Truth be told, Zorich in no way belonged at Notre Dame academically. His combined SAT score was 740; the average for entering freshmen is 1,220. The athletic department's academic adviser, Mike DeCicco, wrote on a piece of paper in Zorich's file, "Watch him closely." But admissions director Kevin Rooney defends the admission of Zorich by saying that "you can develop a sense of a person by looking into the eyes."
Zorich hung in there, even though he got D's in two of his four courses in the fall of his sophomore year. "I am strong mentally," he says. "When the chips are down, I don't panic." He has gone to summer school each year, and he currently has a 2.3 average. And he is on schedule to graduate next spring with a degree in American Studies. "I want to broaden my horizons and become a cultured person," he says. "I grew up at 81st and Burnham. I didn't even know there was such a thing as piano lessons."
What has happened here is the awakening of a young mind. And that is infinitely more exciting than any play ever seen on a football field. Says Alvarez, "Chris is truly what college football is all about." Or should be about. The experience in South Bend has opened Zorich up to a new universe. His former position coach, John Palermo, now at Austin Peay, says, "He is exactly how you want your son to turn out."
Just as football has been Zorich's vehicle out of the ghetto, it is likely to transport him to undreamed-of riches come NFL draft time. Naturally, he talks about moving his mother away from 81st and Burnham if he gets the big bucks. The only problem is, she doesn't want to go. "It's not so bad here," she insists. "I am not afraid, and I won't be afraid." Three times thugs have tried to mug her, and three times she made such a commotion the assailants ran away empty-handed.
Meanwhile, Zorich will continue to play his out-of-control style of football this fall, impressing all who cross his path—or attempt to. Not just playing football, but playing it well, is Zorich's obsession. He learned this from his mother too. For five summers he was a janitor at Tabor Lutheran Church, and, he says, "My mom taught me to do the best I can possibly do at everything I do. If I looked at the church floor and I had not mopped it well, I'd do it again."
No wonder he feels that he still has miles to go in football. "My best game?" he says. "I haven't had it yet. I won't be through with this game until I make every tackle in a game."
It makes no difference to Zorich that his primary role as a noseguard is to keep the offensive linemen off his linebackers, so that they can make the tackles. Last season he had 92 tackles, third highest among the Irish. And his lateral movement, once suspect, has improved dramatically, as has his quickness. Still, the pros fret because he's only 6'1", which is considered too short for a noseguard.
Zora professes to have no idea how her son became so splendid, on and off the field. "I'm astounded," she says. She shouldn't be. If anyone needs proof that love can conquer all, let him come to 81st and Burnham. Chris heads toward the front door, calling over his shoulder, "I love you, Ma." And a voice from the kitchen answers, "I love you."
Then he steps out into the world again, as yet another round of gunfire peals in the distance.