I first met Chris Zorich in the fall of 1988. I had come to South Bend to cover the mystique of Notre Dame Football as a sports anchor at WSBT TV, the CBS affiliate. Chris was a fiery sophomore defensive lineman for the Fightin’ Irish. How he got to that point to where Notre Dame recruited him is an amazing story.
Chris grew up in one of the worst neighborhoods on Chicago’s impoverished southside. His father left before he was ever born. Chris was raised by his loving, determined mother Zora, a severe diabetic. The two of them lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. She couldn’t work because of her poor health, so they made ends meet on $250 a month in public aid. As the month would end, so would the money. Zora would take Chris to the local grocery story, wait for it to close, and lift little Chris him into the dumpster to rummage for food that had just been discarded by the store. Always stressing the positive, she would take hamburger meat well past its spoiled date and cut off the bad parts to find the good.
Chris was biracial. His father was African American. Zora was Croatian. Because of his mix, he was beaten by bullies and taunted relentlessly in his brutal neighborhood. Many whites didn’t like him. Neither did many blacks. To both, he was neither. His self esteem took a mighty hit but his mother’s devotion to his well being was the one positive constant in his life.
I often talk about the importance of having a goal that stokes the fire within you. Chris had that goal, even as a youngster. He wanted to provide a better life for his Mom. To him, it was going to the Vo Tech High School and learning a trade – sheet metal. Playing football never entered the equation then.
Little Chris became Big Chris as he got to high school. Wooed by the football coaches, he couldn’t go out because his mother was “afraid her little baby would get hurt.” He would look at his Mom and say, “I’m the biggest kid in school, Mom. I will be the one hurting people!” She didn’t see it that way. He was her little baby, even if he was 240 pounds at the time. Frustrated, Chris saw his opportunity slipping away. Not that it was the right thing to do, but as a 10th grader Chris forged her signature on the permission slip. He immediately made an impact on the team. Zora was deeply upset when she found out and grounded him, but saw his passion. She let him keep playing.
Stoking the fire within, he “borrowed” two sewer caps and put them on a bar to lift weights. He sacrificed, saying no to soda pop or anything else that would keep his body from becoming the best.
When he became a senior high school football star, the tradition rich Notre Dame Football program came calling. They had heard of this kid who couldn’t be stopped from gobbling up whoever had the football. When an assistant coach for the Irish asked Chris if he would like to play for Notre Dame, Chris said he would but that his mother didn’t like flying. The confused assistant coach didn’t understand what that meant. Notre Dame was in South Bend, IN – just 90 miles from the Zorich apartment on Chicago’s southside.
“Isn’t Notre Dame in Paris with the hunchback guy?” Chris asked with all seriousness.
When I deliver NCSA’s College Recruiting Simplified Seminar there are many parents and athletes that don’t understand the recruiting process. The Zorich’s REALLY didn’t know what was going on, but their story is a great example of how anyone can realize the dream of playing college sports.
To achieve goals, one must often reach down deep. Because his class load had been filled with shop classes, Chris was woefully short of being admitted to Notre Dame. As NCSA Speaker Bob Chmiel says, it is never too late to get on the ball academically. The best way is to be on top of your grades from the start, but Chris had no idea an elite school like Notre Dame would be after him. His classload had not been built around getting admitted into ND, so as a high school senior, he took college prep classes from 7 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. He even missed lunch period, gobbling down a sandwich as he went from class to class. Because he paid the price, though, he made it into Notre Dame, the school with the most Heisman Trophy winners, most National Championships, most College Football Hall of Famers, and a challenging academic load for all students, including athletes.
Even though he busted his butt in the classroom in high school, he still probably wasn’t Notre Dame material academically. As the upcoming book “Athletes Wanted” shares, many colleges will make exceptions for athletes. Notre Dame did that for Chris, and I think their vision of what he would become was ‘right on.’ His freshman year was a bear. All of the sudden this kid from the slums was sitting next to kids from some of the wealthiest families in America. He kept his head above water, though, and didn’t quit. On the positive side, he had never been in a such a safe place. Chris would often walk to the campus lakes with a loaf of bread to feed the ducks.
As a freshman on the practice field, he was anything but serene. He had such a fire within him that the coach, Lou Holtz, sometimes had to dismiss him from practice. He started many “a scrap” because of his burning desire to never, ever fail on a play. Though his actions were wrong, the rest of the team couldn’t help but benefit from his fire. It spread and made them tougher. It played a pivotal role from them going from average to the best in the nation.
