The Observer catches up with former Notre Dame All-American defensive tackle Chris Zorich
By PEYTON BERG
Former Notre Dame football defensive lineman Chris Zorich's aggressive, relentless playing style struck fear into the hearts of opponents from 1987-1990.
The three-time All American and 1990 captain's impressive resume includes a national championship ring, a Lombardi trophy, and the NFL Man of the Year award.
In an age where athletes routinely find themselves in trouble with the law, Zorich instead chose to use his notoriety and financial success to serve the community through the Christopher Zorich Foundation. He currently attends Notre Dame Law School, and recently sat down with fellow classmate and Observer college football analyst Peyton Berg.
Q: You participated in some of Notre Dame's biggest games such as the 31-30 victory over top-ranked Miami. What was your biggest victory?
A: I don't watch the old games much, but the things I remember are situations in games more than the final score. I remember the fights against Miami and USC. I remember the first game I started against Michigan in 1988. I was a 265-pound sophomore going up against first-team All American center John Ritali.
I went offside about three times, but got eleven tackles. I remember thinking `wow, this is fun!' It was a real turning point for me as an athlete. It was the first time that I ever had a chance to play in front of so many people.
The pep rally, sleeping in the hotel the night before, the whole experience for me was awesome. If you talk to players, they'll talk about the situations more than the games.
Q: Lou Holtz has worked miracles at South Carolina. Can you describe for us his ability to lead and motivate?
A: Actually, I had the wonderful opportunity to go down there for a couple games this year. As a player, being in that environment, and as a spectator, it's two totally different things. You can change his hat and change "ND" to "USC," but he says the same stuff and talks about the same things.
We were laughing because he was telling them the exact same stuff he told us fifteen years ago. But, it works. Those guys believe in him. Having Tony Rice and me come down there and hang out with them, they know that we won a national championship because we listened to them. They're saying, hey, if we listen to this crazy, short, lispy guy, he'll take us to the Promised Land. If you look at the year before, they didn't win any games. He did the same thing here as he's doing there, taking his teams to a bowl game in only his second year.
He knows how to build a team and take people who may not be the best at their position and find somewhere where they can be a leader. He sent his starting tailback home for disciplinary reasons before the bowl game this year.
I was mad that no one mentioned in 1988 when he sent starters Ricky Watters and Tony Rice home before our game at No. 2 USC. That fused our team — no one could beat us, not even the Chicago Bears. The reason why was because you can either go home and cry or rally around each other.
I would have taken a bullet for anybody on that squad that day. It's amazing because the same thing happened, and they were unbeatable that day too. The reason why he's successful is because he uses a lot of psychological tricks.
He would call me into his office and tell me that the opposing coach that week said that I was short and overrated. I would go out and have an unbelievable game. One year, Air Force painted their visiting locker room pink. He came in and was furious. He knew about it beforehand, but we didn't.
He told the managers to get ten gallons of black paint, and after we kick their butts, we'll paint this locker room black! We went out there and beat them and came in screaming "where's the paint?" He said "Guys, I thought about it during the game, and that's just not the Notre Dame way."
He gets paid $60,000 per speech, so he knows what he's talking about. He is a master motivator. That's what I think Coach Davie lacks. Holtz taught us not just about football, but about life.
He had an acronym WIN: What's Important Now. What was important now was a good practice, not a national championship. He broke it down to that level. We were focussed on practices when we were 11-0 and about to play for the national championship.
Q: In 2000, the football team had success despite some key injuries. In your opinion, what's the current state of Notre Dame football? Can Coach Davie win a national championship here?
A: I personally don't think we should have been in the BCS Bowl. They knew Notre Dame would have a bunch of folks down there or watching on TV, and it's all about money.
They almost got beat by Air Force this year, and we're supposed to be better than Air Force. The Fiesta Bowl loss should be plenty of motivation for Nebraska next year.
Q: What do you think this team needs to add to become legitimate national championship contenders next year?
A: When we would go on the field, we expected to win. I think that's what lacks now. They're going out on the field to hopefully win and try hard, versus we were going to win. No doubt about it.
You can say that's cocky, but when you have confidence in every position on the field, you know you're going to win. Rocket, Stonebreaker, Todd Lyght, me, at every position we were terrific. You have some great players here, but I think they lack a winning attitude. You can't teach that. If you could bottle it up, coaches would give it to every guy on the team.
I remember our practices, we would get in fights all the time. I wanted to hit Ricky Watters as hard as I could. It was something that we just had.
Q: During your NFL career, you created the Christopher Zorich Foundation. What is it about, what have you been able to accomplish, and what are your future goals?
A: I started it because I grew up in a situation where I really didn't have a lot. The first thing I wanted to do was give somebody the opportunity to attend Notre Dame on a scholarship. I wanted to send some kids to school.
I didn't realize what went into starting a foundation. I sat down with my lawyer who was a 1991 Notre Dame Law School graduate. We set up an endowment and put together a plan. It really snowballed.
