Chris Zorich Is On The Long Road Back

The sideline presence of the Prairie State College men’s soccer team was more intimidating that afternoon. Standing amid a handful of long-muscled endurance athletes was a significant mass that didn’t fit in, the man’s frame reminiscent of a wrecking ball with shoulders to make doorways shudder. His stature, though, only made him stand out; it was his pensive expression and learning eyes that made Chris Zorich an outsider.

The former Chicago Bears defensive tackle had no idea what he was doing, other than it was what had to be done. It was the fall of 2015, Zorich’s first semester as athletic director at Prairie State College, a small community college in the south suburb of Chicago Heights. The search for a men’s soccer coach after an abrupt resignation didn’t bear fruit, so despite a lack of knowledge on soccer strategy, gamesmanship, and general rules, Zorich stepped in, even driving the team bus to and from games around the Midwest.

The first test was against the College of Lake County. It was a loss, one of six, versus three wins, during Zorich’s interim coaching stint. “Thank god we had an awesome assistant coach because I don’t know anything about soccer,” Zorich said. “Now I have tremendous respect for it. I watch it now and know what’s going on, but before, that’s like asking a lacrosse player to go play rugby. … It wasn’t in my job description, but it was kind of next man up.”

“Next man up” is a machismo-driven concept Zorich knows all too well. Mainly used in the sporting world, specifically football, the phrase refers to athletes in backup or support roles who when needed are expected to step in to perform and produce without need for discussion—and certainly not debate. Zorich embodied the spirit of the phrase throughout his football career, moving from bench linebacker to All-American defensive tackle at the University of Notre Dame and then replacing veteran William Perry in the starting lineup to became a star defender in the National Football League for the Chicago Bears. Those experiences and dozens of others from a full down-and-up-and-down-again life have shaped the mentality he expresses with pride at Prairie State College.

Zorich works behind his desk in his humble office at Prairie State College. (Photo by Paul Bergstrom)

Zorich works behind his desk in his humble office at Prairie State College. (Photo by Paul Bergstrom)

Prairie State features nine athletic programs, accounting for about one hundred fifty student-athletes and twenty-five coaches. Located in and around a handful of modest or impoverished Chicago suburbs, the community college offers prospective athletes, many who are not the right size, shape, or stature for other institutions, a chance to play out their college-athletics dreams. Zorich tackles the job of leading and mentoring these men and women with the same veracity in which he attacked opposing centers. “I’ve been where these young people are at now, and I’ve gone through some of these things they’re going through,” said Zorich, who grew up in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood on the South Side. “We’re talking about a non-traditional institution. Some of these student-athletes have kids and jobs. Obviously, when I was at Notre Dame I didn’t have those issues to deal with, but a lot of the social-economical issues I’ve had a chance to go through.

“I spend a lot of time talking to them about that. I enjoy being a resource for them, knowing that I’ve done what they want to do. Our main concern is not to get kids to the pros or anything like that; we’re trying to get kids to four-year institutions.”

Zorich has more than his childhood struggles from which to reference when preaching perseverance. Recent adversity also took hold of him when he was charged with and, in 2013, pleaded guilty to federal charges for failing to file income taxes for four years. He was ordered to three years of probation and to pay thousands of dollars in back taxes. Around the time of the charges and investigation, between 2008-2010, Zorich was helping out in the Notre Dame athletic department, while friends and family operated the Christopher Zorich Foundation. The foundation’s financial records were questioned and investigated in 2010, when more than three hundred thousand dollars were found to be unaccounted for. Zorich returned to Chicago, and, in 2012, agreed to pay those monies back to the State in installments.

Since, Zorich has been on the climb, working to fulfill his responsibilities and re-establish his name. No easy task. “Who wants to hire somebody who didn’t pay their taxes for four years?” he said. “It was a really tough situation. I took full responsibility. It was all me, but after I got probation, paid what I had to pay, and did community service, I was ready to work again. But if you Google my name once, it comes up a million times. Who wants to hire someone like that? It took me some time to get back.”

The first big step in that process was provided by an old friend. Father Michael Pfleger, a controversial South-Side priest and social activist, knew Zorich from his days around the neighborhood. “He’s like, ‘If you are going to be sitting on your butt, you might as well come here and help us out,’” said Zorich, who answered the call and began directing athletics for St. Sabina Academy’s grade school.

After about a year at St. Sabina, Zorich received an opportunity with the Chicago Park District, for which he managed facilities. A year into that job he found the opening at Prairie State, applied, and was named the school’s athletic director in the summer of 2015.

In his humble office within Prairie State’s athletic training center, Zorich looms large behind a wheat-colored, two-piece desk. Above him on the back wall are six framed degrees or certificates. He is flanked, on his right, by a framed Fighting Irish poster, featuring Zorich in uniform raising his fist, and a photo of his mother signing autographs, and, on his left, by a matted collection of dozens of his football cards.