To add to the list of his challenges, Chris stuttered. The root of that problem went back to when he was a little kid being beat up because he was biracial. The self esteem blows had impacted his ability to speak. When I would interview him at Notre Dame, he would often ask him to be patient with him as he tried to answer my questions. He would also always call me “Sir” or “Mr. Adams.” At the time I was 26 and had never been called “Sir” by anyone. I thought they only did that in the Deep South.
Though he was in the safe atmosphere of Notre Dame, he knew his mother was still around danger every day. He called her at least two times every day to make sure she was okay. He would always remind her to lock the doors and to stay as safe as she could.
By the time he was a sophomore, he was a starting defensive lineman for a Notre Dame team that was in the hunt for the National Championship. With Chris leading the way with his fiery and productive playing style, the Irish won the national title and ended up winning 23 games in a row over two years. It is the longest winning streak in Notre Dame Football history.
I had heard about his relentless work ethic so I asked him if I could do a story on his famous weightlifting sessions. He said sure, if I didn’t mind being there at 5:30 in the morning. That’s when he would be there. I got a video camera and shot the story myself. His arms were truly massive. They looked like tree trunks. He could bench press around 500 pounds. Though his body was strong, his will to make his mother proud was even stronger. To this day I remember when he looked at me between weight reps and said how he was able to avoid the wrong decisions in high school.
“When kids would ask me to do those things, I would just look at them and say, “That party is not going to get me to where I need to BE!.”
Chris became an All American at Notre Dame and a prospect for professional football. That would mean being able to move his mother from poverty. He had never lost sight of that precise goal he had set many years ago. Though weakened by diabetes, his mother had filled their tiny home with love and done everything she could to raise her boy the right way in a neighborhood filled with potential destruction for those willing to make the wrong choices.
Chris’ final game for Notre Dame was against Colorado in the Orange Bowl. His mother was back home watching the game on NBC. She had refused to watch him for much of his high school career because she feared he would be hurt. When she finally went to a game she said afterwards, “Hey, you’re pretty good!”
“No kidding, Mom!” Chris said with a big smile.
Chris wreaked havoc on Colorado that warm night in Miami’s Orange Bowl Stadium. He played the best game of his football life. He was unstoppable. When it was over, he lay exhausted on the field. He had given every last ounce of effort within him. He was named the Most Valuable Player. His Irish had lost by one point, though, and there was dejection in his voice as he loyally called his Mom after the game.
“You played so well, though,” she said.
“Yeah, Mom, but we lost,” answered Chris.
“But you were all over the place,” she said. “I was so proud of you. You played great.”
“We lost, Mom,” said Chris, a big a team player as I ever knew.
But his mother kept on an on. All she knew was her love of him and his effort.
“You were great out there,” she said.
Chris sheepishly looked around to see if any teammates were around, and hunkered over the pay phone.”
“Yeah, Mom, I did play great, didn’t I!!” he said in an excited hush. They both shared a laugh.
It would be their final conversation.
He arrived back in South Bend the next day and went to Chicago to see her right away. Within months he would be drafted by the pro’s and be able to give her a better home and life, but upon arriving at their apartment he found it odd that she wouldn’t answer the door. Soon, he became concerned and used his massive strength to smash down the door.
He found his Mom on the floor. She had died during the night of natural causes, just hours after their talk on the phone. She was just 59. All he could do was kneel down and hold her and hold her.
People in the Chicago and South Bend area knew the Zorich story very well, and it hit them hard. To this day I have people tell me that when they heard about her death on the News, they just stopped what they were doing and cried and cried. The outpouring of support, needless to say, was enormous.
Chris played for a few years in the NFL even though he was not very tall for a defensive lineman. He was listed as 6’1″ and 273. He never seemed 6′ 1″ to me. More like six foot, maybe. The wave of 6’6″ 320 pound offensive lineman he had to go up against was relentless, but in many ways it reflected his life and all of our lives. One big challenge after another. I never will forget standing outside Notre Dame Stadium one day before was to be drafted by the NFL. He looked at me, a 6′ 5″ man, and said, “If I had your height, Charlie, I’d play in the NFL for twelve years.” He knew his lack of height would catch up to him at the pro level. That was okay. He had stoked every flame within him to get the absolute most out of what God had given him.
Chris went on to become a member of the prestigious College Football Hall of Fame in downtown South Bend, IN. The story of the impact his mother made on him continues to inspire people.
“Without her inspiration, love, and support, I would never have had the opportunity to graduate from Notre Dame and become a Chicago Bear. My Mom’s death has not diminished her loving and positive influence on my life. She was, and still remains, my greatest role model.”
“She was an angel on earth,” Chris said. “I remember that when things were bad and we didn’t have anything my mom was always there for me. I want to give other people that same feeling. I want to let them know . . . . there is hope.”
NCSA Educational Speaker
Former WSBT TV Sports Anchor, South Bend, IN