Notre Dame plays USC this weekend in South Bend, and the Irish will certainly come out fighting as they try to battle back from two early season losses. Fighting is something very familiar to former Notre Dame safety Tom Zbikowski, whose 60 yard punt return touchdown helped Notre Dame nearly upset the top-ranked Trojans in 2005. Eight months after that return, “Tommy Z” made his professional boxing debut in spectacular fashion. But it looked like Zbikowski’s days as a two sport athlete were over when he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in the 3rd round of the 2007 NFL Draft.
Not so fast. As a restricted free agent this summer, Zbikowski was unsigned during the NFL work stoppage, leaving him free to return to professional boxing. Working with the likes of Hall of Fame trainer Emmanuel Steward, the Notre Dame alum won all three of his summer bouts, raising his pro boxing record to 4-0 (3). Perhaps more interesting than his wins is the story of how he came to work with Emmanuel Steward, and where it could lead.
In spending time with Tom and his family for an NFL Films Presents segment, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the depth of Tom’s love for boxing. He was not simply an NFL-caliber athlete trying his hand at boxing (as had failed in epic fashion many times previously). Zbikowski excelled at boxing before he ever emerged as a football star. By his early teens, he had racked up over 70 amateur fights and was sparring with Chicago’s best. At 13, he served as a sparring partner for Angel Manfreddy prior to Manfreddy’s upset win over the late Arturo Gatti (who’s best known for his epic wars with Micky Ward). A growth spurt in high school helped Tom blossom into a football star, and there was no question which sport offered a cleaner path to future success. So it was onto the legendary gridiron at Notre Dame for Tom, and into the closet for boxing.
But clearly, his love for the sport of boxing never waned. Zbikowski continued boxing on the side through college, and looked explosive at times this summer, despite a 5 year layoff. Though still in the process of re-acclimating himself to the sport, he was sparring with the likes of recent Light Heavyweight title challenger Chad Dawson. Steward and those who know both Zbikowski and the business of boxing have high expectations for what the Notre Dame alum can achieve in the ring once his football career ends. Zbikowski hopes that’s not any time soon. As wardrobe priorities go, he still needs a Super Bowl ring before he can chase that Championship belt.