He must turn sideways to exit the area behind his desk as he leads us to a small table a couple feet away. On the table are Prairie State athletics guides and a biography magazine of Zorich. Here, Zorich is the biggest man in the room, which is as it’s always been. A six-foot-one-inch freshman at Chicago Vocational High School in Avalon Park, Zorich was plucked from the hallways by the school’s football coach. Zorich let the coach know he’d never played organized football and promptly received a permission slip to bring home to his mother, Zora, who independently raised Chris in the rough, dog-eat-dog neighborhood.

Growing up, the Zoriches rarely had it easy. Sometimes they found dinner in a dumpster, sometimes their power abruptly shut off, sometimes Chris was beat up on his way home from school, and far too often Zora was mugged on the very street on which she lived.

Zora loved the Bears—Chris remembers her throwing slippers at the television—with a passion she passed on to her son, who fell in love with eventual Hall-of-Fame linebacker Mike Singletary. But when Chris brought home a permission slip to play the game they both loved, Zora would not sign, saying, as Chris fondly remembers, despite the ridicule at the time, “I don’t want my little baby getting hurt.”

The following year, Chris forged his mother’s signature and hit the football field for the first time, at least in an organized setting. Zora, of course, discovered the ruse a couple weeks later when Chris left his dirty practice gear on the floor. “She said, ‘What is this?’ … You lied to me,’” Zorich animatedly explained. “I told her that this is the first time in my life I’ve been around a group of positive males. The coach was teaching us discipline, overcoming adversity, all the things that football does for you but I never got. …It was a chance for me to be around positive people while learning all these things. … She had no idea [about all that] and said if I really wanted to, I could play.”

She said yes, but Zora couldn’t bear to watch any games, until finally in Chris’ senior year the football coach and another teacher brought her to his final game, most of which she watched through clasped fingers. “After, she said, ‘Oh my god, you’re a good player.’ ‘Mom, I have a scholarship to Notre Dame.’ ‘Yeah, but I didn’t know you were that good.’” Zorich repeated. “I was like, ‘Gee thanks, mom.’” The experience was good enough to keep Zora watching, as she attended every home game Chris played for the University of Notre Dame.

That had to wait a year, however. Zorich was a linebacker and recruited as such, a big reason he chose Notre Dame over other schools, the University of Michigan especially. But, linebacker being a glory position with the defense, Notre Dame was inundated with such players. As a freshman, Zorich was ninth on the depth chart. His main responsibility was to prepare the starters and second teams for game day by playing on the scout defense, which wasn’t all bad. “I’m never going to play,” Zorich said of his thoughts at the time. “I was wondering why did these guys even give me a scholarship; I guess I’m not that good. At the same time, I can get a free education and all I have to do is practice.”

Then, something strange happened. Scouting an unusual defensive scheme played by Michigan State, Notre Dame needed more bodies to act as M.S.U. linemen. Zorich was tabbed as one of those guys for the week. After what Zorich thought was an insignificant performance and practice, coach Lou Holtz made a surprise announcement to the whole team. “Lou Holtz called the team up and said, ‘We found a new defensive lineman,’” Zorich said reenacting the moment by swiveling his head back and forth. “Has to be anybody but me. He said, ‘Chris how would you like to play defensive line?’ And this was in front of the whole team. What are you supposed to say? No? I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”

The Irish went to the Cotton Bowl that season, losing handily (35-10) to Texas A&M. Zorich was a reserve and didn’t play a snap in the game, but he cried in the locker room after the loss. He said he felt if he had practiced harder against the starters, they may have performed better and even won. At the time, Zorich had no idea that his coach noticed and preached to his staff that the team needs more players with heart, like Zorich. The recognition, which Zorich didn’t hear about until Holtz mentioned the scenario in a book, set the table for the rest of Zorich’s Hall-of-Fame collegiate career.

His sophomore through senior years, Zorich put his stamp on the Notre Dame program and N.C.A.A. landscape, becoming known for his tenacious drive and in-your-face mean streak. Small but compact (six-foot-one, two hundred sixty-five pounds) for a tackle, Zorich relied on speed and leverage to eat up opposing centers and guards. He was a constant tackle leader for Notre Dame, a rarity from his position. He was named to the All-America team his junior and senior seasons, won the Rotary Lombardi Award as the country’s top linemen or linebacker as a senior, and was named Most Valuable Player of the 1991 Orange Bowl, the last game of his college career.