The first thing we did was load 97 turkeys into the back of my truck and distribute them in my old neighborhood. Since then, we've assisted 75,000 people. We have five programs: scholarships, food, we deliver flowers to women in shelters, School is Cool, and Holiday From the Heart, similar to your Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots program. It has really grown.
A lot of times we'll come into a situation, and have the resources to assist people. I like to say we're a broker: we get needy folks on one end, and people that want to help on the other. It gives me an opportunity to live in two worlds; one where people don't have much like me for the first 21 years of my life, and one where nine hours later I'm at a table with CEOs and the Mayor of Chicago. It blows me away. I helped walk kids to school through gang-infested neighborhoods, and it saddened me because they literally feared for their lives. I want to bring these worlds together, I'm talking job employment in the future. We are a grass roots organization, and a lot of times I'm writing letters and faxing things. What's great is that we have a great corps of volunteers.
What I'm trying to get across to people is that you don' t need to have money or success to start a foundation. You can do other things. If there's a gift that you have, whether it's sewing, cooking, or financial planning, I know many poor folks who are in dire need of financial planning.
Understand what service is. It's not about writing a check, although that's what some organizations need to keep the lights on. But, the most valuable thing that we all have is time.
If you can give an hour a week to people who can benefit from your gift, then why not do that. It's frustrating, my first year here; I wanted to go home. I spent the first year of my life dirt poor, living on $250 per month. Then, I got involved in sports, and you remember what's going on with less fortunate people.
I have a website, www.chriszorich.org, if anyone wants more information.
Q: After your NFL career, you returned to Notre Dame as a law student. Why law school?
A: I ran into a lot of problems about being taken seriously. I was walking into meetings as this professional athlete who gives back to the community, and nothing else. I care about a lot of issues, and when I was speaking out about issues such as race, racial profiling or sexism, nobody cared.
I then would feed 1500 people, and I had cameras everywhere. I'd go on interviews and people would say "Chris, you're a football player, just stick to playing football." I was offended by that. If much is given to you, you have to do much for others. I played seven years in the NFL and have my foundation, but I feel like I have a lot more left in me. I want to help people.
By cornering me as a jock-does-good-in-the-hood, it really irritated me. You're only expected to do or know a certain amount when you're an athlete. They wouldn't take me seriously on other issues. In order to affect change, I needed to either do my foundation full time, or make and create laws. The law is an extremely powerful thing. The law affects every facet of life, and is the best tool to affect change.
It gives me a certain level of credibility to have a law degree from a great school. However, the most important reason why I came to law school is to set an example to the kids.
Where I came from, kids wanted to be either a professional athlete or a drug dealer. The drugs were easy; seven year-old kids could make $100 looking for police cars in the area.
If you come from an area like I did, I want to show them that you can achieve things outside of your immediate environment. When you're given more options, that's wonderful. Three percent of all attorneys in the United States are black.
These kids don't have the option. If you have the chance to see people from your neighborhood succeed beyond a basketball or football court, it becomes real. I have been banned from talking to football teams because I tell the kids that they have a better chance of winning $50 million in the lotto than they do of becoming a professional athlete. Be realistic, don't "be like Mike."
Q: How about after law school? What are your future plans?
A: I want to deal with real people and real problems. I don't want to help corporations, I want to help someone who has been evicted, needs a divorce, or needs a will. I don't want to be defined as just a football player or just a lawyer. If I'm ever defined as being just a football player, than I haven't worked hard enough. If you look at [Former Minnesota Vikings hall of famer and current Minnesota State Supreme Court Justice] Alan Page, you look at a person who is at the top of his game, a Renaissance man. I want to use the weapon of law to affect change. In order to affect change, you're going to have to think about politics.
You need a voice and you need power. Politics is an option. Right now, Chicago will be my starting point where I open up my own little general law practice. I have the freedom because I don't have debt like other students.
Q: You don't fit the profile of an average law student. Do you find it difficult to learn and interact with younger students who have vastly different life experiences and backgrounds?
A: We have a lot of classmates that haven't paid bills before. If you can take a couple years off to live, I would definitely encourage it.
It's a rough situation, though, where you want to go back to school but you have a nice car and all this nice stuff, or married with a kid, and it just doesn't happen.
I really think, though, that you need to go out for a couple years before you come back. You get folks who think what happens in the book is like law.
It doesn't work like that. I have nothing against them, but it's two totally different experiences. You can't blame them because they don't have the experiences that you have.
Q: Do you consider yourself a role model?
A: I would never consider myself a role model, I would never say that. I don't want to necessarily say, "Hey, follow me," because I've done some bad things in my life. If you look at me as an example because I overcame some things, that's fine.
You tend to say that if you're a celebrity or an athlete, than people should look up to you. That's wrong. It should be your parents, folks in your community, church, or wherever you find people who want to help others.
All Sports Stories for Friday, February 9, 2001