Notre Dame great Tommy Zbikowski fights his way back from addiction

  • Former Notre Dame all-American and pro football player Tommy Zbikowski says a new career as a Chicago firefighter, paired with his boxing, keeps him both sober and focused.

      Former Notre Dame all-American and pro football player Tommy Zbikowski says a new career as a Chicago firefighter, paired with his boxing, keeps him both sober and focused. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Ed Zbikowski talks about his son Tommy, who is training at the Sam Colonna Boxing facility in Chicago.

      Ed Zbikowski talks about his son Tommy, who is training at the Sam Colonna Boxing facility in Chicago. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Prospect's Matt Iovino pressures Buffalo Grove's Tom Zbikowski in a 2002 football game at Buffalo Grove High School.

    Prospect's Matt Iovino pressures Buffalo Grove's Tom Zbikowski in a 2002 football game at Buffalo Grove High School. Daily Herald file photo, Nov. 2002

  • Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte runs after a catch as Indianapolis Colts defensive back Tom Zbikowski makes the play during the Bears season opener  against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago. The Bears won 41-21.

    Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte runs after a catch as Indianapolis Colts defensive back Tom Zbikowski makes the play during the Bears season opener against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday at Soldier Field in Chicago. The Bears won 41-21. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • Tommy Zbikowski, right, and brother E.J., at his Chicago Fire Department graduation last year. After several years in the NFL, Zbikowski entered rehab and then trained to become a firefighter.

    Tommy Zbikowski, right, and brother E.J., at his Chicago Fire Department graduation last year. After several years in the NFL, Zbikowski entered rehab and then trained to become a firefighter. courtesy of Ed Zbikowski

 
 
Updated 6/16/2016 5:36 AM

Tommy Zbikowski is dripping with sweat at Sam Colonna's boxing gym in Chicago, hitting the heavy and uppercut bags with the same intensity the former Notre Dame All-American once showed on the football field.

Yet, he's not the same person he was back then, he'll tell you.

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It was two years ago that Zbikowski, once a star player for Buffalo Grove High School, entered rehab for alcoholism and addiction to pain medication, put his football career firmly behind him and became a Chicago firefighter.

He'd been drinking heavily since his days at Notre Dame and upped the ante when he was drafted in 2008 by the Baltimore Ravens, even starting NFL games with hangovers. He says it was a major reason he played through only a fraction of his $6 million, three-year deal with the Indianapolis Colts. Zbikowski was signed by the Chicago Bears in 2013 but released by the team before the regular season.

"I was immature, selfish. I didn't (care) about anyone," he said.

One morning, he made eye contact with himself in the mirror. "I said, 'This has to go. Enough is enough.'"

Staying sober, focused

Zbikowski says his 24-hour shifts at Chicago Engine Company 83 -- followed by 48 off-hours packed with boxing training -- keep him sober and in shape for rescues like the one he calls "the biggest thing I've ever done."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In April, Zbikowski responded to a fire in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood where people were trapped in a third-floor apartment. Zbikowski rescued Beau Zanca, 23, who he later found out attended Zbikowski's speed camps in Palatine for young athletes. Zanca, a Prospect High School graduate, is in the hospital recovering from serious burns.

The new job doesn't come with the fame or trappings of a professional football career, but Zbikowski says it's made him feel relevant again, "as egotistic as that sounds."

Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski, center, heads to the end zone on a 52-yard punt return after getting past North Carolina punter David Wooldridge, left, in the second quarter of college football action in South Bend, Ind., in this Nov. 4, 2006, file photo.
Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski, center, heads to the end zone on a 52-yard punt return after getting past North Carolina punter David Wooldridge, left, in the second quarter of college football action in South Bend, Ind., in this Nov. 4, 2006, file photo. - Associated Press

His father, Ed Zbikowski, sees his son's journey from football to the firehouse differently. "God works in strange ways. This whole experience has shown us that whatever happens, happens for a reason," he says.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Get a glimpse

Tommy Zbikowski, right, with fellow Chicago firefighter Morgan McGarry, trains for an upcoming boxing match. The two are stationed together at the Wilson Avenue Firehouse in Chicago.
  Tommy Zbikowski, right, with fellow Chicago firefighter Morgan McGarry, trains for an upcoming boxing match. The two are stationed together at the Wilson Avenue Firehouse in Chicago. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

If you want to watch Zbikowski in action, see his fight at 7 p.m. Friday at the Belvedere Banquets in Elk Grove Village. Tickets start at $40 and can be purchased at www.hitzboxing.com.

