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HARD MAN, SOFT HEART
Douglas S. Looney
October 01, 1990
Notre Dame's Chris Zorich is mean on the football field, but he is a gentle soul elsewhere
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October 01, 1990

Hard Man, Soft Heart

Notre Dame's Chris Zorich is mean on the football field, but he is a gentle soul elsewhere

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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.

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