With graduation and the N.F.L. draft on the horizon, it should have been a special, thrilling time for Zorich, but tragedy instead marred his final college semester. After the Orange Bowl, Zorich returned to Chicago to find only his uncle, not his mother, waiting for him at the airport. His gut aching, he rushed home. He prayed that once he got there he did not see his mom’s  bicycle. “If she was at home, her bike would be there. If she wasn’t, the bike was gone. … The bike was there, and I knew something happened,” he said. “I knocked down the back door, went over to her, and she was cold. She died of a heart attack. I’m glad I found her opposed to someone telling me, but that’s not something you’re supposed to see at twenty years old. It was hard for me because I talked to her every night. Now, she was gone.”

Zorich (97) made his presence felt as an interior defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears. In his second season, he recorded more than one hundred tackles to go with seven sacks. (Photo by Bill Smith for the Chicago Bears)

Zorich (97) made his presence felt as an interior defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears. In his second season, he recorded more than one hundred tackles to go with seven sacks. (Photo by Bill Smith for the Chicago Bears)

Carrying the tragedy, Zorich returned to Notre Dame following the holiday break, pledging to finish his degree, in large part because Zora “would kick my ass” had he not. A month before graduation was another major event he wished his mother could see: Zorich was selected in the second round of the N.F.L. Draft by Zora’s cherished Chicago Bears. While before the evening, Zorich did not care who drafted him, it was a dream come true that it was his hometown Bears.

While over the next five seasons Zorich would become a household name in Chicago, he first had to find Lake Forest, where the Bears held training camp. “I borrowed one of my friend’s cars, but the farthest I knew how to get was Rush Street and then I’d go back home,” he smiled. “I’m trying to go to Lake Forest, get to Rush, and it is the farthest I know. I called a police officer over and asked him. … Just shows, I was just a naive, innocent kid who just won the lottery and got to play for his hometown team.”

Zorich quickly became a fan favorite with his brutal style of play, bum-rushing offensive linemen on the way to the ball-carrier. His first year as a starter in 1992 he racked up one hundred twenty tackles and seven sacks. Just as important, though, were his off-the-field contributions to the city. Zorich was known for his charity work, especially his annual turkey drive in which he and several Bears teammates provided turkeys and fixings to Chicago’s less fortunate. It was all part of the Zorich Foundation, which he began in honor of his mother.

Because of injury, Zorich missed the 1996 season before Chicago released him three games into the following year. He was quickly picked up by the Washington Redskins and played five games, but he was not interested in a multi-year contract. Zorich’s career, from Chicago Vocational to Notre Dame to the Bears, had been played for Chicago teams. His home, his heart were here. “The Redskins wanted a two-year deal, but I just wanted to finish up the season and see where I was on the depth chart. Because for me, personally, football meant playing in Chicago,” he said. “I was blessed. Even though I enjoyed the hell out of it, football was being in Chicago. I had a chance to play for my hometown team and make a difference.”

Today, after traversing more adversity, he has a chance again to be a difference-maker in Chicago. He’s in a position where he can use all his assets—his experiences growing up and in athletics and his law degree and sports administration certifications. He is often relied upon to make important decisions, ones that impact the lives of young men and women. It’s not a responsibility he takes lightly. He talks about some of those decisions, like suspending a student-athlete for discipline reasons even though the student’s own mother wanted him to keep playing, or talking down a coach who was sick of his team’s ragged uniforms. And then, he gets to the dilemma of postseason participation, a financial nightmare that many community colleges can no longer afford. From sitting with his back against the wall, Zorich smoothly pivots and squares up his shoulders, which guide a small mountain range of muscles leading to hands like bear paws. The movement is instantly terrifying. Even though his words are innocent, even righteous, I briefly saw what it would be like to face off with Chris Zorich.

It’s easy to see how he can succeed at this job. It requires swift and decisive thought, and that requires a mission statement, a mantra to hold on to. Surely, Zorich, with multiple advanced degrees and a special kind of life path, has the chops to figure it out on his own, but even he had some held from one of the best: University of Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, a mentor and former N.D. defensive coordinator of Zorich’s.

“He told me, ‘Every time you have a decision to make, think about how it’s going to affect your student-athletes,’” Zorich said. “That’s the perspective for looking at everything. … I’ve had the ups and downs. I bring so much to this position because of what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced. There’s not anything these kids have gone through that I haven’t gone through. Having a tough time with grades? Hey, I had a tough time with grades. Tough time on the field? Hey, I had a tough time on the field. Trying to decide which school to go to? I had the same thing. For me, it’s all those experiences that make this all worthwhile.”

About the author

Joe is the publisher of Chicagoly and 22nd Century Media, where he's worked since 2006. A born and bred Chicagoland native, he is an award-winning features and sports writer and authors What Now? and On These Streets (ghost-writes) each issue.

More From Chicagoly

JOIN THE DISCUSSION

Comments

  • Daniel Reynolds December 30, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    ND could definitely use some Defensive help…….Chris Zorich? Sounds good to me

    Reply
    • Patti szerencse January 2, 2017 at 9:25 am

      I’m with you! I would love for him to come back to ND!

      Reply