Hitting home

A rape case involving a Stanford University swimmer has ignited a conversation about sexual assault on college campuses.

Wondering what was happening locally, I looked at the number of campus rapes that have been reported to the U.S. Department of Education by universities across the state.

According to the most recent year of data, which is 2014, Southern Illinois University Carbondale and Northern Illinois University had the most reported rapes on campus, with 13 apiece. That was followed by 12 at the University of Illinois, 8 at Illinois State, six at Western Illinois University and four at Eastern Illinois University.

Statistics at suburban community colleges, where students don't generally live on campus, are much lower, with the only reported rape in 2014 at the College of Lake County.

For more information, check out www.ope.ed.gov.

'Angels' priest dies

Word came late Wednesday of the death of the Rev. Joseph McDonnell, 88, pastor emeritus of St. John of the Cross Parish in Western Springs. McDonnell's first assignment as a priest was at Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago.

He was there when a fire broke out in 1958, killing 92 children and three nuns. Survivor John Raymond of Mount Prospect tells me McDonnell visited him in the hospital as he was recovering.

"It was a village we lived in and Father Mac was part of that village," Raymond says. A visitation is scheduled for 3 to 8 p.m. today at the church, 5005 Wolf Road, Western Springs.

'Steak'-outs

John Fridono owns Big Ange's Eatery. A little detective work went into choosing a beef vendor for the newly opened Arlington Heights restaurant.
  John Fridono owns Big Ange's Eatery. A little detective work went into choosing a beef vendor for the newly opened Arlington Heights restaurant. - Melissa Silverberg | Staff Photographer

As a reporter who on a few occasions has ventured out on stakeouts around the suburbs, I had to laugh this week when I learned how owners of the newly opened Big Ange's Eatery in Arlington Heights went about obtaining the top-notch beef for their burgers -- by staking out Chicago's upscale burger diner, Au Cheval, and taking notes on which beef vendor was making a delivery.

Jam session, for a cause

Paul Ahlstrand, left, Cubs President Theo Epstein, Eddie Vedder and Jason Narducy perform together at last year's Hot Stove, Cool Music benefit concert. The annual event brings together musicians, artists and Cubs officials to raise money for Epstein's nonprofit, The Foundation To Be Named Later.
Paul Ahlstrand, left, Cubs President Theo Epstein, Eddie Vedder and Jason Narducy perform together at last year's Hot Stove, Cool Music benefit concert. The annual event brings together musicians, artists and Cubs officials to raise money for Epstein's nonprofit, The Foundation To Be Named Later. - Courtesy of Elevate Communications

Chicago Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper tipped me off to a fascinating collision of musicians, artists and sports figures that'll be coming together Friday to raise money and awareness for nonprofit agencies serving disadvantaged youth.

Cubs President Theo Epstein, Hall of Fame baseball writer Peter Gammons and Kasper are among those taking the stage alongside Liz Phair, Jimmy Chamberlin from the Smashing Pumpkins and Freda Love Smith from The Blake Babies for the Hot Stove, Cool Music Chicago concert. It benefits The Foundation To Be Named Later, started by Epstein and his twin brother Paul. "Theo (Epstein) plays a little guitar. Peter Gammons does, too. I play a little bass," says Kasper, who describes the event as "for all of these great musicians to join up and play with each other, something they normally wouldn't do." Tickets for the concert, which begins at 7:30 p.m. at Metro in Chicago, start at $75 and are available at www.metrochicago.com.

Memories of Mike

Saturday is the second annual Mike Spellman Memorial Stakes at Arlington Park, honoring the Daily Herald sports writer who was very much the heart of our newsroom. Post time is 3:45 p.m.

Spellman died unexpectedly in January 2015.

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