SI Vault
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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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.

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