- He was raised to go to Notre Dame. He was raised to be a Catholic. He was raised to do a good thing.
The convergence arrives Saturday night, at not only the mecca of boxing, but also the mecca of sports.
New York. Madison Square Garden.
|Tom Zbikowski put in his time in the gym. Now it's time to fight. (AP)|
No, dare we say, sports story of the year.
Sorry Barry, Jason. We're talking convergence ...
The new Tillman
Tom Zbikowski is the perfect storm that perhaps only a boxing promoter could capitalize on. It's got race. It's got pathos. It's got crossover appeal. A tough white kid from the Chicago suburbs with a -ski at the end of his name.
It's old Notre Dame. It's new HBO. It could be worth a mint to all parties even if Tommy Z never throws another punch after Saturday.
If he's good at boxing, he has a real pro future. Watch out.
The kid started fighting at age 9, has had 90 amateur bouts and can't quite decide which blood sport he likes more -- football or boxing.
"It's hard to say right now," he said.
So what kind of NFL prospect is Tommy Z? He is a third-team All-American safety who might be better as a punt returner. But for all his talents, Zbikowski did play in a secondary that was part of the 14th-worst pass defense in the nation, ranked below winless New Mexico State.
It might not matter when Zbikowski fights on a WBO junior welterweight title fight undercard against apparent tomato can Robert Bell of Akron, Ohio. Last month Zbikowski took a test to be a fireman in Chicago -- just like his grandfather and uncle.
"What All-American, thinking about going through the draft, concerned about graduating, would be taking a test for the fire department?" his father Ed said.
Right now, we know of only one.
More evidence for this being the sports story of the year. You see, we need another Pat Tillman. We need that free spirit who plays, but looks beyond the game for something better, more meaningful.
The reason this fight came about is because Zbikowski fought a fundraiser at Chicago's St. Leo High School on March 15. Zbikowski didn't have to fight, he wanted to.
|Allowing Tom Zbikowski to fight is risky for Notre Dame football. It's also a free advertisement for the program. (Getty Images)|
A contract arrived from promoter Bob Arum and Top Rank a week later. Two weeks later, Zbikowski was in the Garden at a news conference to announce the fight.
Tillman made a life of taking risks. Money didn't matter. He gave up millions to fight for his country. The former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinals football star is now memorialized after his death in Afghanistan barely two years ago.
Zbikowski isn't even to the millions stage yet. He'll make approximately $25,000 Saturday night, about the same annual salary that Tillman earned in the Army.
Win, and the temptation will become even greater. Arum will have a credible, loveable commodity to market in a sport that is regularly begging for credibility and love.
Take it to its logical conclusion and Tom Zbikowski will have to choose between the NFL and sticking his face in front of a pair of fists.
"It's a little more harsh than football," Ed said. "If you lose, you're no longer a commodity. You know what? He really doesn't care."
In the middle of spring football, Tommy Z fought his last amateur fight. In the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, he fought to raise money for the fight against Cystic Fibrosis.
You can bet Arum flinched. Same for coach Charlie Weis. Allowing his star safety what might be a once-in-a-lifetime shot at Madison Square Garden is one thing. Allowing Zbikowski to put his facial structure out there for nothing -- even if it is for charity -- is another.
"With him letting me box, it's opened up different doors for me," Zbikowski said. "There's not too many coaches like that."
No there is not. It's clear that Weis, in his 1½ years on the job at Notre Dame, could also run the CIA. He intimidates. He orchestrates, he plans ahead. He hand picks.
Earlier this year, recruit Jimmy Clausen committed to Notre Dame on the day of the spring game at the College Football Hall of Fame. The audacity was shocking.
It wasn't exactly a Weis production -- the Clausen family went way, way over the top. But somewhere, Weis was smiling. Clausen spent the spring game chatting up recruits on the sideline.
Last month a select group of national writers were invited to South Bend to essentially kick off Brady Quinn's Heisman candidacy.
In other words, Weis sees the big picture. He definitely sees the benefits of Zbikowski's fight, maybe more than anyone else. The fight is essentially a free ad for Notre Dame.
As many as 40 teammates will be in New York to watch the fight. Gospel singer BeBe Winans apparently will sing Notre Dame's Victory March as Zbikowski enters the ring. There is talk of Bell wearing an Ohio State jersey.
Cheesy, yes, but Weis knows this fight is as good as a pay-per-view home visit. All over the country.
It wasn't easy getting to this point. Not even as Zbikowski trains in Miami Beach. After that March benefit fight, he drove through the night with teammates to be back in South Bend for a crack-of-dawn offseason workout.
"That," Ed said, "takes balls."
It's also taken a clear head and meticulous planning, things former Colorado receiver Jeremy Bloom didn't have. Bloom practically demanded a few years ago that the NCAA allowed him to do endorsements to support his skiing career.
Why was Bloom denied by the NCAA and Zbikowski gets to fight for a paycheck?
Tommy Z's situation is no different than that of John Elway or Ricky Williams while they were in college. Elway and Williams both played minor league baseball in their offseasons.
The NCAA allows you to be professional in a sport other than the one you play at a university. It does not allow you to do endorsements. Bloom needed endorsement money to fund his skiing. Zbikowski is not allowed to do any endorsements prior to the fight.
Bloom was a jerk about it. Tommy Z comes wrapped in hugs. He talked about spending last month's 21st birthday stuck in a hotel room drinking water. Training, you know.
His sparring partners have included Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson, who beat Roy Jones Jr.
There are no endorsements needed. The pre-fight hype comes pre-packaged. Madison Square Garden is sold out. George Foreman will be doing commentary. Angelo Dundee will be in Zbikowksi's corner.
It doesn't even have to try to be the best sports story of the year. Would anyone be surprised if there were book and movie deals out there?
Where else are you going to get this: Notre Dame fanaticism, football, fighting and firefighting?