Former Buffalo Grove star Zbikowski succeeds with the Bears -- the Brown University Bears
Already, Tom Zbikowski has produced results at Brown University, coaching safeties.
Aubrey Parker, a senior from downstate Belleville, intercepted a pass in the second half of the Brown Bears' season-opening 29-25 win over Bryant last Saturday in Rhode Island.
Tendencies, alignments, that stuff -- in Parker's eyes, it's secondary to Zbikowski's lessons as a first-year Brown assistant.
"Coach Zib" -- former Buffalo Grove High School and University of Notre Dame star, 2009 Pro Bowl alternate as a Baltimore Ravens safety and kick returner -- delivers the intangibles.
"He has given us a lot of wisdom that you can use holistically, not just on the field but things that you can use in life off the field," Parker said.
"Of course he is going to make us the best football players we can be, but he's trying to mold us into better, stronger, more ambitious men."
Zbikowski, 38, has vast experience in those areas. Some of it as a graduate of the school of hard knocks.
He also has his own motivations.
"I never had a state championship in high school track or football. Boxing-wise, I was nationally ranked but never won a national title," said the blue-collar Park Ridge native.
"In college, I was two plays away from being in a national championship, and in the NFL I played in two AFC championships -- I know what it takes to get there, but I never won it as a player.
"I just think all those things I've been through makes me the coach that I am. I've been on the cusp too many times," Zbikowski said.
That's as an athlete. Zbikowski is one of those people whose life could be a screenplay.
In a three-month span as a toddler, Zbikowski said, his mother, Sue, was diagnosed with a blood disease, his older brother, E.J., was found to have a brain tumor, and his grandfather, Edmund, died.
His mother and brother -- "a better football player than me," Tom said -- both survived. Yet thereafter, thinking of E.J.'s ordeals "sends me in the direction of violence," Tom said.
It came in handy in an early fascination with wrestling and martial arts, and a long association with boxing -- nearly 100 amateur bouts and an 8-0 professional record as a cruiserweight. The first of 5 knockout wins came at Madison Square Garden in 2006 when Zbikowski was still at Notre Dame.
Violence hurt when self-directed. His five-year NFL career ended not by a season-ending injury with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012, but by "drugs and alcohol," he said. He battled depression, he told Notre Dame Insider in an illuminating 2015 article.
"Too much of that childhood trauma," Zbikowski said. "I didn't know you could escape all that anger."
When a 2013 bid with the Chicago Bears fell through, Zbikowski sought "something in common" with his grandfather and father, also Ed, and entered the Chicago Fire Academy in 2014.
After his first shift of a three-year stint with Engine Company 83 in Chicago, Zbikowski said he sat in the station garage and wept, "thinking about how I ended my football career. You're talking 2015 and I've been plotting and scheming my way back since then," he said.
First came positions coaching high school wrestling and football. Last year, Zbikowski re-entered the college ranks at Western Michigan as a defensive quality control assistant.
Ironically, childhood joy, not trauma, helped turn the corner.
The first of Tom and Hannah Zbikowski's three children, Tommy Julian, was born Sept. 15, 2020, a few months after Tom's last amateur fight at the Aragon Ballroom in March 2020.
"Having my son is what put me on the right path," Zbikowski said. "I didn't have the same anger."
Fortunately for the Brown Bears, his passion remained.
"We knew the kind of energy and intensity Tom played with and what that meant to his teams during his playing days, and knew before we brought him to Brown that he brought that same kind of intensity to coaching," said Brown head coach James Perry.
"He has brought those things to our team here at Brown and our guys feed off that. His knowledge and experience from the highest level in the NFL and college football have benefitted our players tremendously," Perry said.
Coaching in the Ivy League, which Zbikowski would never have imagined, players crave film study and "love when I bark at them on the field," he said.
He treats each player as an individual and aims to develop the traits they possess emotionally, mentally, physically.
"I teach them all the life lessons and how it relates" to football, Zbikowski said. "A lot of them know my life story, and when I preach it doesn't need to be repeated. The level of respect that I get from those kids brings joy to my life. It heals how I ended my football career," he said.
"My only goal is to make sure they can thrive."