|Thursday, December 5
Knocking out the gridiron blues
By Tom Zbikowski with Wayne Drehs
Special to ESPN.com
I knew that. My brother knew that. And most of all, my Dad knew that. So when I continued to mope around the house the past few weeks, my Dad put me in the car and took me downtown to the boxing gyms.
Almost instantly, I fell in love all over again. The smell. The sweat. The rhythmic pounding of gloves battering bags. It had been a few months since I'd been in the gym, but it felt like I had never left.
For me, boxing has always been an escape. A way to temporarily flee from your problems. From stress. If you're not on top of your game, it's a humbling sport. You walk in thinking you're the next big thing and a half hour later, you're flat on your back wondering what happened.
I've decided I'm going to fight in the Golden Gloves this spring, so I need to start my preparations for that. But this first trip back to the gym was a way to relax. A way to put football behind me, knock around the pads and bit and re-acclimate my body and my mind to the sport.
The boxers that train in gym I visited in Hamlin Park were mostly Hispanic. They wouldn't know a football player from a rock n' roll star. They bleed boxing. And it's impossible for that to not rub off on you. They teach you a sense of appreciation. Of not taking anything for granted. And most of all, the importance of giving 150 percent each and every time you step into the ring.
These guys didn't know who I was. They didn't care who I was. And I liked that. They've fought incredible odds just to get to a point where they're respected. It really helped put football, and more importantly our playoff loss, in perspective.
A lot of people have asked me if I want to play quarterback or defensive back in college. Lately, I've been leaning towards the former. And I'd be lying if I said the way my high school career ended isn't playing a part in that.
A month or so I was leaning towards defensive back, but the more I think about it, I'm not sure I want my last play as a quarterback to be a fumble that cost us a chance at the state championship. No matter how successful my career was, in my eyes, it wasn't successful. It didn't end with a championship. If there's one thing I've learned in my family, it's to make positives out of negatives. So that's what I want to do.
Two weeks ago, my Mom, Dad, sister and girlfriend went to the Notre Dame game against Rutgers. I wasn't on any sort of official or unofficial visit, rather we just went as fans. Friday night before the game, we were wandering around campus, being our nosy Zbikowski selves, asking if anybody knew where they spray-painted the helmets.
We got some directions, stumbled upon the room and let me tell you, it was just like the movie "Rudy" -- cool as hell. They had no idea who we were and told us that nobody was allowed to spray the helmets, but we begged and pleaded and they let us do it. They use actual 24K gold dust in part of the paint formula. Very cool.
We also went to the pep rally on Friday night, where Jerome Sapp gave this great speech poking fun of Tyrone Willingham, but in the same way, complimenting him for all he's done for the program this year. Jerome did this Willingham impression where he said, "Stop whining," a trademark Willingham line in his familiar, deep voice.
This past week, a new aspect of this recruiting game began to pop up -- home visits. Assistant coach Turner Gill and Jeff Jamrog from Nebraska came to the house on Sunday night. Notre Dame assistant Greg Mattison popped in on Monday. And Lester Erb from Iowa was over on Tuesday night.
One would think these visits are a bit awkward or strange, but in fact that's hardly the case. Instead, it feels like a natural progression of a relationship. The recruiting process really makes sense. You talk to the coaches on the phone, then you see them in person at their school, you talk some more on the phone, the next step is having them at your house.
The first thing we do when a coach is coming over is take the phone off the hook. The last thing you want is to have a coach call you while another coach is sitting in your living room. So we try to avoid that.
But everything else is very natural. On Sunday, we ordered some deep dish Chicago style pizza for the Nebraska coaches. My mom, Dad, big brother E.J. and myself had dinner with coaches Gil and Jamrog. On Tuesday, my mom cooked pork roast and mashed potatoes for coach Erb.
Now my mom is an incredible cook. But I couldn't help but at least wonder how many families aren't as lucky, and thus how many terrible meals these coaches are forced to eat. Not to mention they probably have to smile and say how much they love it. All part of the job, I guess.
The home visits are much more comfortable than the campus visits because the coaches are on your turf. Topics range from class size and potential majors to playing time and offensive philosophies. It's great to have my Mom and Dad there to ask questions that they might have. With that, they've been great in leaving the living room and giving me a chance to talk with the coaches 1-on-1.
NCAA rules allow assistant coaches to go on home visits once a week. Usually, when a coach leaves, he asks if we want him to come over every week. We don't care. We told them, if a coach doesn't make it, it's not like we're going to use it against them. If they can make it and it isn't hassle and doesn't involve changing other plans, we'll gladly have them over. If not, it's no biggy.
But I wonder, if every school comes over for a visit every week, what in the world are we going to talk about for all that time? Not to mention -- what would we eat?
Tom Zbikowski: There's no question it helps with decision-making. Throughout this process, you're making decisions constantly, pretty much everyday. You're thinking about who to talk to, what you want to say, what schools you want to visit, things like that. Also, I don't want to say that it's business-like, but it's a business in that you're building relationships and building contacts, so it certainly helps socially as well.
As for whether or not this has been an ego boost or a humbling experience, it really depends. It's not one or the other. For one, you almost have to be humble. I mean, if you think you're the only recruit that's good, the only guy that school's want, you're in for a surprise. There's a long list in front of you. Having said that, there's plenty of ego boosting that goes on as well.
I had a similar ending to my high school soccer career, except my injury knocked me out of the game. I still to this day wonder what would have happened if I was on the field. Knowing that you seemed to be experiencing post-concussion syndrome, my question to you is looking back, do you feel you should have been on the field, or do you regret being on the field in such an altered state of mind?
Tom Zbikowski: Well, I'm not sure which point in the game you're referring to. When the injury first happened and I stayed on the field, I don't regret being out there because I didn't know what was going on. I couldn't tell what was happening, so I don't even remember wanting to come out or stay in. And by the end of the game, when I went back in, I felt like I was pretty fine by then. And I was doing everything I could to get back out there. I wanted to be out there. It was a team thing. My teammates wanted me out there, so I don't regret going back out there at all.
And I would have killed myself if the fumble would have happened to somebody else. That would have eaten at me. I mean, it basically would have been my fault, not his. I would have felt awful if he was put in a situation for that to happen to him. So, all in all, I think I made the right decision.
I am a senior at Prospect High School, and I first wanted to say that I really admire your attitude and selflessness that you've expressed in your diary. You're a tremendous player with a bigger heart than your already massive physical drive, and I only wish you the best in college. My question is: do you think you will be continuing with boxing and track in college? Or do you think that continuing more than one sport will be too much with a heavy academic schedule?
Tom Zbikowski: Well, I love competing, so I'm going to try and do everything I can. With track, I almost use it really has speed enhancement for football season. So I don't see that being too much of a problem. But all three sports (track, football and boxing), plus college, that's way too much. So I'll probably just stick to two sports during college, most likely track and football.
With the Huskers latest loss to K-State the possibility of Coach Solich hiring an offensive coordinator has been raised again and one of the top people in line is Turner Gill. With that in mind, would having Gill as your offensive coordinator influence your decision in any way?
Tom Zbikowski: I don't know. The changes that they might make on the coaching staff, they kind of effect me, but not really. I truly like both of them, Frank and Turner, a lot. So it's tough to say that I'd like one situation over another. And regardless, I don't think it's going to influence me one way or another in making my decision.
Send in your questions and Tom will answer a few in his next diary update.
ESPN.com is following quarterback/defensive back Tom Zbikowski on his journey from high school to the college ranks. Zbikowski is writing a diary about his recruitment, and we will file regular reports on the recruiting process through Signing Day on Feb. 5, 2003.